Chapter 4: The Second Day: 21 May
The Maleme Sector
To General Student on the evening of the first day the situation had not seemed encouraging. He must have an airfield if he were going to reinforce with troops, guns, and supplies on the scale required and at once; for the plan for seaborne support had been altered and the flotilla was not expected until the evening of the second day; and, even then, only when Suda Bay was clear. But only at Maleme had enough progress been made to warrant hopes of getting an airfield. And even here comparative failure – failure in terms of enemy plans, though success in relation to the hopes of the defence – would make it impossible to land 5 Mountain Division on 21 May, as had been intended.
Student’s plan, in fact, had risked serious weaknesses. He had committed the whole of his glider-borne force and, except for a few companies, the whole of his parachute force. And he had committed them, not in one overwhelming blow which might confidently be expected to secure at least one airfield, but in four separate sectors, with three different airfields for objectives. The result was that he had dispersed his effort and, if he did not secure an airfield, would be dependent for reinforcement on the dubious chances of landings by sea.
His only chance now was to make Maleme his Schwer punkt. He had to make ‘a very grave decision. I decided the whole mass of the reserve of the parachutists would be put into action at the aerodrome of Maleme. That was a critical night for me. If the enemy had made a united all-out effort in counter-attacking during that night from the 20th to the 21st or in the morning of the 21st, then the very tired remnants of the Sturm [Assault] Regiment suffering from lack of ammunition could have been wiped out.’1
Once General Student, in an ugly situation, had decided to devote everything to Maleme, 11 Air Corps and 8 Air Corps got their orders accordingly. Eleventh Air Corps was to reinforce Group West by parachute on a scale sufficient to secure the occupation of Maleme airfield – a euphemism for the largest scale possible – and as soon as the airfield was occupied the landing of 5 Mountain Division was to begin. This complete, the drive towards Canea, junction with Group Centre, and the seizure of Suda Bay were to follow. Eighth Air Corps would abet these operations by protecting the landings, neutralising the defences, supporting the land forces, reconnoitring the seas round Crete, and by being ready to attack any warships detected.
In case reinforcement by air should fail, it seemed essential also that 1 Motor Sailing Flotilla, which had reached Melos on the night of the first day, should be directed to reach Maleme before dark on 21 May, apparently because only thus could the heavy weapons travelling by the convoy arrive in time to support the eastward thrust and the mountain troops sailing by sea be there. But reconnaissance had reported British warships south-west and south-east of Crete on 20 May and ‘the authorities in Rome’, still smarting no doubt from their defeat at Cape Matapan, refused to order the Italian fleet to sea. There was nothing for it; with or without the Italian fleet, the flotilla must put to sea, and at ten o’clock, 8 Air Corps having reported the sea north of Crete clear of British ships, it did so.2
Student did not know at this stage that 22 Battalion would withdraw, and plans were based on the assumption, based on intercepted wireless signals, that the defence force consisted of three New Zealand battalions with artillery and tanks and was established afresh in Maleme and Pirgos and the ridges south of these, but that between Pirgos and Platanias the ground was generally undefended.3
Summarised, the enemy’s plan was to fly in ammunition for the troops already at Maleme, to land the remainder of the available paratroops and attack with them, and as soon as the airfield was taken to fly in a battalion of 5 Mountain Division. In case this should not be possible, III Battalion 100 Mountain Regiment of 5 Mountain Division was to go with 1 Motor Sailing Flotilla.
Ammunition was the first care. At first light single aircraft landed on the beaches west of the Tavronitis, one of them returning with
the wounded General Meindl. A single Junkers 52 also managed to land on the airfield and unload ammunition for the troops there; but, as it was fired on by machine guns and artillery, the enemy decided he could not yet land the mountain troops. None the less the commander of 100 Mountain Regiment, Colonel Utz,4 was ordered to embark his HQ and II Battalion in troop-carriers at Tanagra and be ready to force a landing from four o’clock onwards.
The next stage was the actual assault. This was once again to be made from the west and east. That from the east would come from a fresh landing of paratroops – 5 and 6 Companies of 2 Parachute Regiment, which had not taken part with the rest of II Battalion in the Heraklion landings – east of Pirgos. The western attack would be made by the Assault Regiment, aided by a company and a half of the Parachute Anti-Tank Battalion and another company of 2 Parachute Regiment – presumably one of the two companies of I Battalion which had not landed at Retimo. These reinforcements to the Assault Regiment were to be put down west of the airfield in the early afternoon.5
Eighth Air Corps was to assist by strong attacks on Maleme and Pirgos and on the New Zealand guns covering the airfield. With the reinforcements landing in the west would come Colonel Ramcke,6 Meindl’s successor as commander of Group West. The air attacks were to begin at 3 p.m. and end an hour later. The ground operations would then begin.
Pending the beginning the two groups which had pushed into 22 Battalion area during the previous day and night – one under Captain Gericke operating from the Tavronitis bridge and the other under Major Stentzler coming up from the south-west – stabilised on a line from the east edge of the airfield, through Point 107 and the height one kilometre south-east of it. We must no doubt discount as exaggerated the following details from 11 Air Corps Report: ‘the enemy, NZ sharpshooters, held their strongly organized and well camouflaged defensive localities with the utmost determination. Repeated counter attacks by the New Zealanders were repulsed.’7
Most probably Gericke’s and Stentzler’s two groups were by this time in need of a rest, and the artillery and machine-gun fire from
the lines of 21 and 23 Battalions made any further move eastward uninviting. Moreover, now that 22 Battalion had withdrawn, it would be obvious enough to the local enemy commanders that a pause for reorganisation and reinforcement was necessary before further progress could be tried; while a counter-attack would naturally be expected.
This pause provides a convenient opportunity to return to the 5 Brigade front and see how it was responding to the situation created by 22 Battalion’s withdrawal.
Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew and his party had reached the lines of 23 Battalion some time between midnight and two in the morning.8 Brigadier Hargest had to be informed, and Major Leggat, the second-in-command, set off at once. The next thing, pending orders from Hargest, was to make advance preparations for action at daylight. Accordingly, at 2 a.m. a message was sent to Lieutenant-Colonel Allen at 21 Battalion, asking him to come at once to a conference at 23 Battalion HQ. The same message was sent to Major Philp of 27 Battery, reaching him by telephone about half past two.
The conference itself took place about 3 a.m. and the chief persons present were the three battalion commanders. Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie appears to have presided. No detailed record of what followed remains, nor can the memories of the surviving participants yield much. Only the decision reached is certain: the commanders resolved ‘to hold our positions next day’9; 22 Battalion would reorganise.
This decision, however, was too fateful to pass without comment. For now was the last chance to counter-attack to regain the lost positions before the enemy could reorganise and reinforce. The enemy in 23 Battalion area did not exist as an organised force, 21 Battalion had come under no serious pressure, and only 22 Battalion was very much the worse for the previous day’s fighting.
No doubt the severity of the last twenty-four hours’ experience would make Andrew dubious of the prospects for the success of a counter-attack. But it might have been expected that Leckie himself and Allen would have seen at once the danger of the airfield now open to the enemy and the fact that if counter-attack was to take place it must take place at once. There was still time to get the two relatively fresh battalions organised for attack at daylight, if not before. Together they would have been strong enough to go
forward and give the enemy a hard knock at worst, and at best regain Point 107. And 22 Battalion could have taken over the rear.
Here, again, it is to be regretted that Hargest had not made 23 Battalion his advanced HQ the previous day or earlier. As it was, the vital decision had to be taken by his juniors. And they, too impressed perhaps by the fact that 22 Battalion had withdrawn and by the force and rapidity of the enemy’s onslaught, were caught off their judgment, forgot the policy of immediate counter-attack on which the whole defence plan rested, and thought in terms of how to hold their present positions.
Indeed, this attitude was shortly to receive endorsement from Brigadier Hargest also. For Leggat now returned to say that Hargest was informing Division of the withdrawal and that he or someone else would come to 23 Battalion as soon as possible. Andrew thereupon borrowed a Bren carrier and himself set out for 5 Brigade, apparently reaching it about 5 a.m. There Hargest told him to get together as much of his battalion as he could and fit it into the line with 21 and 23 Battalions. There was no hope of pulling the battalion out of the line to reorganise.
Brigadier Hargest, learning of the conference’s decision, may well have felt that the verdict of the men on the spot must be respected, even if it were not too late to alter it. But it seems surprising that he did not now feel that the time had come for him to go forward and see for himself. Instead he sent back with Andrew his Brigade Major, Captain Dawson.
The opportunity for counter-attack not having been accepted, all energies turned to reorganisation. The very circumstances which had made counter-attack so promising also favoured this so very much second-best course: the enemy was in no state to offer serious interference. And during the morning and early afternoon the parties from the missing companies came in to 21 Battalion lines, accompanied by numbers of RM, RAF, and FAA personnel. The last to arrive were Lieutenant Wadey’s pioneer platoon, Wadey himself with a leg broken in the bombing of the AMES.
The 22nd Battalion was brought up by the new arrivals to a strength of 250 and divided into two companies, of which one, mainly D Company and Headquarters Company, was to remain with 21 Battalion while the other – made up from the other three companies – was to thicken up the line of 23 Battalion. With them were about forty men of the Fleet Air Arm, RAF and RM.10
Reorganisation went on until about two o’clock. But already by 11 a.m. Dawson had been able to report to 5 Brigade HQ that the
job was in hand.11 So far this day activity of a directly hostile character had come mainly from Lieutenant MacDonald’s MG platoon12 and from 27 Battery. An inviting target had presented itself at about eight o’clock when the single aircraft landed on the airfield, and this was damaged before it took off again.13 A second which came down on the beach east of the airfield was riddled with bullets and had a direct hit from a 23 Battalion mortar bomb. From now on the planes preferred to land west of the airfield.
For the guns of the three artillery troops things had become much more difficult. A and B had been deprived of their OP at Maleme and, although a new one was contrived at 23 Battalion, communications were difficult, especially to A Troop. All were harassed by aircraft – C Troop most seriously because of its exposed position.
Two Bofors captured at Maleme had been brought into action against the 23 Battalion area and C Troop. The guns of the defence could not bring direct fire on to them in return but they could fire on the general area of the airfield and did so, joining in the attack on the enemy plane which landed at eight o’clock. As we have seen, the Germans did not feel able to risk landing 5 Mountain Division until they were silenced.14
As the morning went on the earlier quiet became less marked, though most of the activity came from artillery and mortar exchanges. Shortly before three o’clock Captain Dawson, who had come forward again to replace the cut telephone with a wireless set, reported some action at the road junction east of Pirgos. The enemy – perhaps survivors from those who had jumped in that area the day before – had seized some houses there.
But the main attack was still to come. The Assault Regiment needed reinforcements before moving forward. These – two and a half companies of paratroops – arrived, presumably by an accelerated plan, in the early morning.15 CSM Teichmann arrived with ‘the second wave of parachutists’ about eight o’clock in the morning.
These must have taken time to form up. And the Assault Regiment when it did move forward went very cannily. Maleme
and Pirgos were both bombed about three o’clock and the attack then formed up to go in. Yet the capture of Maleme village is not claimed till 6 p.m. and 11 Air Corps Report says that eastward movement from the village was noted. As all organised parties from 22 Battalion were clear by daybreak, one must assume either that the enemy invented the opposition to justify a slow and cautious advance or mistook the fire from 23 Battalion area and 27 Battery for fire from a garrison in the village, unless Cretan civilians, as is not impossible, aided by 22 Battalion stragglers gave more trouble than has been recorded. The most satisfactory explanation probably lies in a combination of all three.16
But the enemy did not limit his attack to the two villages of Maleme and Pirgos. B Company and Headquarters 2 Company of 23 Battalion had an hour’s furious battering from the enemy air force in the middle of the afternoon, and Leckie ordered C Company to be ready to support them in the ground attack that was bound to follow. As soon as the strafing stopped the enemy infantry came in near the Pirgos crossroads. The two 23 Battalion companies broke them up with Bren, spandau and rifle fire, the attack was a complete failure and, according to reports at the time, the enemy left about 200 dead in or in front of the scanty barbed-wire defences.
Simultaneously with this advance by the Assault Regiment, 5 and 6 Companies of 2 Parachute Regiment had jumped between Platanias and Pirgos. Once again, however, 11 Air Corps had been let down by its Intelligence and the two companies found themselves in a hornets’ nest. Many landed in the forward positions of 19 Army Troops, where they were roughly handled:
Our fellows behaved well and did some sound destruction. Every man who could handle a rifle did his bit. Officers – cooks – bottle-washers – all were in it. Unfortunately we only had one Bren on the strength but the two chaps using it did a magnificent job.17
Some of the Engineers were between the canal and the main road and many of the paratroops dropped between them and the main positions south of the canal. But these forward sections managed to rejoin the others, though not without excitement:
At one stage I stopped for a minute or two to see how things were going and a Hun dropped not ten feet away. I had my pistol in my hand – what for I can’t imagine – and without really knowing what I was doing I let him have it while he was still on the ground. I had hardly got over the
shock when another came down almost on top of me and I plugged him too while he was untangling himself. Not cricket, I know, but there it is.18
The Engineers, after tactical withdrawals, managed to get the better of this engagement. The Maoris were no gentler with their share of the enemy, the rest of 5 and 6 Companies. D Company of 28 Battalion, in whose territory the landing came, were at this time divided. Captain Baker, the second-in-command, had gone out at one o’clock to deal with an enemy-held house about a mile to the east, and had taken with him 17 Platoon and part of 18 Platoon. By 3.35 p.m. he had sent back nine parachutists and was after still more. He was about to assault the house itself when 20 fighters began to strafe his force. In taking cover he was cut off from his men. He assumed they had fallen back and withdrew with his runner, learning en route that a large number of parachutists had come down not far away. Soon he was forced by enemy fire to take cover in a drain and then ‘we were surprised to see moving in from the sea a huge concentration of troop carrying planes.’ At first these planes made for Maleme, but then ‘apparently having filled the aerodrome commenced to land along the beach until finally they had landed right down past where we were taking cover.19
C Troop at once switched fire on to those planes landing on the beach and Baker witnessed the result. They ‘gave a first class exhibition of gunnery and accounted for the six planes nearest to us in a matter of moments. Certainly in practically all cases they were set on fire before the occupants had the chance of alighting and out of these six planes I saw only twenty men who ever left that beach.’
Baker and his runner were surprised shortly after by a single enemy. ‘He grasped my runner’s rifle, threw it away, fired a shot over my head as I lay in the drain and called upon us to surrender. More by good luck than anything else I was able to get my hand on my revolver and rolling off my stomach drew it and shot him in the process, killing him outright.’ After an encounter with three further enemy in which Baker killed two and drove off the third, he decided to wait till dusk and then, finding himself cut off from his company, made his way to the Engineer Detachment.
In this operation twelve aircraft had disgorged paratroops above 19 Army Troops and another twelve over the general area of D Company. There was fierce fighting in the Maori territory. The RSM and Battalion HQ, part of C Company, the reserve platoon of B Company, and a party from Headquarters Company which
included the mortars and pioneers, were all engaged as well as D Company. Major Dyer’s20 account conveys something of the action:
At this stage Jim Tuhiwai came to me in some excitement saying that there were many parachutists in area (F) who were shooting our people up. I ran over to the mill race and saw a German in the mouth of a filled-in well at (E) firing a tommy gun. Told Tuhiwai to lie on the bank and shoot at him and calling to a soldier to run out with me and we would rush the man from either side. We did that. As we got to him he crouched down shamming dead. I told the Maori to bayonet him. As he did so he turned his head away, not bearing the sight. Tuhiwai had now joined us and we rushed out among the Germans scattered every 15 or 20 yds. ... One at about 15 yds instead of firing his tommy gun started to lie down to fire. I took a snap shot with a German Mauser. It grazed his behind and missed between his legs. My back hair lifted, but the Maori got him (I had no bayonet). We rushed on. ... Some tried to crawl away. A giant of a man jumped up with his hands up like a gorilla, shouting “Hants Oop!” I said: ‘Shoot the bastard’ and the Maori shot him. That was because many others were firing at us and a Spandau from further off. Suddenly bullets spluttered all round my feet. ...21
By 6.50 p.m., except for a single machine gun which a patrol set out to stalk, the enemy in the Maori area were wiped out. Eleventh Air Corps reports that 5 Company lost all its officers and NCOs and that Lieutenant Nagele, the commander of the force, managed with great difficulty to make his way after dusk to the outskirts of Pirgos and there establish the 80 men of 6 Company which was all he could muster.
Thus neither the assault from the west nor that from the east was a success. Yet our withdrawal had in effect given the enemy the airfield and this meant that, risking the artillery fire, he was able to land an airborne mountain battalion. It was urgently needed; for counter-attack had been expected throughout the day and, though it had not come by day, the night seemed bound to bring it. The paratroops were tired and without the reinforcement might not have been able to hold.
It was about five o’clock when the Junkers 52 came in bringing RHQ of 100 Mountain Regiment and II Battalion. As Baker’s story shows, these landings took place along the beach as well as on the airfield. Nor does his account of the losses seem exaggerated in the light of 11 Air Corps Report: ‘A number of JUs remained shot to pieces or burnt out on the beach and on the airfield.’22
Colonel Ramcke landed during the afternoon and reached the battle area about seven o’clock. Two hours later he had briefed himself and given his orders. They had the dual purpose of holding against counter-attack and preparing another thrust. II and IV Battalions of the Assault Regiment would maintain their forward positions, aided by a company of II Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, and would reorganise. Colonel Utz would use the rest of II Battalion to defend the airfield from the south and west. As soon as the units expected next day arrived he would deploy them for an enveloping attack round the south. This attack would have for its objective Monodhendri, the commanding hill three miles south of Ay Marina.
The forward units of 5 Brigade began the day by fitting 22 Battalion into their front. The main pressure from then on came against 23 Battalion’s sector. Though the failure of Nagele’s paratroops and the gingerly deliberation of the Assault Regiment took the sting out of the enemy’s attacks, they had the coast road as their axis, and this meant that at most times of the day 23 Battalion had some enemy pressure to contend with. The day opened indeed with a skirmish in the rear when a surprise dawn assault by a group of paratroops in about platoon strength seized the hill beside 23 Battalion HQ. But a spirited counter-attack by Lieutenant King’s23 14 Platoon remedied matters. Twelve prisoners were taken, the rest having been killed. A Nazi flag was also acquired which proved a useful bait for enemy airborne supplies, not the least valuable catch being a mortar which, in the hands of Lieutenant W. B. Thomas, put one of the enemy’s captured Bofors out of action.
This was an isolated action. The main pressure was from the west. The enemy probably wanted to try to clear the high ground south of the main road so as to help the forces attacking along it. And he was especially anxious to get rid of the mortar and machine-gun posts in Headquarters Company area, for these could still bring fire on the airfield. He therefore put in several strong probes; but, although supported by continual fire from aircraft, machine guns, mortars, light guns and the captured Bofors, all the attacks were beaten off. At one stage, indeed, in the late afternoon, a withdrawal was made from the forward slope where the mortars and machine guns were sited; for the enemy had by now pinpointed the positions and ammunition was exhausted. But Leckie hastened to re-equip the machine-gun platoon with captured weapons, and a new line was held above the old positions and covering them.
At 5 Brigade HQ, meanwhile, a more realistic appraisal of the situation was possible for Brigadier Hargest. At 4 a.m. he had passed to Division the news of the withdrawal from Maleme. As the morning wore on the situation became at once more reassuring and more grim. On the one hand, although there was always the likelihood of a further flare-up, a new line was being held, 22 Battalion had come out less damaged than might have been expected, and the enemy did not seem to be following up very swiftly. On the other hand there had been further landings west of Maleme, the airfield was in enemy hands, and the only obstacle to his landing aircraft there was now the fire our few guns and the machine guns and mortars could bring to bear. The implications of this were so clear that the imperative necessity for counter-attack was beyond dispute. The only question was when and in what strength.
Two things are axiomatic about counter-attack: it should be made with all possible speed and with all possible force. It becomes necessary, therefore, to consider under these two heads the discussions and decisions which took place this day and which concluded in the operation which was the chief event of 22 May. In such a consideration the views and problems of Brigadier Puttick and General Freyberg are as much involved as those of Brigadier Hargest; but it will be clearer if the situation as it was seen by each of these commanders is treated separately. A beginning may be made with Hargest, whose horizon was naturally the most restricted.
The first evidence we have of his views comes from a telephone conversation he had with Division at 11.15 a.m. Counter-attack was being discussed and Hargest said that he thought it would have to take place at night, for machine-gunning from the air forbade large-scale movement by day. This seems to imply that from the first he envisaged other troops than the forward units of 5 Brigade taking part, unless he felt that even they would not be able to make an organised attack because of the danger from the air. Since this air menace was the chief argument against daylight attack and thus imposed delay when speed was urgent, it requires closer examination.
On the whole, the argument seems a valid one. It is true that on 22 May 21 Battalion was able to make a substantial advance by day and in spite of the enemy air force; but the main attack that morning by 20 and 28 Battalions was to be checked largely because of the severe strafing from the enemy’s aircraft, and the relative calm on the 21 Battalion front was probably due to the fact that
The enemy thought the coastal sector the one that needed protection. Had 21 Battalion continued to attack throughout the day, the enemy would no doubt have concentrated much more drastically against it.
Again, on 27 May, 5 Brigade was to deliver a successful counterattack; but this was suddenly organised and suddenly delivered and took place, besides, at a stage of the battle when the enemy’s effort in the air was noticeably slackening.
The likelihood is, therefore, that had Hargest ordered his forward battalions to counter-attack by day on 21 May all the enemy’s air power would have been brought to bear very quickly and, though the New Zealanders might have been able to make progress, the weight of air attack would in the end have been too much.
Similarly, since the enemy’s 8 Air Corps had been given the task of preventing the movement up of reserves, it is unlikely that the forward movement by day of units in the rear would have been permitted – as indeed is apparent from the attention that we shall later see given to harassing a move by 2/7 Battalion. The 28th Battalion might have got forward early and relatively unmolested because it did not have far to go; but even this would have been risky.
The case for postponement of the counter-attack until night thus seems reasonably strong. And, given the postponement, it was perhaps natural that Hargest should ask for fresh troops with which to carry it out. For, by his understanding of the position, 22 Battalion had been badly hit, 21 Battalion was under strength from the beginning, and 23 Battalion was already committed to holding the line at its most hard-pressed part.
There remains the question of the force in which the counterattack was to go in. Brigadier Hargest, in the same telephone conversation with Division, said that 28 Battalion and a further battalion would be enough. And his only request, in addition to that for the extra battalion, was for 120 men to replace 28 Battalion and protect his line of communication against a thrust from the south. He made this request because he had only the Brigade Band to protect his HQ and because many marked maps taken from prisoners indicated that the enemy contemplated a thrust from the south up to the coast road, and because the beach near Platanias had still to be covered against invasion from the sea.
Yet, had he grasped how all-important was the recapture of Maleme and how essential and urgent was a full-scale and successful thrust to the airfield, he would probably have pressed Division for two battalions instead of one and would have judged that everything else, even communications, was subordinate to the supreme objective. But since Division does not seem to have stressed the vital importance
of the counter-attack or to have doubted the adequacy of a counterattack by two battalions, it would not be just to hold the junior commander, with his necessarily more restricted view, entirely responsible – although one wonders whether, if Hargest had set up his HQ at 23 Battalion, he might not have been better placed to see how things were and take appropriate action.24 And lastly, it is always possible that even the two-battalion counter-attack might have been successful had it not been for the unlucky delays that were still to occur.25
His seniors, as we have seen, did not dispute Hargest’s views about the necessity to wait till dark and the force that would be needed. Puttick did not go forward to 5 Brigade HQ to discuss the question directly. For he believed it was better to stay at his own HQ where he could keep in touch with the other brigades and Creforce HQ; and, given the situation on 10 Brigade front, the threat of invasion and all the other problems on his hands, the advantages of this course are plain. Yet 5 Brigade’s was now the vital front, and had Puttick gone forward he might have been better able to judge for himself whether Hargest was right.
Even without such a visit, however, it is odd that he accepted so readily Hargest’s estimate of the force necessary to secure success – or, rather, reduced that estimate, since he refused the extra 120 men asked for to replace 28 Battalion. His argument, of course, was that he had not the troops to spare. The 28th Battalion was the only unit in 5 Brigade free to take part. Tenth Brigade was fully engaged and likely to remain so. Of 4 Brigade, 19 Battalion having a front to hold, only 18 and 20 Battalions were left. The 20th was already earmarked to go forward with 28 Battalion. This left only 18 Battalion as reserve against fresh emergencies on 10 Brigade front and invasion by sea. Because of this last threat, even the departure of 20 Battalion ought to be made good if the coastal defences were to be maintained.
There is force in this argument and it may be the familiar temptation to hindsight which prompts a doubt. In the long run the island would be lost if the airfield remained in enemy hands. There was a case therefore for relying on the efficiency of the Navy to dispose of the invading flotillas and throwing 18 Battalion into the counter-attack also. Here, however, Puttick cannot be held responsible for not taking such a risk, since so important a decision would naturally have to rest with General Freyberg. It should be remembered that at all levels from Division upwards
The impression prevailed that the sea attack was the one most to be feared.
The question brings us to the attitude of General Freyberg. He held a conference in the afternoon with Brigadiers Puttick, Inglis, Vasey, and Stewart. It was decided that a two-battalion counterattack would be enough and that the counter-attack would have to take place by night. No doubt the views of Puttick and of Hargest, as related by Puttick, counted for a good deal in these decisions. Both before Crete and in the campaigns that were to follow it Freyberg’s practice was to let his commanders conduct their own battles, and on the whole this normally sound policy worked well. And, indeed, the need for him to give personal attention to the difficult administrative position and his many other preoccupations would have left him little time to consider departing from that practice now. But it is possible to regret that he did not make this occasion the exception and intervene in favour of adding more weight to this crucial effort.
That he did not do so was presumably due to the concern he felt for the defence against invasion by sea. Yet he had at his disposal, apart from the New Zealand Division, the following forces round Canea, Suda and Georgeoupolis:
19 Australian Brigade (2/7 Bn and half of 2/8 Bn: about 1000)
1 Welch (854 of a regular battalion)
1 Rangers (417)
Northumberland Hussars (279)
Royal Perivolians (about 700)
106 RHA (307)
2/2 Australian Field Regiment (554)
2/3 Australian Field Regiment (300)
16 Australian Inf Bde Composite Battalion (443)
17 Australian Inf Bde Composite Battalion (387)
RM Unit (300)
Dock defence force (RN, RM, Australian and NZ, about 600).26
Of these, 2/8 Battalion was already part of the line and the dock defence force would be wanted where it was. Many of the rest were badly armed (if at all) and badly organised, and all of them had one role or another in the defence scheme. Yet none were very seriously engaged and, had Freyberg had the staff and officers, it might have been just possible to make a radical reorganisation of the coast defences – in spite of the lateness of the hour, the
inadequacy of the communications and the motley nature of the force – by which 1 Welch, the only full-strength and properly organised battalion, might have been released to stiffen the counter-attack.
But concern for the sea invasion and perhaps failure to realise how much stronger the enemy hold on the airfield had grown during the afternoon prevailed. It was decided that 20 and 28 Battalions should do the counter-attack and 2/7 Australian Battalion should be brought from Georgeoupolis to replace 20 Battalion.
Indeed, uneasiness about the sea invasion more than rivalled worries about Maleme. Inglis recalls that as he was leaving Creforce a message came ‘in, as nearly as I can remember, the following words: “Enemy attempting seaborne landings beaches west of Canea tonight. Navy informed.”‘27
This will have occasioned the following signal sent at 7.50 p.m. to NZ Division:
Reliable information. Early seaborne attack in area CANEA likely. Duke [NZ Div] remains responsible coast from west up to excl KLADISO R. Corn [1 Welch] forthwith to stiffen existing defences from incl KLADISO R to incl KHALEPA.28
The strength of the counter-attacking infantry having been decided there was still the question of support. Artillery support was apparently left to Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt,29 of 2/3 Royal Australian Regiment, who was appointed CRA of the Division that day, to arrange. A troop of light tanks from 3 Hussars was to move up with the infantry. Creforce arranged with GHQ Middle East that the airfield should be bombed between midnight and two o’clock in the morning.30 And the Navy would be active in the waters north of Crete, watching to intercept the sea invasion.
It was about 7 p.m. when Puttick arrived back at his own HQ from Creforce with plans for the counter-attack. These were passed on to 5 Brigade HQ by telephone; and Puttick, thinking that someone from Division should go forward to clear up any obscure points and no doubt thinking that with the invasion by sea imminent it would be inadvisable for him to leave the centre of his command, decided to send Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry. Accordingly, about 8 p.m. Gentry set off, meeting Major G. W. Peck, commander of C Squadron 3 Hussars, at a rendezvous en route. From here they went on together to 5 Brigade HQ.
They found Brigadier Hargest with his Staff Captain, Lieutenant Mason,31 the Brigade Major being away at 23 Battalion. A rough plan was ready. ‘Although tired Brig Hargest was by no means despondent and no doubts were expressed about the plan which I thought was simple and straightforward. It was clearly recognised that success depended on the attack being carried out under the mantle of darkness.’32
At the conference which followed, besides Brigadier Hargest and Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry, there were present Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt, Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer33 of 28 Battalion, and Major Peck. The plan was considered in detail. It was decided that the troop of three light tanks should lead, moving along the road; that 20 Battalion on the right would carry the attack as far as the airfield; and that 28 Battalion on the left of the road would thrust through as far as the Tavronitis. The two battalions would form up 300 yards west of the Platanias River and their start line would be the village half a mile farther west. Zero hour would depend on the time 20 Battalion arrived; but it was thought that ‘it would be safe to count on 20 Bn being able to advance by 0100 hrs.’34
The first objective was to be Pirgos village. Having taken it the troops would rest for 30 minutes and reform before passing on to their final objectives. To avoid confusion about bombing targets – an optimistic precaution – a system of recognition signals with the RAF had been arranged and Peck lent his tank so that the necessary Very cartridges could be taken forward.
No formal operation order appears to have been issued, its place being taken by ‘Notes for C.O’s.’35 This paper reads as follows:
1. Starting Time for Advance 0100 hrs 22 May 41
2. Starting Time for Attack 0400 hrs 22 May 41
3. Line of Advance: 20 Bn on right of rd, but when past MALEME CEMETERY and on to AERODROME, the left of the Bn. will move under the terrace, 100 yds left of the rd.
4. 28 Bn to move to left of rd, and when nearing objective will make certain its left is on top of KAVKAZIA HILL (107).
5. On completion of task, 20 Bn. will move back to ridge in front of
MALEME VILLAGE with posts thrust forward to command the AERODROME. Thence approximately along line of rd to Pt 107.
6. 28 Bn as soon as task is finished and it has handed over to 20 Bn will withdraw to its location at PLATANIAS by covered routes.
7. 21 Bn will occupy a line from Pt 107 back to wireless station.
8. Bde Report Centre at Old Bde HQ PLATANIAS VILLAGE. Headquarters, 5 Inf Bde, FIELD, 21 May 41. W. W. Mason Lt Lieut. SC 5 Inf. Bde.
This was meant, so far as Captain Mason recalls, for the commanders of 20 and 28 Battalions and was intended to confirm verbal orders. A copy was sent to 23 Battalion, however, at 10.45 p.m. in Peck’s tank.36 After it had gone Captain Dawson, on his way back from 23 Battalion, rang from the Engineer Detachment’s HQ and was told by Hargest to return to 23 Battalion and brief Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie. Dawson, ‘a little perturbed at having to return immediately when an LO had already departed’, did so and ‘warned 23 Bn about “mopping up role” after the attack passed through immediate position.’37 It seems clear, therefore, that Hargest had decided as an afterthought that 23 Battalion should assist the counter-attack in this way.
Through the double source of Captain Dawson and the liaison officer 23 Battalion learnt of the plan about midnight. The 21st Battalion records getting orders at 12.40 a.m., and so it may be assumed that orders on the same lines were passed on to it.
There are some minor inconsistencies in the sources about starting times and start lines, but these can all be reasonably explained and may be passed over here. The weaknesses in the plan, of which the main lines have already been set forth, need to be dwelt on a little further.
The arguments for the counter-attack’s being confined to two battalions need not be recapitulated. But three fresh points emerge from the plan as now formulated. In the first place, the fact that the plan provides for 28 Battalion’s return to the Platanias area suggests that Hargest merely envisaged a restoration of the status quo and did not see that, even if Point 107 and the airfield were recovered, the ground farther west would also have to be cleared – a task which could hardly be performed without the Maoris’ co-operation. For the second weakness, the fact that the timing depended on the prompt arrival of 20 Battalion, Hargest can hardly be held accountable: he did not know that 2/7 Battalion would be late and that 20 Battalion was to stay till it arrived. But it is strange that he did not make more provision against the third:
that there were bound to be strong enemy pockets between Platanias and Maleme and that these would cause fighting and consequent losses and dispersion before the true objective was approached.38
However faulty the plan, the stage was now set. If the counterattack succeeded it might still be possible to hold Crete. If it failed, it was only a matter of time before the island belonged to the enemy.
Galatas and Canea Fronts
Daylight of 21 May found the Germans of 3 Parachute Regiment defensively disposed in accordance with Heidrich’s appreciation that a counter-attack was to be expected, and that with only I Battalion and the Engineer Battalion fit to fight he had not the strength to get in first with a spoiling blow. His troops spent the day alert for any movement on the part of 10 Brigade and keeping the front under defensive fire. The Engineer Battalion settled in its positions about the reservoir and the men in general, ‘much weakened as the result of losses and the rigours of the fighting, dug themselves in.’39
Unfortunately 10 Brigade of itself was not strong enough to seize the initiative that Heidrich thus temporarily relinquished. The day began with the cancellation of the attack that A and D Companies of 19 Battalion were about to launch from the strongpoint in which they had settled down the night before. A message was got to them just as they were about to set out and the two companies returned without mishap.
At this time the 10 Brigade front was reasonably stable. Right of Pink Hill the night had not altered the situation. Pink Hill itself was now a no-man’s-land. For the enemy had quitted it the night before as we have seen; and the Petrol Company, returning at dawn, manned its original line in such a way as to exclude the crest, which was too exposed to be easily tenable.40
The withdrawal of the enemy from Pink Hill had brought relief to the Divisional Cavalry from the plunging fire with which they had been troubled in the earlier part of the night. Apart from a morning exchange of grenades between opposing patrols, their right flank was to remain quiet. Their left flank was, however, another story. Before we turn to this it need only be said that the threat to the rear of the brigade line, which enemy snipers and parties
in Galatas had occasioned, was disposed of during the night by parties from the Divisional Cavalry, 5 Field Regiment, and the Petrol Company.
The left flank of the Divisional Cavalry and the right flank of 19 Battalion – still under 10 Brigade command – soon began to have a good deal to endure from the mortars and machine guns of enemy parties ensconced on Cemetery Hill. At Major Russell’s request D Company of 19 Battalion was sent to assist the Divisional Cavalry, and during the morning it took up a position on the left of the Cavalry and astride the road which ran southward along the eastern slopes of Cemetery Hill. From here it was planned that there should be an attack against the enemy posts on Cemetery Hill itself.
The main force of this local counter-attack was to be D Company 19 Battalion. Lieutenant Farran’s troop of light tanks were to give support; and the mortar platoon of 19 Battalion, assisted by F Troop of 28 Battery, was to give covering fire. C Squadron of the Cavalry was to help with infantry and fire support.
The need for preliminary reconnaissance, and bad communications, meant that the attack could hardly go in before midday. But by half past eleven the tank troop had left its squadron area and about midday infantry and tanks set off. Behind them Major Duigan41 of F Troop set up a precarious OP in an olive tree, calling out his fire orders to a gunner with a telephone below.
The part played by the tanks does not seem to have been much more than a preliminary spraying of enemy positions and the attack was predominantly an infantry affair. Captain McLauchlan of D Company attacked with two platoons forward and one in reserve. Heavy fire from machine guns and mortars enforced a pause at the foot of the hill, but the company commander pushed forward his reserve platoon – 16 Platoon – and this, together with 17 Platoon, drove on to the top of the hill, those of the enemy left alive to withdraw falling back before the bayonets and the resolute men who bore them.
No. 17 Platoon had been intended to remain on the crown of the hill. But as the attackers halted there under the walls of the cemetery, ‘the mortars opened. The hill was completely bare, with no cover, and their range and observation were excellent. Poor devils were blown up all around us and we had to pull off carrying fellows with their chests blown in and bloody stumps where their fore-arms had been.’42
The exposure to the enemy’s fire had been all the worse because the troops had no tools with which to dig in, and this withdrawal was the only course possible As Bassett says in the letter already quoted: ‘Cemetery Hill became No Man’s Land. Every time Jerry tried to occupy it and overlook us, we wiped him off it, and it deserved its name.’
The fighting had been bitter while it lasted. The 19th Battalion had lost five killed and several wounded, the Divisional Cavalry one killed and four wounded. But it brought considerable relief to the defence; for five mortars were destroyed and ten light machine guns – some of whose crews fought to the last man – were captured. And the enemy did not try to hold the hill again.43
This was the principal action on 10 Brigade front for the day, and elsewhere along it things were comparatively tranquil; though this tranquillity did not exclude constant trouble from enemy mortars and recurring attentions from the enemy air force whose harassing presence, or the threat of it, should be taken for granted at all points in this narrative.
The pause was used to strengthen the line in whatever ways were possible. Captain Smith and Captain Forrester continued to reorganise and hold together the remnants of 6 Greek Regiment. The main body was put in reserve in Galatas ready to be used in support of the Divisional Cavalry if called for, while a platoon was put into the line between the Cavalry and 19 Battalion.
Major Duigan of F Troop did his best to set up an observation post which would enable him to bring down more effective fire on the prison area, an obvious danger centre. But shortage of telephone wire defeated one attempt while another ended when D Company withdrew from Cemetery Hill. The guns did the best they could, however, by firing from map references whenever the infantry called for support – a difficult business ‘as the only instrument for measuring line and range off the map was a 9 inch protractor’.44 Severe dive-bombing attack which forced the guns to keep quiet while the Stukas were overhead, strafing, and punctilious attention from enemy mortars did not make it easy to maintain the concentration required for the use of this inadequate instrument. Ammunition, moreover, had to be rationed. All things considered, it is scarcely surprising that the guns did not make any appreciable progress in their efforts to silence the enemy mortars and that an enemy observation post on Mount Monodhendri or one of its subordinate features could not be eliminated.
Thus when last light came the position had altered little from what it had been when the day began. But, however satisfactory this might seem from a narrowly defensive point of view, it could not be so considered in any larger sense. Time was on the side of the enemy, as indeed could be inferred from the fact that during this day he managed to land some more paratroops, though not many, and 300 containers of supplies. A decisive battle was about to be fought at Maleme; and this lodgment by 3 Parachute Regiment, even if it did no more, was pinning down forces which might otherwise have taken part.
Yet to Heidrich the situation must have seemed dark enough. He was hemmed in by 10 Brigade, the Australians and 2 Greek Regiment, with 8 Greek Regiment still far from subdued. The ground he held was not easily defensible and he had hundreds of wounded on his hands. The failure of the initial plan and the heavy casualties would have leavened any optimism. Among his troops the same misgivings must have been felt even more strongly and the evidence of CSM Neuhoff, though perhaps a little exaggerated, shows that there were some heart searchings:
. ... It was particularly noticeable that a very large proportion of our casualties had been shot in the head. This fact and the controlled fire and discipline of the enemy led us to believe that we were up against a specialist force of picked snipers, of whose strength we had no accurate idea but which we judged to be far greater than ours.
... we were expecting the enemy to counter-attack ... We had suffered heavy casualties and had encountered opposition far greater than anticipated or ever before experienced. Our Commanding Officer wished to retire to a better defensive position in hilly wooded country to the south-west of the prison. ... It was eventually decided to remain in our original positions and we were greatly relieved when the expected counter-attack did not eventuate.
In 10 Brigade morale was still high and even the ad hoc units of the Composite Battalion, inexperienced as infantry, were in good heart, especially where they had been most heavily engaged. Only on the right flank perhaps, where the men had had little to do but sit in their trenches under the continual strafing and mortar fire, were there some signs of a feeling of futility. But this would have disappeared fast enough if the counter-attack that everyone was waiting for had been ordered.
Of the activity elsewhere on the New Zealand front this day little need be said. For 18 and 20 Battalions it passed mainly in patrolling and cleaning up remnants of opposition surviving from the day before’s landings. The expectation of an enemy landing that night
was reflected in arrangements for beach OPs and beach patrols, and the former unit used its B Company, back (except for one platoon) from its duties as royal bodyguard and with a good day’s fighting behind it, for probing south as far as Galaria in order to give some protection to the south-east flank of 19 Battalion.
The comparative quiet in the brigade area gave an opportunity for the signallers to repair lines cut by bombing or paratroops. So far as 20 Battalion was concerned, the main event of the day was the arrival from Division at half past five of orders for the counter-attack. But as this development will be dealt with in detail in the next section, it seems best to make a minor sacrifice of chronology and leave the discussion until later.45
The discussion of developments on the Maleme front and of the plans for counter-attack in that sector will already have made it clear that the main preoccupation of Brigadier Puttick and his HQ on 21 May was with the night’s counter-attack and the threat of invasion by sea.46 This meant, as has been seen, that there was little or no attention to spare for the Prison Valley, no attack on a large scale against Heidrich seems even to have been considered, and the front between Galatas and Perivolia remained uncoordinated. No doubt at the time the twin considerations of counter-attack at Maleme and defence against invasion by sea seemed overriding; yet it is impossible not to regret that another day was allowed to slip by without seizing the opportunity of Heidrich’s weakness to bring up one or two fresh battalions and launch an attach which would destroy a threat in the centre of the defence – and a threat which time could only make more dangerous.
For the troops under command of Suda Force the day was comparatively easy; for the enemy now realised that it was only from his Maleme and Galatas lodgments that he had any hope of a successful land assault on Canea. It was all the more unfortunate that the threat of the sea landing was to keep scattered round Canea these elements of the defence force when the Navy was in due course to deal faithfully with the sea invasion, while the true danger,
that from Ramcke’s and Heidrich’s concentrations, was allowed to go on growing, the latter practically unmolested and the former inadequately attacked.
These were responsibilities, however, above the province of the units themselves, and 1 Welch, the only full-strength, fully-equipped battalion in the area, went on with mopping-up operations. Northumberland Hussars did the same. And 2/8 Australian Battalion, having established itself the night before in its Mournies positions, was able to clear Perivolia in co-operation with 2 Greek Regiment.
If Suda Force had little to contend with on the ground at this time, the enemy made up for it by his air activities. Continual bombing and machine-gunning disrupted communications and made all movement dangerous; in particular, communications between 252 AMES and the Gun Operations Room were severed and as a result the AA guns had to function individually instead of in concert. Even so, they already had so much to do that overwork was proving too much for some and barrels were becoming useless.
Retimo, Heraklion, and Creforce
At Retimo the first day’s fighting had split the enemy into two main groups, one east of the airfield and on Hill A and the other round Perivolia. Against the first of these 2/1 Australian Battalion launched its attack at first light, but was thrown back by a strong counter-attack and heavy mortar fire. The Australians soon returned, however, in a second attack which used every man they could find, and by ten o’clock they had driven the enemy off Hill A and recaptured the guns there. The enemy fell back to the oil factory at Stavromenos and formed a strongpoint, harassed by Greek troops who had moved up to support the Australians.
Against the second enemy group round Perivolia, Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell’s plan was to send a Greek battalion and elements of 2/11 Australian Battalion. The Greeks, however, in the course of their attack from the south, met strong enemy fire in Wadi Perivolia and had to make a wide detour. This, and the fact that the Australians were themselves held up before Platanes by an enemy force strongly backed by machine guns, spoilt the timing of the operation. The artillery was not very effective, as our Italian guns fired too many ‘duds’.
Yet by the end of the day Campbell still had both enemy groups bottled up and the airfield was in no immediate danger. Enemy
parties infiltrating from the south and west had been checked, and one of them, after overrunning an ADS at Adhele, was ambushed at Pigi. The beaches in front of Hills A and B had been cleared and the commander of 2 Parachute Regiment taken prisoner. The only dark spots were the shortage of ammunition and the fact that the concentration of enemy at Perivolia had cut off communication to the west.
Much as at Retimo, the enemy at Heraklion had been split in two. Since Heraklion was thought more valuable than Retimo, however, the enemy air force made more effort to assist the ground troops by bombing and dropping supplies. But the bombing was not intense; and an unintended share of the supplies fell to the defenders.
During the night the enemy east of the town – I Battalion and remnants of II Battalion of 1 Parachute Regiment – had assembled east of the airfield and tried to break through to the survivors of II Battalion still holding on at the airfield itself. This our artillery and I tanks played a large part in thwarting, and the day’s fighting forced the enemy back to a height south-east of the airfield. Areas within the defence perimeter were cleared and surviving paratroops rounded up. Supplies were dropped during the late afternoon; but the situation on this flank was still sound when darkness came.
The second main enemy body now consisted of III Battalion of 1 Parachute Regiment and two companies of II Battalion of 2 Parachute Regiment. Colonel Brauer, who commanded the whole force, had ordered this group to attack the airfield, no doubt hoping to bring everything to bear on what was the main objective. But the message did not get through, and Major Schultz, who commanded III Battalion, renewed the attack on the town. There was some severe fighting. At one point the enemy got as far as the harbour, and the Greeks, through shortage of ammunition, were wavering. But a platoon of Leicesters and a platoon of Yorks and Lancs came to the rescue, and with their aid and captured weapons the Greeks drove the enemy back to their start line.
A signal sent by General Freyberg to General Wavell some time late on the afternoon of 21 May shows that he saw that the main danger lay in the Maleme quarter. After briefly recounting the situation at Heraklion and Retimo as he then knew it, and explaining the defence steps taken at Suda, he goes on to express doubts about Maleme. He reports the further paratroop landings
of the day, says that he hopes to strengthen the position there during the night – no doubt an allusion to the projected counterattack – but says that the situation there is far from clear and perilous as well.47
This concern for Maleme was sound enough and, taken with his worry about the sea invasion of which he now had almost certain warning, probably accounts for his not pressing Puttick to launch an attack on Heidrich’s 3 Parachute Regiment. He probably felt that if the main threat at Maleme could once be dealt with, the destruction of Heidrich’s force would then be inevitable. No doubt it was for similar reasons that he did not press on General Weston the need for a co-ordinated front between 2/8 Australian Battalion, 2 Greek Regiment and 10 Brigade. The lack of one was to prove unfortunate; but had the attack on Maleme been successful it would never have been felt.
Another reason for not interfering with Puttick’s policy at this time would be his concern for the safety of the sea coast. Here also, although it may be regretted that more confidence was not shown in the Navy or that some attempt was not made to organise the forces in Suda area in such a way as to free at least 1 Welch for aggressive action, it is not difficult to understand how a commander, who knew sea invasion was almost certain and knew how easily it could happen that the enemy flotillas might slip past the watching fleet in the dark, felt that he could not afford to leave his shores unguarded. None the less, it was at Maleme that success or failure in the defence of Crete was to be found; and it was the rival priorities of protecting the shores and counter-attacking the airfield that made failure in the latter the outcome.
Meanwhile, however, the moves had been decided and the necessary arrangements had to be put through. At 8.10 p.m. confirmatory orders went out to the formations concerned. The 19th Australian Brigade, 2/8 Field Company RAE, and B Company Australian Field Ambulance were to move into the area north of Stilos. The 2/7 Australian Battalion and one Australian MG Company were to replace 20 Battalion, coming under 4 Brigade command on arrival at Canea bridge; 2/3 Regiment RAA and a section of 106 Anti-Tank Battery RHA were to come under command of NZ Division, to which Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt was now CRA; 2/3 Regiment was to be in positions from which it could shell Maleme as soon as possible. And the head of the column was to reach Canea by 9 p.m.
These were not Freyberg’s only problems. Such news as reached him by wireless from Retimo and Heraklion was not discouraging, but as each of the two places was more or less cut off, the question of replenishing their supplies and ammunition gave him great concern. Accordingly, he had to signal Middle East HQ and ask if aeroplanes operating from Egypt could help.
More unusual among the worries of an harassed commander was that caused by the presence of the King of Greece. The King had had a narrow escape the day before and this made it obvious that he would have to be evacuated. He and his Prime Minister were therefore sent overland towards the south coast under the escort of a platoon of B Company of 18 Battalion which, as Freyberg explained in a message to Wavell, he could ill spare. By this time the royal party was out of touch even by wireless, and anxiety for its safety was not to quit the background of Freyberg’s mind until he had news of its safe disembarkation in Egypt.48
Even the arrival of reinforcements at Tymbaki on the south coast brought its difficulties.49 the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had been guarding the Mesara Plain against parachute landings, but from the way the battle was going it must already have been clear that no such landings were likely. The battalion would have been useful in the Canea sector, but there was no hope of getting there now and the best that could be arranged was for it to reinforce Heraklion if it could get through.
There remained the great question of the invasion by sea. Intelligence, which had been prolific and detailed in its warnings, proved itself – as so often on the larger aspects of this battle – to be exact. Admiral Cunningham, fully apprised, had disposed his naval forces for some days beforehand so as to keep a close watch on the neighbouring waters, a task of anxiety and danger; for, like the troops on land, the ships at sea could not expect to have any air cover.50
As soon as the attack on 20 May was reported Cunningham ordered his forces at sea to move up towards Crete, keeping for the time being out of sight of land. During the morning he sent a further signal to the effect that Force D (the cruisers Dido, Orion, Ajax and Isis, and the destroyers Kimberley, Imperial and Janus)
was to pass through the Antikithera Channel at ten o’clock that night and sweep eastward and then south so as to be off Canea at seven next morning; Force C (the cruisers Naiad and Perth, with the destroyers Kandahar, Nubian, Kingston and Juno) was to pass the Kaso Strait east of Crete at ten o’clock likewise, sweep round Stampalia, and be off Heraklion at seven next morning; Force B (the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji) was to pass close off Cape Matapan at four in the morning of 21 May and then join Force A 1 (the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Barham and five destroyers) 50 miles west of Crete; the anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta was to follow Force C through the Kaso Strait and join it off Heraklion; Force E (the destroyers Jervis, Nizam and Ilex) was to bombard Scarpanto airfield that night and withdraw south before daylight, when it would be joined by the AA cruiser Carlisle from Alexandria.
These orders were modified at 6 p.m. on 20 May because it was feared that convoys might slip through in the darkness. Instead, Forces C and D were ordered to establish patrols north of Crete. Nothing happened during the night, however, except that Force C met with about six Italian motor torpedo boats in the Kaso Strait and forced them to retire, damaging four, while Force E bombarded Scarpanto.
Thus on 21 May Cunningham still had strong naval forces in the neighbourhood of Crete. Force A 1 was 60 miles west of the Antikithera Strait and moving east to meet Force B and Force D, which had sighted nothing on their night patrols. Force C, now joined by Calcutta, was withdrawing south through the Kaso Strait to a rendezvous with Force E. And Carlisle was on its way from Alexandria to join Force C and Force E. All these ships were to keep south during the day and repeat their sweeps that night.
The enemy’s early morning reconnaissance, however, detected their presence. Bombers from Attica, Scarpanto and Rhodes went into the attack. Force A, Force C, and Force D were severely attacked in the morning and afternoon. In Force C the destroyer Juno was sunk and in Force D the cruiser Ajax was damaged. The enemy lost four aircraft certainly shot down and perhaps four more.
With our ships thus heavily engaged, the enemy decided there was little likelihood they would venture into the waters north of Crete before dark; and he calculated that 1 Motor Sailing Flotilla, carrying a mountain battalion, part of 2 AA Regiment, and heavy weapons, would be able to get from Melos to Maleme while it was still daylight. The convoy was therefore ordered to set off.
Our reconnaissance aircraft detected these craft and their torpedo-boat escort. Forces B, C, and D began to close in through the Kithera and Kaso Straits. Head winds slowed the enemy down and
frustrated hopes of reaching Crete before nightfall. At 11.30 p.m. Rear-Admiral Glennie’s Force D (now Dido, Orion, Ajax, Janus, Kimberley, Hasty and Hereward) met the flotilla of steamers, caiques and a torpedo boat about 18 miles north of Canea. The engagement that followed lasted for two and a half hours. As a result of it at least a dozen caiques, one or two steamers, a small pleasure steamer, and a steam yacht were sunk or left burning. The torpedo boat Lupo, escorting the flotilla, was severely damaged.51
News of this action must have reached the German Admiral after midnight. Fearing a similar fate for the second flotilla which had by this time also put to sea, perhaps in the hope of making a dawn landing, he ordered it to return at once to Piraeus. Whether not all of the ships got the order or whether some of the surviving vessels from the other flotilla had gone astray is not now clear; but the enemy’s losses in his combined operation were not yet over.
At daylight Rear-Admiral King’s Force C (now Naiad, Perth, Calcutta, Carlisle, Kandahar, Kingston and Nubian) was sweeping north-west from Heraklion, and at 8.30 a.m. its search was rewarded by the sight of a single caique with German troops on board. Perth sank it while Naiad took on the large number of enemy bombers which were by this time overhead. At 10.10 a.m., when the force was 25 miles south-east of Melos, the torpedo boat Sagittario with four or five sailing vessels was sighted to the north. These were engaged, but the Sagittario, though hit, managed to create a thick smoke-screen behind which a large number of caiques were glimpsed.
Some of these were sunk; but ammunition was running low and Admiral King, taking this into account and the fact that his maximum speed was 20 knots, decided it would jeopardise his whole force to go farther north. He therefore withdrew.
Thus the Navy completely frustrated the enemy’s attempt to reinforce by sea, and the airborne troops had to do without the tanks and heavy weapons which would have given them overwhelming preponderance at this stage of the battle. This naval victory thus faithfully realised was won at great cost. The details of Admiral Cunningham’s losses will be dealt with under the events of 22 May.