Chapter 5: The Third Day: 22 May
The Counter-attack at Maleme
‘ When on the 21st of May all the reserves had jumped and conquered the aerodrome of Maleme, from that time the battle of Crete was won for Germany.’ This summary statement, made by General Student at his trial, is true enough in so far as it fixes on the capture of the airfield as the vital stage in the conquest of the island. But even one so sanguine as Student would hardly have expressed himself so categorically at the time of which he speaks.1 Rather he must have felt on this evening of the second day’s fighting that a most important gain had been made and that, if it were exploited with energy and without serious mistakes, the odds in favour of victory were high. Moreover, even the limited optimism legitimate to a clear-headed commander whose prestige was deeply engaged does not seem to have been shared by Hitler, Goering, or the commander of 4 Air Fleet in Athens. For Löhr refused to let Student go to Crete on 22 May and quoted an order from Goering to stop him; while Student himself says that Hitler and Goering, much disturbed by the heavy losses on 20 May, thought that he must be suffering still from an old head wound.2
The differences of view extended further. Fourth Air Fleet was uneasy about troop concentrations reported at Palaiokhora by reconnaissance aircraft and thought to be directed on Maleme, and was worried also about Kastelli. Student, with a truer grasp of the essential, scouted both anxieties.3
There were other worries, more serious but of only relative importance. The absence of heavy anti-tank weapons was regrettable; but that evening the enemy could still hope this would
be remedied by the arrival of the sea convoy. The spotters had been notably unsuccessful in detecting the whereabouts of the camouflaged guns of the defence, and 8 Air Corps was finding it difficult to give the required close support to the ground troops because the mixed character of the fighting and the defenders’ use of captured recognition signals made the situation very confusing. And the presence of what was thought to be the greater part of the Fleet from Alexandria in Cretan waters tended to distract the German air force from the land battle.
This was the background of the orders laid down for 22 May. Eleventh Air Corps would continue landing 5 Mountain Division on Maleme and would consolidate possession of the airfield itself. Preparations would be made for attacks against Canea and Suda Bay, and supplies of weapons, ammunition, and other necessities were to be got forward.
Eighth Air Corps was to attack the British fleet, especially north of Crete, from dawn onwards and to patrol the sea between Crete and North Africa. It would also support 11 Air Corps, especially in the west, by attacking gun positions, tanks, and centres of resistance; by keeping watch over the whole island to prevent troop movements and the bringing up of reserves; and by denying the use of all airfields to the RAF. Operations by fighters and Stukas from Maleme itself would have to be considered.
Admiral South-East was to try to reinforce Melos with AA so that it could be used as a supply base, and was to investigate the potentialities of Kithera for the same purpose; and he was to prepare for the transport of tanks by sea to Maleme.
These orders lay little stress on Retimo and Heraklion. Evidently 4 Air Fleet and 11 Air Corps realised that the main effort must now go to Maleme. The eastern sectors must be counted on to do no more than hold their ground. Indeed, 11 Air Corps expressly states that the plan to land part of 5 Mountain Division at Heraklion now lapsed and that the role of the forces here and at Retimo was ‘to hold down the opposing enemy forces by fire and so prevent the use of the airfields’. The 3rd Parachute Regiment, moreover, at Galatas was ‘to pin down the enemy and later join in the attack by Group West.’
The Italians were by now more forthcoming. An offer by the commander in the Dodecanese – anxious to follow the example set by the Duce in the battle of France – to share in the assault was accepted after reference to Goering. The Italians were asked to deal with the east end of the island which, being undefended, was no doubt thought within their military capacity.4
The orders indicate reasonable optimism but no great expectation of immediate progress. Student’s views, however, were more enterprising. He himself wanted to move his Battle HQ at once to Maleme, but permission was refused on the ground that this would unbalance his command of the ground forces as a whole. Instead, General Ringel,5 commander of 5 Mountain Division, was given Group West and plans were made for him to arrive during the day.6
Though unable himself to be present, Student ordered the attack towards Canea to begin on 22 May and at the same time provided for the protection of the airfield. His zeal was due for disappointment. He had made the mistake of assuming that because the counter-attack had not come yet it would not come at all. ‘the hope of Corps HQ to gain ground rapidly, on 22.5, in direction Chania, was not fulfilled. On 22.5. at 0600 hrs. The enemy attacked unexpectedly from Pyrgos towards Maleme, with the support of tanks.’7
After Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry had left 5 Brigade HQ about 11.30 p.m. on 21 May and set off back towards Division, Brigadier Hargest went down to the schoolhouse at Platanias, there to meet his attacking battalions. Here Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer, who had meanwhile sent his B Company under Captain Rangi Royal to sweep the Platanias valley and then strengthen the flank of the attack by joining the Engineer Detachment on the high ground south of the main road, reported for orders. Having got these, he formed up his men and shortly before midnight they were waiting on their start line.
But there was no sign of 20 Battalion, and Hargest had to solace himself in the time of waiting by watching the fires and gun-flashes at sea and drawing from them the obvious inference that the Navy was dealing with the sea invasion. It is not now clear whether Hargest knew by this time the reason for the delay in the arrival of 20 Battalion. Gentry had explained to him that the battalion, as soon as it had been relieved by the Australians, would come forward in the Australian transport. But the signal from Creforce which informed Puttick that the invasion was to be expected for this night, and which moved him to order 20 Battalion to stay in position until relief had actually taken place, did not reach him
till 9.15 p.m., after Gentry had gone forward to 5 Brigade. Thus Hargest would not have known how firm and specific were the orders for the relief of 20 Battalion.8
Gentry on his way back to Division also saw the signs of the naval action and, like everyone else watching that night from the shore, did not doubt that the Navy would carry out its undertakings. But like Hargest he also felt concern over the non-appearance of 20 Battalion, which he had expected to meet along the road. Accordingly, when he reached Division he rang 4 Brigade. Brigadier Inglis then told him that Puttick’s orders were that 20 Battalion was not to move until the Australian battalion arrived; and it had not arrived. Gentry at once stressed the importance of getting 20 Battalion forward as close as possible to the starting time.
There was little need, however, to impress this point on Inglis who, like Gentry, felt that the naval battle which had taken place lessened the need to wait for the Australians. Indeed, two requests for permission to move 20 Battalion had already been put to the Divisional Commander that evening to the same effect. But Puttick had received his instructions from Freyberg that 20 Battalion was to wait for relief and so he would not be budged.9
Meanwhile all those who were watching the fight at sea and were rightly exultant at the likelihood of naval victory were not to know that, although the invasion had been successfully intercepted, the threat of it, by detaining 20 Battalion so long, had served the enemy well. To trace precisely how this came about it will be necessary to turn to the adventures of the Australians who were to carry out the relief.
Brigadier Vasey had got his orders verbally from Creforce during the afternoon and they had been subsequently confirmed by written orders. The relieving force was to reach Canea about 9 p.m. and was expected to take over from 20 Battalion about ten o’clock.
Unfortunately 2/7 Battalion, although it left Georgeoupolis reasonably on time, was bombed severely along a great part of the route. In consequence the battalion was split, A and B Companies going ahead and the other three getting held up. There were further delays in Canea through misdirection and difficulties over passwords. According to the second-in-command of the battalion it was about 8 p.m. when he arrived with A and B Companies, and he brought in the remaining three companies about 10 p.m.10 Had
this been so, however, it would have been in accordance with the original plan and there would have been no occasion for the delay that in fact took place. It seems safer to accept the account of Major Burrows,11 the commander of 20 Battalion, who says that it was about 1 a.m. when the two Australian companies had completed their relief – a time which implies arrival about midnight.
While waiting for relief Burrows had asked for permission to move off before the Australians arrived, since they were late. This permission was refused by Division for the reasons already explained. And so, for fear of an invasion that the Navy was even then engaged in frustrating, precious time was lost.
When the two Australian companies arrived Burrows sought Brigadier Inglis’ approval to go to 5 Brigade, leaving the companies of 20 Battalion to follow him as relieved. This Inglis readily granted; for 20 Battalion had had no time to reconnoitre the ground over which it was to attack, and both officers were anxious that at least Major Burrows should get his orders from Brigadier Hargest in time for him to consider them carefully before the battalion arrived.
Evidence for the time at which Burrows reached 5 Brigade HQ varies. Fifth Brigade war diary says 1.30 a.m., but Burrows says 2.15 a.m. and this seems the more likely. On his arrival he got his orders. The 20th Battalion was to attack along the north side of the main road and there were to be two definite stages in the counterattack: the first being the attack on the airfield, which involved an advance of three miles on an average frontage of about 500 yards, and cleaning up all the enemy posts between the forming-up point and the airfield; the second was the move to the high ground which the Maoris were to have taken.
About a quarter to three the first two companies of 20 Battalion, C and D, arrived. As there was still no sign of the rest and it was impossible to wait longer if the attack was to get anywhere before daylight, ‘there was no option but to put in the attack with the 2 Coys only’.12 Burrows conferred briefly with Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer of 28 Battalion, issued his orders to C and D Companies, and left instructions for the other companies to follow on behind in a mopping-up role. Up till this time 28 Battalion, still waiting for 20 Battalion, was just west of the Platanias River; for opposition was expected almost from the outset and both battalions would have to move together.
Meanwhile Brigadier Hargest, seeing that his plan was likely to be thrown out by the delays, felt doubtful whether it could be carried through at all. ‘I rang Div HQ and asked must the attack go on – “It must” was the reply, and on it went – Too late.’13
In making this suggestion Hargest was probably looking at the situation solely from the point of view in his own sector. He does not seem to have realised that Maleme was now the vital point for the defence of the whole island; and indeed it may be that Creforce and Division are to blame for not having made this clear to him. It was one of the misfortunes of the battle consequent on the lack of an efficient divisional Intelligence organisation and the inadequate direct personal contact between commanders, that officers were often without a general picture of the battle of which their own engagements were part.
At all events Puttick was right in insisting that the attack go on, although it is perhaps a pity that even at this late hour he did not compensate for the lateness of the attack by adding another battalion to its weight. However slender the chances of success now, those chances still existed. To cancel the attack would have ensured that there was nothing next day to prevent the enemy pouring in further reinforcements and perhaps breaking through the front of the weary forward battalions. To go on meant that there was still a hope of success; and even if Puttick did not gain all he hoped, he would at least have done something to blunt the enemy’s appetite for immediate battle and to reinforce the front line. And this was in fact to be the main result.
The only real point for argument, therefore, is whether or not Freyberg and Puttick should have released 20 Battalion before the relief. As events turned out it was disastrous not to do so. But in a fair view it will be remembered how much importance naturally attached itself to the invasion by sea, and how difficult it must have been for a commander responsible for the defence of the coast to assume confidently that the Navy would be able to find and destroy the convoys sneaking across in the dark from the mainland.
At about 3.30 a.m. The attacking force crossed the start line. North of the main road went the two 20 Battalion companies, D on the right and C on the left. Battalion HQ was near C Company, and a Bren carrier accompanied the advance until the ground became too difficult. About an hour behind followed the three companies
that had been delayed, B Company behind D Company, A behind C, and Headquarters Company bringing up the rear.14
South of the road went 28 Battalion, D Company leading on the right and A Company on the left. In the second wave were Headquarters Company and Battalion HQ behind D Company, and C Company behind A Company. B Company, with Captain Royal, had already and unwittingly gone ahead of the attacking force and was by this time holding positions in a reserve area of 23 Battalion.15
On the road itself were Farran’s troop of three tanks, with a section of Maoris from C Company to help them keep pace and protect them from Molotov cocktails. And touch between the battalions was maintained by the inner flanks meeting at this point.
The advancing force soon found that its progress would have to consist of a series of actions. Along its whole front 20 Battalion kept meeting pockets of enemy armed with machine guns, no doubt survivors from those dropped the day before. There was no time to organise set attacks against these, and for the most part the New Zealanders dealt with them by headlong charges. Thus D Company within half an hour of starting came up against a strongpoint in a house. A sharp grenade fight followed and ended with the taking of some prisoners. And as the battalion got closer to Pirgos and the aerodrome the opposition became denser and the volume of machine-gun fire greater. For this stage we may take the account of Captain Upham16 of C Company as typical:
Went on meeting resistance in depth – in ditches, behind hedges, in the top and bottom stories of village buildings, fields and gardens on road beside drome. The wire of 5 Bde hindered our advance. There were also mines and booby traps which got a few of us. We did not know that they were there.
There was TG and pistol fire and plenty of grenades and a lot of bayonet work which you don’t often get in war. The amount of MG fire was never equalled. Fortunately a lot of it was high and the tracer bullets enabled us to pick our way up and throw in grenades. We had heavy casualties but the Germans had much heavier. They were unprepared. Some were without trousers, some had no boots on. The Germans were helpless in the dark. With another hour we could have reached the far side of the ‘drome. We captured, as it was, a lot of MGs, 2 Bofors pits were overrun and the guns destroyed. The PWs went back to 5 Bde.
The 28th Battalion, moving on the left of the road and over territory where the Engineer Detachment and 23 Battalion had
already dealt out heavy punishment to the enemy, at first met less opposition than 20 Battalion and moved forward steadily, taking casualties chiefly from snipers. As they got closer to Pirgos, however, the opposition became much fiercer and casualties correspondingly heavier.
Meanwhile the remaining hours of darkness had been swiftly passing. It was already daylight when the tanks and leading elements of 28 Battalion (which Royal’s B Company had by now joined) reached the crossroads north of Dhaskaliana, where Captain Dawson was waiting in a Bren carrier. ‘the tanks were one behind the other on the rd just East of rd junc and to my mind at the time were very dubious about the whole show. They halted. They appeared to have been fired on from the same area as I had been in the afternoon.’17
Dawson decided at this point to go and see if he could find 20 Battalion. He was unable to do so and decided instead to go back and report to Brigadier Hargest. ‘It was well after daylight by then and my impression was that we could not accomplish much with the attack from then on – because of the strafing from the air that was going on. Situation seemed unstable and unsatisfactory.’18
It must have been shortly after Dawson’s departure that the tanks ran into trouble, apparently in the outskirts of Pirgos. Daylight found the troop, according to Lieutenant Farran, on the outskirts of ‘Maleme village’ – no doubt a confusion with Pirgos. There were now hundreds of enemy aircraft overhead. The leading tank got too far ahead of the other two and was fired on by two ‘anti-tank guns’.19 One of these guns the tank was able to knock out. In the interchange of fire, however, it was itself holed and set on fire. Sergeant Skedgewell, who commanded the tank, his gunner, and his driver were all wounded – Skedgewell and the gunner mortally. But, hit though he was, the driver managed to get the tank away and put out the fire.
Meanwhile the other two tanks had been beset by enemy fighters and Farran’s tank, in trying to take cover in some bamboo, broke a bogey. Moreover, the guns in this tank appear to have jammed and he was unwilling to let his third tank go on alone. He talked with Major Burrows, who said the infantry would carry on. The tanks were to follow when ready.20
Eventually with the aid of fitters, whom Farran had to fetch from Squadron HQ about three miles back, a bogey from the first tank
was transferred to the second. By this time the infantry were a long way forward and it was no doubt considered too late to send the reserve tanks to their support21 or for Farran’s tanks to follow on. The next orders in fact received by Farran were for covering withdrawal.
While this was going on C Company of 20 Battalion entered Pirgos and fought a bitter series of house-to-house actions there. In the course of the fighting they destroyed two Bofors guns. This engagement slowed them up and put them out of alinement with D Company on their right, which was closely followed now by B Company. By daylight, in spite of steadily increasing opposition, D Company was closing on the aerodrome. There was only one officer by now who was not a casualty – Lieutenant Maxwell.22 When he realised this he decided to contact Battalion HQ for information and further orders. He did so and was told by the Adjutant to carry on with the advance. He returned to the company and overtook it near the edge of the airfield:
We reached the clear part of the ‘drome all right – there were stacks of aircraft, some crashed, some not – I remember P. Amos saying ‘I’ve carried this anti tank rifle all this way and I am going to have one shot.’ He fired two shots into one aircraft and made a mess of it.
Broad daylight – at this time we had come under most intense mortar and MG fire with the clear ground of the ‘drome in front of us. I pulled the Coy back about 100x [yards] back into the cover of some bamboos.23
Close behind D Company was B Company, and its commander, Captain Rice,24 disturbed by the withdrawal of D Company, sent a message to Battalion HQ to report it and ask for orders. Burrows ordered him to hold his ground and stop D Company from any further withdrawal. But shortly afterwards Rice reported heavy fire from his right flank. Burrows had to make up his mind quickly. Though it was by now quite light it was not easy for him to see exactly what the situation was. The two forward companies were scattered over a wide area. He knew that C Company, the nearest to him, had its main body about half a mile from the airfield. About D Company he was less clear, not knowing that before their withdrawal they had got as far as the aerodrome. And he knew that his three rear companies had almost caught up and were having some brisk fighting with the many enemy posts that had been missed by the leading companies. He knew that losses had been heavy and could see for himself that, even if the battalion were
at full strength, further progress would be difficult now that daylight allowed the German planes to fly low over the front and machine-gun everything that moved. And he now heard firing forward on the right which suggested that the enemy was counter-attacking on D Company.
He therefore correctly appreciated that it would be impossible to carry the first phase of the original plan any further, since it would involve crossing the open ground of the airfield in broad daylight. He decided that his only course was to carry out a modified form of the second phase: to try to get what remained of the battalion in behind 28 Battalion and eventually, if the Maoris had taken it, to get on to the high ground overlooking the aerodrome.
Burrows therefore sent out runners to order the various companies to carry out this movement. The message did not reach all of them, however, as they had become too scattered in the fighting. It did reach Maxwell but in a garbled form, so that he understood he was to withdraw towards the start line and did so with all of D Company he could find. Parts of Headquarters Company joined them on the way.
While Maxwell was withdrawing, Lieutenant Upham of C Company and Sergeant Kirk25 were on the way to warn him of the new plan. On the airfield they found some New Zealand dead. ‘the mortar and MG fire on the open ground was heavy and we were lucky to get back alive. When we reached the drome, the planes were landing (some leaving drome too) and the parachutists were jumping out and getting straight into the battle for the Germans were counter-attacking on the right flank.’26
But though they found no D Company they did find some of B Company, who had missed the orders, and were able to bring them in. The main body of B Company got back also, covered by A Company, one of whose platoons had reached the airfield; but Captain Rice was killed.
Major Burrows, with the remains of his three companies, now set about putting himself in position behind the Maoris. In doing so he found himself in 23 Battalion territory.
The Maoris, like 20 Battalion, were overtaken by daylight as they approached Pirgos, having been joined en route by a party from A Company of 23 Battalion and another from C Company of
22 Battalion. The enemy poured out of the houses in confusion as the Maoris attacked and Burrows bears witness to their invaluable work. Like C Company of 20 Battalion to their right – but apparently bypassing the village – they drove their way through the machine-gun posts with bayonet and grenade and, in spite of all the difficulties and the aircraft constantly harassing them, got through to the stream bed beyond. From here they were able to bring fire to bear on the village street. But every effort to probe further forward or leftwards to the higher ground met fierce opposition.
We must get forward and get above and round the Germans whose bullets and mortar bombs were cracking round us. We could at times see German machine gunners running up through the trees. We collected in small groups and worked forward. Men were hit, men were maimed. The din of the fight was incessant. There seemed to be German machine guns behind all the trees. If we could silence one or two immediately in front we might break through.27
In the desperate fighting that went on about this time Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer was himself conspicuous. At one point he came across some of his men whom the heavy enemy fire had forced to ground. ‘Call yourselves bloody soldiers,’ he said and went forward. His example was not lost. The men got to their feet and the attack went on.28
All the élan and gallantry of the Maoris and their commander could not get them to the final objective, in spite of charges like that described in the following words of Major Dyer:
The rcd Nazi banners erected on poles before they came at us. The Maoris in a scattered meb under the trees going forward crying ‘Ah! Ah!’ and firing at the hip. The huns with their fat behinds to us going for their lives down the gully and then our job to hold the Maoris in. When one considers what the Maoris had been through and the position and state we were all in and think of the spontaneous nature of that charge – the ancestral fighting urge was a truly magnificent thing.29
Here, to get a complete picture of the attack, we must leave the Maoris at the furthest point of their thrust – a line from east of Pirgos, southward across the canal, to a point west of 23 Battalion’s front line – and turn to 21 Battalion.30
The orders of 21 Battalion were to hold a line from Point 107 to the AMES. Although ‘Notes for CO’s’ is not clear on the point, Brigadier Hargest seems to have intended that 21 Battalion should carry out the necessary movement when 20 Battalion and 28 Battalion had taken their objectives.31 Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, however, either misunderstood the orders or decided – correctly – that he would not be able to reach the line without fighting for it. He therefore drew up a careful plan. Headquarters Company was to take the first objective, the AMES and the approaches to Xamoudhokhori; A Company was to take the second objective, Xamoudhokhori and the junction of a road and stream north-west of it; B Company’s was the third objective, the ridge at the north end of the Xamoudhokhori–Vlakheronitissa road; C Company would take the fourth, Vlakheronitissa itself and the slopes north-west of it; and D Company was to complete the assault by carrying it to the final objective, the valley of the Tavronitis.32 Zero hour was to be 7 a.m.
Duly at 7 a.m. The leading company set off. By half past eight it had seized the AMES. A Company then took over and by 10 a.m. had captured Xamoudhokhori against strong opposition. By mounting a machine gun in the clock tower Lieutenant Yeoman33 gave the company a chance to reorganise and it moved forward on the left of the road, losing its commander, Captain McClymont.34 It was then held up, and a patrol sent round to the south-west in an attempt to outflank the enemy had its commander, Lieutenant Southworth,35 killed.
It was now B Company’s turn. It tried to advance along the right of the road but, after clearing out one enemy pocket, was held up by machine-gun fire from the commanding ridges to the north. C Company then took over and tried to get through on the left. It failed to make much progress, and so D Company, the only one still uncommitted, was sent in on the left. After its main body had made substantial progress, passing through Vlakheronitissa but not clearing it, the forward elements of D Company 22 Battalion, which was attached to D Company of 21 Battalion, got as far as their old positions overlooking the Tavronitis.
For an ambitious attack by a weak battalion against an enemy strongly established on high ground this was good progress; the more so as it was daylight and the enemy had complete air superiority. But when, at 11.30 a.m., Allen learned that 20 and 28 Battalions were held up, he was obviously right in deciding to push his attack no further but to stabilise where he was. He therefore withdrew D Company to the battalion’s original positions and ordered A and B Companies to hold where they were unless a strong counter-attack developed, in which case they were to withdraw south-east of the AMES.
Two hours later he had further news of the situation on his right. The 23rd Battalion had been forced to give some ground.36 He therefore consolidated by using C Company to close the gap between Headquarters Company at the AMES and D Company in its original area. He hoped to hold Xamoudhokhori and the ground won beyond it as a suitable jumping-off place for any further attacks towards Point 107.
But about 3.30 p.m., as he came back from arranging this with D Company, he met A, B, and Headquarters Companies retiring. The first two had been attacked and had withdrawn according to orders. Headquarters Company had decided to come also, leaving a platoon at the AMES.
At this point occurred an odd interlude. A German in British battle dress appeared, bearing a white flag. His reception may be gathered from Allen’s terse comment: ‘Sent a Hun with a flag of truce about his business. He was demanding surrender!’
It was now about a quarter to four. The day’s gains could not be retaken now that the forward companies had withdrawn and the whole plan been thrown out by the blocking of the other two battalions. This new enemy pressure might well be the prelude to a full-scale attack. Allen therefore reformed his battalion on Vineyard Ridge from which it had set out that morning. Had he known that II Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, fresh troops who had arrived the day before, was on his front he might have felt that his troops had done well. And had he known that I Battalion of the same regiment, arrived that same day, was to begin that afternoon a thrust round to the south, he would have seen even better reasons for caution.
Of all the battalions on the front in the earlier part of the day 23 Battalion was the least engaged. It will be remembered that
Captain Dawson had been sent the night before to inform Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie of his mopping-up role.37
In fact, 20 and 28 Battalions progressed so short a distance beyond the 23 Battalion front line that there was little mopping up to be done. There remains the question of whether it would not have been wiser for Hargest to have added 23 Battalion’s strength to that of the other two. On the whole it may be regretted that he did not. The extra weight given to the attack might have given it the force to break through during the morning when opposition first began to harden. Alternatively, had 23 and 28 Battalions been sent in together there would not have been the same compulsion to delay attack until 20 Battalion arrived, that battalion could have followed up as reserve battalion, and the attack itself could have got off to an earlier start and had the advantage of a longer period of darkness.
However that may be, such operations as 23 Battalion did carry out this day were local affairs intended to prevent enemy encroachments or regain areas already lost. The only exception recorded is the part played by elements of A Company (and of C Company 22 Battalion) in the advance of 28 Battalion.
The first of the day’s tasks was the recapture of the machine-gun and mortar area evacuated the previous day. This was carried out at daybreak by 17 and 18 Platoons of D Company. By now only two of the machine guns were able to fire and both were damaged. There was a good deal of trouble from enemy mortars and ‘too many Huns crawling about in the vines.’38 But the morning passed well enough, no doubt because the enemy was still fully occupied in holding back the Maoris. The afternoon was to be busier.
In the afternoon it became clear that no further progress could be made by the counter-attack. A and D Companies of 28 Battalion were held up at the eastern outskirts of Pirgos; and B and C Companies, which had swerved left to try to bypass the village, had not been able to advance more than about half a mile before being pinned down by machine-gun fire from the eastern slopes of Point 107 and from the area west of Pirgos. In 20 Battalion the bulk of A, B, and C Companies had crossed to the south of the road and taken up positions behind the Maoris and inside 23 Battalion’s perimeter.
Already during the morning a message from 23 Battalion HQ had been sent to acquaint Brigadier Hargest with the situation. According to this 21 Battalion was still making progress towards Point 107, 28 Battalion was roughly speaking in the position already described, and 20 Battalion had been forced to pull back from its forward positions. Enemy pressure on the right flank was heavy and with enemy guns ranged on the road junction it was impossible to get into Pirgos. The RAP was overworked with wounded from both sides and the supply of medical dressings exhausted. In the opinion of Lieutenant-Colonels Leckie and Andrew the counterattack could not succeed without more infantry, artillery, and air support.39
No such support was of course forthcoming. Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer, who had gone forward with the companies trying to outflank Pirgos, remained with them until he thought he sufficiently understood the enemy position. He then came back to 23 Battalion HQ,40 hoping to be able to get help from 22 and 23 Battalions in the launching of a further attack. He found, however, that there was little that could be done. Artillery support was very thin, and the two other battalion commanders felt that with the failure of the organised counter-attack the best course now was to hold on to what ground they had and stop the enemy infiltration that was constantly going on.
A little before or shortly after this informal conference, the two Maori companies before Pirgos found the fire on their positions too heavy and so moved farther south towards the 23 Battalion area. The ultimate position seems to have been that 28 Battalion held the gap between 21 Battalion on the left and 23 Battalion on the right, getting there in time to launch a counter-attack which cleared up an ugly situation on 21 Battalion’s right flank. And the three companies of 20 Battalion stiffened the right of 23 Battalion. This is a rather schematic account since there was a good deal of intermixture of sub-units, but if due allowance is made for this fact it will serve to give a picture of the front as it now stabilised.
With the end of the counter-attack the initiative passed once more to the enemy, and he tried to compensate himself for the frustration of his own plans for a breakthrough that day. On the right Captain Gericke of the Assault Regiment rapidly followed up the withdrawal of the two Maori companies and made his way into Pirgos.
Behind him and on the airfield a further two infantry battalions of 5 Mountain Division – I Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment and I Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment – had arrived and were being deployed for an advance on the south of the main front; 95 Engineer Battalion, a parachute artillery battery of six guns, and the HQ of 5 Mountain Division, with General Ringel, were already landing or on the way. To receive them the landing strip ‘littered with burning and broken-down aircraft was cleared again and again with the help of captured tanks by a landing commando supplied by Air Commander 11 Air Corps.’41
The enemy did not stop at recovering lost ground, but pressed forward. Developments on 21 Battalion front have already been recounted. In the area of D Company 23 Battalion some penetration was made, but the RSM of the Maori Battalion, Ace Wood,42 rushed one enemy post at the head of a bayonet charge. ‘This happened about 10–15 yards from the most easterly post of my platoon, unknown to two of my men until they heard the yells of the Maoris as they rushed.’43 And other parties in the same area were driven off by Captain Mark Harvey,44 commanding 23 Battalion’s D Company, with some of his men.45
Farther to the right the enemy attacked the road junction north of the 23 Battalion area and held by B Company but were driven off. Enemy machine-gun posts had also been established on the ridge west of the road from Pirgos south to Xamoudhokhori, and all the Maori efforts to silence them proved vain. Mortar fire soon came to reinforce the machine guns. The machine-gun fire of the defence had been weakened by direct hits which destroyed Lieutenant MacDonald’s last two guns, but he withdrew his men to the reverse slope of his ridge and still kept going with a captured spandau. Here, along with a party of Maoris, he awaited an attack which the enemy were evidently preparing under cover of their machine guns. Two Maoris were posted at the top of the ridge to observe. The rest fixed bayonets.
The attack began with a bursting mass of flame from the grenades the Huns threw on to the top – shook us up a bit. Then they came over.
There was no order but we stood up and charged forward, the Maoris yelling at top. The Gouns [Germans] appeared to stand aghast. It was most exhilarating; I seemed to be as light as a feather. The Gouns let
out a shriek or two and the rest bolted down hill like rabbits, over stone walls, plunging through vines. Very soon the MGs opened up, together with the mortars, and we got back quickly.46
All the battalions engaged had their taste of hand-to-hand fighting that day, and there were several affrays as sharp as the one that MacDonald describes; but neither the historian scanning the reports long after the event they describe nor the survivors to whom those events are still a vivid memory would hesitate to award to the Maoris of 28 Battalion the credit for the most conspicuous élan and valour shown on that hard day.
Finally the darkness came, the infiltrating enemy parties fell back to a line which occasional soaring signal lights roughly indicated, and the battalions settled down where they were to wait for daylight and the renewal of battle, the newcomers of 20 and 28 Battalions grimly solacing themselves for their own losses by the sight of all the enemy dead.47
Behind the main fighting the day had not been without its excitements. Captain Baker of D Company 28 Battalion had found himself at daylight in the Engineer area with a sergeant and about eight men. The others of his company, who had been with him the day before and like him had been cut off by the descending paratroops, had made contact with their battalion as it passed through and had joined in the counter-attack. Baker now set about following but met elements of 20 Battalion returning and gathered from these that 28 Battalion would also be coming back. He therefore returned to his original D Company position. Here he learned that there was an enemy concentration on his south flank and he set about attacking it. The 19th Army Troops joined him and the engagement ended with the enemy’s surrender. ‘there were 65 live ones, mostly wounded, and 9 Spandaus besides a lot of Tommy Guns etc.’48
After this Baker’s men returned to their company area and had an uneasy night holding back enemy attempts to infiltrate from the south. The Engineer Detachment passed the rest of the day without any serious engagements and was joined at dusk by those members of 20 Battalion who had gone back on the north of the road towards Platanias in the morning. These men had re-formed on finding that the rest of the battalion had not withdrawn from the forward area, and had returned in about company strength to try and stop
The gap north of Pirgos. But the enemy had followed up too fast and they were able to get only half of the way before being held up.
The Field Punishment Centre spent the day cleaning up isolated posts in its area and co-operating with C Troop of 27 Battery. ‘When we put a shot in there, you get everyone who runs out’, an order from Captain Snadden, gives the keynote of their activities.
The guns themselves had done their best to support the counterattack. But A, B, and C Troops of 27 Battery were without communications to the attacking battalions, had no forward observation officers and, since the timetable had been upset from the start, could not do much to help. ‘A and B Troops bashed the aerodrome once more but were in the dark re our own troops after a while and so held fire until a definite location of our troops was supplied.’49 Moreover, stocks of ammunition were very low, and of the three trucks of ammunition got forward to 5 Brigade by Lieutenant Dyson,50 DAQMG to Division, one was set on fire. C Troop got one load which had to be manhandled up the hill by the exhausted gunners. A and B Troops had to go without.
Somehow or other, however, the guns managed to keep up their pounding of the airfield, and by this time the enemy, intent on landing his mountain troops, was desperately anxious to silence them. A and B Troops were still unlocated by the Luftwaffe, but the enemy’s planes kept up a continual bombing and machine-gunning of suspected areas. The 27th Battery HQ had hardly moved from its schoolhouse when this received a direct hit. B Troop had managed, by the devotion of Lieutenant Cade and Sergeant McLeay, to keep an OP going on the open hillside. By the end of the day casualties from ground and air fire had reduced the strength of C Troop by half. A and B Troops had suffered less, but as ammunition grew scarcer the three troops had begun to consider whether they would not have to destroy their guns and fight as infantry.
It is doubtful whether the four 75-millimetre guns of C Troop 2/3 Regiment – all that was available to reinforce the Maleme front – got far enough forward in time to support the counter-attack. The detachment of the Australian MG Company came up safely to 5 Brigade during the day but met with disaster when going forward that night to reinforce the front. ‘they ran clean into a Hun attack and in five minutes lost everything they had – vehicles, guns, ammunition.’51
A characteristic feature of war is notoriously the difficulty a commander has in knowing what is happening once battle is joined. In Crete, because of the cutting of telephone wires and the shortage of wireless sets, this was more pronounced even than usual. Once a commander had committed his forces he could do little but wait, dependent for news on the imperfect reports of wounded and stragglers and unable for lack of reserves and transport to strengthen weak points or pursue an advantage. Nor did he have the guns, the tanks, or the aircraft to remedy the lack of other resources. This was true in some degree at every level of command. Thus, for example, on 20 May Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew had virtually to leave his companies to command themselves, while the company commanders in their turn could do little to co-ordinate the fighting of their platoons. On the higher levels, Brigadier Hargest, Brigadier Puttick and General Freyberg, in default of leaving their HQs and the apparatus of command to seek information for themselves, had to suffer the same helpless impatience.
This counter-attack of 22 May was no exception. Success was the only hope for a prolonged defence of Crete; failure would confirm the enemy in the possession of the airfield and make ultimate defeat inevitable. Yet, once the two battalions had crossed the start line, there was almost nothing Hargest could do to help them. Day found him anxiously waiting for news, and some news there was, though not as yet from his own front. At 7.30 a.m. he learnt that the seaborne invasion had been defeated at sea. Cheering though this news was, it must also have had an ironic ring. The delay at the start had not proved necessary, then. Its importance, however, would have been underlined shortly afterwards. For Captain Dawson next came in to report that the tanks and 28 Battalion were still short of Pirgos. He did not think much could be accomplished now that the enemy aircraft were strafing in such numbers.
It was this news which probably lay behind a message sent to Division about this time: the attack had passed the crossroads and was going on, the RAF had not bombed Maleme according to promise, and the artillery reinforcements – 2/3 Regiment RAA – had not yet passed Platanias.
The return of Farran’s tanks would have strengthened forebodings of failure. And the fact that the Brigadier did not send them back and did not call upon the remaining three tanks of the squadron indicates that it was now too light and seemed too late for him to help the infantry with armour.
For a while there were other distractions. Not long before eight o’clock Brigade HQ was severely attacked by Messerschmitts and an ammunition truck was set alight. Then aircraft could be seen landing on the airfield, and this would have been enough to suggest that it was not in our hands, even without reports from returning troops that the attack had met with only partial success. Yet there was still hope and at 10 a.m. Hargest reported to Division that some forward progress was being made but that resistance was getting stronger.
But Hargest was a man of buoyant spirit, and the fact that progress was being made at all after such a late and confused beginning tempted him to dally with the idea that the air traffic at Maleme might indicate not further landings but evacuation. It is difficult otherwise to explain his message to Division of 10.42 a.m.: ‘Steady flow of enemy planes landing and taking off. May be trying to take troops off. Investigating.’52 Although about this very time the enemy were observed to land two AFVs and some motor cycles, wishful thinking died hard and at 11 a.m. another signal to Division said: ‘From general quietness and because eleven fires have been lit on drome it appears as though enemy might be preparing evacuation. Am having further investigations made. Do any other reports from other sources show further evidence of this?’53
The reply from Division was non-committal. ‘No other indications as you suggest but it is possible.’ Whether to give the evidence for what was already considered to have been over-optimism or with a last flicker of the same tendency, Brigade HQ reported at half past twelve that men had been seen to run towards planes before they took off.54 And it may be that Brigade still flirted with the idea that the counter-attack, the victory at sea, and the heavy losses of planes in landing – the wrecked aircraft strewn about the airfield and beaches were visible from Brigade HQ – had reduced the enemy to despair of success.
These messages, however, may do no more than suggest a possibility that had to be considered. Certainly, Brigadier Hargest was tenacious of hope, and in a message at 11.50 a.m. confidence is much to the fore: ‘Reliable reports state aerodrome occupied by own troops line now held EAST side of drome.’55 Nothing could better illustrate the disadvantages of bad communications. Had wireless contact with the forward battalions or even good line
been available, the Brigadier would never have been forced to rely on the confused reports of stragglers and wounded which must have underlain this message.
Meanwhile Division had been testing the possibility of an enemy withdrawal by sending out fighting patrols on 10 Brigade front. The patrols found no sign of any such intention, and men from 20 Battalion who had made their way back, when interrogated on the point, showed themselves convinced that the enemy so far from evacuating was landing men and stores.56
Perhaps the main interest of this confusion, however, is as an illustration of the weakness of the divisional Intelligence organisation at this time. In later battles the commander’s staff would have been able to tell at once, from the general framework of their information about the enemy and his intentions, that this was a canard and ought to be ignored.
At Brigade HQ Hargest’s exasperation at the paucity of reliable news and the confusion thus made possible decided him to send Captain Dawson forward once more in a Bren carrier with the last available No. 18 set. His message to Division of 1.25 p.m. reports this and indicates that optimism was now on the wane: ‘Recent messages make position confused. M [the Brigade Major] going to investigate. Tps NOT so far forward on left as believed. Officers on ground believe enemy preparing for attack and take serious view. I disagree but of course they have closer view. Will visit your HQ when M returns.’57
No better idea of the kind of difficulty Hargest was up against can be given than Dawson’s own account of what followed:
Left Bde in Bren Carrier with last W/T set and wireless operator and driver. Also some rations and amn. We were caught in Platanias village by Messerschmits. The set was riddled and was useless; bailed out into coast side of road onto open ground but planes strafed us there also snipers from direction of coast. We then dashed for North side of road into a wheat field. Planes then strafed us there, and set fire to the wheat field which we had to vacate. This lasted approx. 40 mins. Then inspected carrier – it would go – found driver but couldn’t find W/T operator – looked for him for a short while and shouted for him but no luck. Then as set was no good decided to get on up to 23 Bn.
The driver and I then went on in a series of dashes and bail outs to 23 Bn with ammunition and some rations. We turned the corner at the rd junction at about 40 mph much to the amusement of some 23 Bn people who could see us. It was then 1600 hrs.
After this things became very confused round that rd junction. 23 Bn were reporting that motor-cycles tps were about there also an A-Tk gun and possibly one bofor gun trained down the rd. The carrier had one half broken track already so I decided to return to Bde by foot after dark.
As the afternoon wore on Hargest must have been able to form a clearer picture. Thus at 3.5 p.m. he got the message – itself several hours out of date – to the effect that 20 Battalion had withdrawn owing to pressure on the right flank, that 28 Battalion was holding positions from Pirgos across the front of 23 Battalion, and that 21 Battalion was still attacking and making progress. Again, the despatch of elements of the returned companies of 20 Battalion to hold the right of the road east of Pirgos indicates that he was aware of the existence of a dangerous gap there. But at this stage of the battle we can only guess at the degree of knowledge he had about the whole situation.
One other concern of the Brigadier’s must be mentioned before we leave him in the middle of his perplexities and turn to the other sectors. Enemy parties which were filtering through from the south, and which had been sent by Heidrich to try and cut the coast road, had already begun to establish themselves in the hills round and south of Ay Marina. This was a most serious threat. Hargest therefore asked Division to have 10 Brigade make an attack westward to check this development. At 5.50 p.m. Division told him that the attack had been ordered and would go in between 6.45 and 7.15 p.m.
The Canea-Galatas Front
The general tenor of enemy orders for 22 May and the emphasis on the role of Group West suggest that Heidrich’s 3 Parachute Regiment in the Prison area was not expected to make any major move. But Heidrich was not the man to wait passively until Group West could fight its way through to him. He formed a battle group from parts of III Battalion of 3 Parachute Regiment and the Engineer Battalion and put it under command of Major Heilmann, the commander of the former.58 Its role was to advance from the Prison Valley north towards Stalos, to deny us the use of the coast road, and to establish contact with German troops east of Maleme. This was the move that Hargest had feared from the first.
Of the activities of the troops remaining under Colonel Heidrich’s command, German sources give little information beyond the statement that the general situation remained unchanged, that positions were maintained, and that supplies were dropped as required.
Tenth Brigade sources give a fuller picture of the day’s doings. In the Composite Battalion the main activity was a result of the orders from Division already mentioned to send out strong patrols and see if there was any sign of the enemy’s proposing to evacuate. Three patrols were sent out from Major Veale’s RMT group on the right flank. Their task was to go along the coast road and then south to clear the valleys east of Ay Marina and the village of Ay Ioannis. The patrol to which this latter task was assigned – Captain Veitch’s59 – encountered a party of 40 enemy in the village and drove them out, returning with seven prisoners of whom one was an officer. The other two patrols do not seem to have made any serious contact.
From the south of the battalion front a patrol from Divisional Supply went out in conjunction with another led by Lieutenant Carson. Little fresh information seems to have been derived though there was much speculation about enemy movement observed towards dusk which some interpreted as suggesting evacuation and others as a preliminary massing for attack. The most likely explanation is that it was Heilmann’s battle group on its way north. Perhaps as a cover for this move, mortaring had become even heavier on the front, so heavy indeed that after dark two sections of the Divisional Supply Company had to retire to the reverse slope of Ruin Hill and there dig in as best they might without tools. Later on Dill, now back from his patrol, brought a platoon of gunners to their support.
Colonel Kippenberger had little faith in reports of evacuation and decided to carry on with the plan he had formed for clearing the ground lost on his left the first day. Such an attack would in any case answer the purposes of a fighting patrol. The task naturally fell to 19 Battalion, whose troops were the freshest and who were well placed to carry it out. The attacking companies were to make for the Turkish fort, do all the damage they could, and then return to their original positions. The three guns of F Troop 28 Battery, assisted by two mortars, would give what support they could. And 18 Battalion was to help on the left flank by putting a platoon into Galaria.
The attack began at 3 p.m. with A Company on the right and Headquarters Company on the left. The platoon from 18 Battalion duly got into Galaria. But the enemy showed no intention of giving ground without fighting for it. His machine-gun posts hung on stoutly and his aircraft were very active in support. Consequently A Company found itself unable to make much headway and unable also to get round the enemy flanks. At 5 p.m. it returned, having lost four killed and three wounded in exchange for an estimated ten casualties inflicted. Two hours later Headquarters Company returned. They had got within 200 yards of the objective but found it too strongly held to warrant making an assault. They brought back a captured mortar and three captured machine guns and claimed to have destroyed others.
On the part of the front which had hitherto seen the hottest fighting, that held by the Divisional Cavalry south-east of the Prison-Galatas road and by the Divisional Petrol Company north-west of it, the morning was quiet enough. But in the afternoon the defence was heavily bombed and towards evening enemy patrols became active. Then about seven o’clock, after heavy mortar fire and more attacks from the air, the enemy made a strong attack on the ground held by the battle-worn Petrol Company. This attack seems to have had some initial success. The enemy got some troops onto the top of Pink Hill, which since the previous day had been a no-man’s-land, and from there was able to cover the assault on the Petrol Company’s centre. ‘A breach was made in the centre but Cpl N. M. Stewart, who had been in reserve with about 30 men of the night-watching patrols, rushed into the breach and drove the enemy back about 100 yards.’62
To Colonel Kippenberger the situation looked dangerous and he hastily called up half the Composite Battalion reserve, about twenty-five men of 4 Field Regiment under Lieutenant MacLean,63 and sent them in to help. He himself, with Lieutenant Carson and Carson’s patrol – a similar small force – moved quickly round to Wheat Hill so as to counter-attack the enemy on his left flank.
There then occurred one of the most striking incidents of the whole battle:
There was a beautiful opening for Carson, and I was waiting for him to line his men up before giving him the order to charge, when a most infernal uproar broke out across the valley. Over an open space in the trees near Galatos came running, bounding, and yelling like Red Indians, about a hundred Greeks and villagers including women and children, led by Michael Forrester twenty yards ahead. It was too much for the Germans. They turned and ran without hesitation, and we went back to our original positions.64
Captain Forrester and his Greeks deserve another quotation for this act of valour, and this time we may quote from an interview with a member of Carson’s patrol:
Then came a terrific clamour behind. Out of the trees came Capt Forrester of the Buffs, clad in shorts, a long yellow army jersey reaching down almost to the bottom of the shorts, brass polished and gleaming, web belt in place and waving his revolver in his right hand. He was tall, thin-faced, fair-haired, with no tin hat – the very opposite of a soldier hero; as if he had just stepped on to the parade ground. He looked like ... a Wodehouse character. It was a most inspiring sight. Forrester was at the head of a crowd of disorderly Greeks, including women; one Greek had a shot gun with a serrated-edge bread knife tied on like a bayonet, others had ancient weapons – all sorts. Without hesitation this uncouth group,
with Forrester right out in front, went over the top of a parapet and headlong at the crest of the hill. The enemy fled.65
The Greeks who took part in this charge were mainly from 6 Greek Regiment and Forrester had been holding them in reserve behind the Petrol Company since he had first collected and reorganised them. In the German assault Forrester – ‘one of the coolest men I have ever met’66 – had recognised the kind of crisis for which he had been waiting and had at once launched his counter-stroke. The civilians in his force had apparently joined in as the charge got going.
The line thus restored and the Petrol Company still in good heart – Captain H. A. Rowe, its commander, was indignant at the idea that his men might have been dislodged and reported to Colonel Kippenberger, ‘Div Pet are, and will remain, in their original positions’67 – Kippenberger decided to put this whole part of the line under the command of Major Russell, thus making sure that both sides of the vital road were under a single tactical command, Russell Force. The Greeks reassembled behind Galatas under Forrester.
There were two other counter-attacks that day in which Greeks also figured. One took place on the right flank of the Divisional Cavalry and appears to have been intended to deal with a German attack coming in on the south-east side of Pink Hill, no doubt at the same time as the one which troubled the Petrol Company. This time it was the detachment of Greeks under Captain H. M. Smith that was involved. At first there was a delay because Smith’s signal to charge was misunderstood. But then the Greeks went forward, about a dozen civilians joining in.
... They surged around and went on with great enthusiasm – at the trot or steady jog yelling ‘area’ or something like that which I was told was the Evzone’s war cry. It was very effective and the whole show was the most thrilling moment of my life.68
The attack does not seem to have met much opposition and it carried forward almost as far as the old front line near Pink Hill. Here Russell decided to leave the Greeks for the night.
The other Greek counter-attack was probably connected with this and may have been seen by Russell as part of the same general operation. Its occasion was the presence of a group of Germans in some houses on the crest of Pink Hill itself. These had been left behind and isolated when Forrester’s wild wave had carried back the main body of attacking enemy. It was clearly a breach of
no-man’s-land etiquette for them to remain, and Russell ordered his RSM, G. T. Seccombe,69 to encourage their departure, assisted by a party of about fifty Greeks. Lieutenant MacLean and a platoon of 4 Field Regiment and some men from the Petrol Company were to help.
Seccombe got off to a slow start because his orders had to be interpreted and then discussed by the Greeks taking part, all of whom had views of their own to contribute. Eventually the ‘Ayes’ had it and the whole party rushed up the hill after the RSM. The attention of the enemy was distracted towards the remonstrances being fired into their position by the Petrol Company, the Greek attack came as a complete surprise, and all the enemy were killed.
By now it was dark and the Germans on this front seem to have had enough for the day. No doubt Heidrich felt that while the defence remained so spirited it would be impossible to effect anything more with his weary and depleted force. He had already gambled on the assumption that the counter-attack which had not yet come would never come by sending off Heilmann’s battle group. It would be best to remain elsewhere on the defensive till the more promising situation at Maleme brought him relief and reinforcement.
Now that the isolated parties of paratroops had all either been disposed of or had found it prudent to make their way through to join the main body, there was little happening on the 4 Brigade front, beyond patrolling and the move to Galaria in support of 19 Battalion’s probe to the Turkish fort. By daylight 2/7 Australian Battalion was safely in the position formerly occupied by 20 Battalion. And the machine guns of the Australian MG Company were with the brigade until the middle of the afternoon, when they came under command of 5 Brigade.
Nor were there any notable developments in the tactical situation on the front of 2/8 Australian Battalion and 2 Greek Regiment. An attempt was made to co-ordinate the command in this area more effectively. At 6 p.m. Brigadier Vasey obtained from General Freyberg the command of both units and the sector they were defending. He himself was to come under command of NZ Division. It was too late by this time, however, to do anything on
this day to remedy the unsatisfactory character of the position here: the fact that there was little or no contact between the Greeks and the Australians and a gap of about 1000 yards. The day was spent in patrolling.
That no more was done seems regrettable now. For the Greeks and the Australians might have given considerable support to the attack by 19 Battalion towards the Turkish fort. Colonel Kippenberger had indeed asked Brigadier Puttick to arrange for the Australians to launch a simultaneous attack towards the Turkish fort, but Puttick had limited his action to providing some support from his own command – the occupation of Galaria by 18 Battalion. No doubt he felt that 2/8 Battalion, not being under his command, lay outside his province. As it was, the attack by 19 Battalion seems to have taken place without the knowledge of 2/8 Battalion or 2 Greek Regiment, although both were considerably nearer (than 19 Battalion) to the Turkish fort.
On the front held by Suda Force, General Weston’s command, there were no major developments. The 1st Welch had patrols out in the Akrotiri Peninsula rounding up the last remnants of glider troops. The allotment of 2/8 Battalion and 2 Greek Regiment to Brigadier Vasey and NZ Division made some rearrangement necessary within Suda Force itself, and so 2/2 Australian Field Regiment, a company of Rangers, and troops from 23 LAA Battery RM, now took over the defence of the Canea plain. The members of a Royal Marine searchlight battery were also turned into an infantry battalion and given a defensive position to the south of Canea.
These arrangements rather suggest that too defensive an outlook had been establishing itself. It may be that Freyberg, reading the consequences of the counter-attack’s failure at Maleme, was anxious to keep some troops in reserve for the hard battles that were bound to follow the enemy’s continued reinforcement through Maleme. On the other hand, the sea invasion had been beaten and there could now be little likelihood of further parachute landings in the Maleme area; and had some of these forces now defending Canea Plain been added to 2/8 Battalion and 2 Greek Regiment for an all-out attack on the Turkish fort area, an unsteady flank might have been cleared and a stronger position established for eventual defence. Alternatively, had they been used to reinforce 10 Brigade, it might not have been yet too late to demolish Colonel Heidrich and 3 Parachute Regiment. But all eyes were on Maleme now.
The Decision to Withdraw 5 Brigade
At Creforce HQ and Division the hours passed anxiously on 22 May while the commanders waited for firm news of the counterattack and tried to weigh up the significance of the reports that reached them. By the middle of the afternoon it had become sufficiently clear that the attacking battalions had failed to establish themselves on their objectives. It was obvious to General Freyberg that the enemy was pouring in reinforcements of men and material and ‘quickly building up a formidable force.’
Freyberg’s report continues:
The vital question was whether we could attack and dislodge the enemy from the Maleme Aerodrome area. ... The enemy had absolute air superiority; not only could he bomb any movement but he could call upon about 400 fighter ground-straffers with cannon guns which would, and in fact did, prevent any movement during the hours of daylight. We had counter-attacked by night and succeeded, but our success had been temporary only as we were bombed off again as soon as it was daylight. On the other hand the possession of Maleme landing grounds was vital. ...
But if we had to regain Maleme and if we could not make the necessary moves by day, any counter-attack must be again by night. And if it was not too late it must be the coming night.
What forces were available? Some reserve must be kept in hand in case of failure, and whichever force was to be employed for the counter-attack must be capable of reaching the scene that night. In practice, the only troops available were 5 Brigade which, however weary, was on the spot; 18 and 2/7 Battalions of 4 Brigade; and 1 Welch. For 10 Brigade was already fully engaged, 2/8 Battalion had an important part in the line and, even if it could have been relieved quickly enough, was only two companies strong.
At 5 p.m. Freyberg called a conference and gave his orders for a fresh counter-attack. Fourth Brigade was to be brought forward and apparently 5 Brigade was also to take part, though the main thrust would presumably have had to come from 18 Battalion and 2/7 Battalion.
But the opportunity was now lost and the future belonged to the enemy. When Puttick – who favoured a further attack by 5 Brigade – returned to Division he found that the position had altered for the worse. There was ‘considerable enemy movement’ on 10 Brigade front and ‘the road between 4 and 5 Inf Bde HQs was commanded by an enemy detachment including a MG.’70 From Division he went to 4 Brigade HQ, where a Bren carrier was standing by to take him on to Platanias. But at 4 Brigade HQ he learnt of ‘a strong enemy attack against GALATAS from the direction of the Prison, while enemy movement from South to NW of galatas
indicated the probability of important enemy forces attempting to cut the canea–maleme road behind or East of 5 Inf Bde. This road had always been commanded by enemy MG and mortar fire on several occasions.’71
These were important considerations: an enemy breakthrough either north to the main road or north-east through Galatas would have made the situation of 5 Brigade untenable; to commit further forces west of Platanias would involve the risk of having them also cut off along with 5 Brigade. Finally, Brigadier Hargest – no doubt in a discussion initiated by telephone or wireless from 4 Brigade HQ – ‘represented that his troops had been severely attacked, were considerably exhausted, and certainly not fit to make a further attack.’72
The sequel shows that Hargest underrated at this stage the stamina and spirit of his battalions. The operations of 23 Battalion on 25, 27 and 28 May, those of 28 (Maori) Battalion on 26, 27 and 28 May, and the conduct of 21 Battalion throughout, sufficiently show that the troops were more than ready to do all that could be asked of them. And this is to select only the more conspicuous instances.
None the less Puttick, who now turned against the idea of further attack, was probably right in doing so. The enemy strength at Maleme was great enough for such an attack to have little chance of success even if every possible reinforcement had been contributed. There was still a chance, however slender, but to have pursued it would have been little better than gambling and failure would probably have destroyed any hope of orderly withdrawal.
Accordingly, Puttick got into touch with Freyberg by telephone and discussed the new situation, urging that 5 Brigade should be withdrawn from the exposed position. It was clear to Freyberg that such a move would mean a sacrifice of territory unlikely to be regained. But to replace 5 Brigade with 18 and 2/7 Battalions was not worth attempting. For what the five battalions now on the Maleme front could not hold could hardly be held by two.
In effect, then, to withdraw 5 Brigade was to accept the loss of Maleme. The third crisis of the battle had been reached – the first being the assault on Maleme on 20 May and the second the failure of the counter-attack. And the second and the third were both consequences of the first.
There seemed no help for it, however, and Freyberg told Puttick to discuss the situation at Divisional HQ with Brigadier Stewart who would have authority to decide on the action to be
taken. Puttick, therefore, instead of going on to 5 Brigade, returned to Division. There, at 9 p.m.,73 he and Stewart met and decided to withdraw 5 Brigade, Brigadier Hargest’s view as expressed on the telephone no doubt being a powerful consideration. And indeed it is clear from other sources that by now Hargest saw the situation more darkly. Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry ‘had R/T conversations with Brig Hargest during the evening, though I cannot remember now what was said except that he was pessimistic.’74 And if, as seems likely, the time 2107 hours is right, and the time 1107 wrong, for an entry in 5 Brigade war diary which reports Hargest as telling Division by wireless that ‘they should withdraw that night’, we get a further glimpse of the circumstances in which a decision was taken – a decision which as Stewart now comments ‘virtually amounted to accepting the loss of Crete.’75 Nor, all things considered, is it easy to see what other decision was possible.
A warning order was sent by wireless to 5 Brigade at 10.30 p.m. ‘Prepare withdraw tonight 22/23 May 28 Battalion to old posn remainder in rear of 28 Battalion details later. 32 vehicles being forwarded Strutt76 as rd clear. Sending you all spare trucks and at least 10 3 ton lorries salvage all possible.’77
The final orders for the withdrawal were worked out in detail by Gentry by 12.15 a.m. on 23 May and sent forward to all brigades concerned by special despatch rider. They ran:
Estimated enemy has 5 bns with heavy mortars and some motor cyclists vicinity MALEME aerodrome. An attack on 10 Bde front this afternoon by two enemy coys was repulsed with heavy loss.
Aust Bde came under comd Div 2200 hrs tonight.
5 Bde will withdraw night 22–23 May to defensive posn along coast between former posn held by 28 Bn and North and South line through 046572.
20 Bn and 22 Bn come under comd 4 Bde on arrival both moving to posn occupied by 20 Bn on 21 May. 20 Bn taking over from 2/7 Aust Bn who reverts to comd Aust Bde on completion of handover.
10 Bde will move right flank fwd to hold former FDLs including 047572 and hill 046559.
7 Fd Coy and 19 Army Tp Coy will move to area of sq 0656 coming under comd 10 Bde on arrival.
10 Bde will supply guides to meet these parties on the main road.
5 Fd Amb will move to area South of rd junc 077563.
Arty to be in depth in infantry localities about squares 0356 and 0456.
Comd 5 Bde may move one Bn to area SE of 28 Bn provided that area between 28 Bn and eastern boundary adequately held.
All moves to be completed before daylight if possible.
32 vehicles are being supplied for CRA. Two motor ambulances and one 3 ton lorry for wounded. All other spare trucks and lorries available being forwarded.78
The effect of the most important paragraphs in this order may be briefly summarised. Fifth Brigade’s new front line was to be forward of Platanias and its battalions were to be disposed along the main coast road to link up with the slightly modified line of 10 Brigade. Fourth Brigade was to regain 20 Battalion and take over 22 Battalion, which should thus get a chance to carry out the reorganisation it so badly needed.
The advantages of the plan were that the line was shortened, the safety of the line of communication secured, and the junction between Group West and Colonel Heidrich’s force, if it was to be made at all, would have to be made by means of a long detour to the south. Moreover, Puttick would have the advantage of holding a single front. The shortcomings of the plan are equally plain. It meant that the enemy could now build up without interference even from our artillery and therefore must inevitably become strong enough in time to force a continuation of the withdrawal.
Retimo, Heraklion, and Creforce
At Retimo the enemy made no attempt on 22 May to reinforce, and the spirit among the defenders was briskly offensive. Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell had planned two attacks, one to the east and one to the west. The eastern attack began at dawn with a junction between two companies, each less a platoon, of 2/1 Australian Battalion and a Greek battalion just south of the Stavromenos oil factory. The factory was then bombarded by such mortars and guns as could be brought to bear and at 6 p.m. Australians and Greeks began a converging attack. But the latter made no headway and the Australians were held up fifty yards short of their objective. The attack was eventually called off and the Australians were ordered back to guard the airfield, while the Greeks remained to contain the beleaguered enemy.
Meanwhile, in the west 2/11 Australian Battalion had once more set out to attack Perivolia. All day the men tried to get forward under heavy air attack but were held up by heavy machine-gun fire.
A simultaneous attack by Greek forces coming up from the south forced the enemy into a church but failed with heavy losses to take the church itself.
Once again therefore Campbell had to postpone his hopes till the following day. But by now one of the two I tanks which had been recaptured with the airfield had been got going again and men from a carrier company began to train with it so as to take part in the next day’s attack.
At Heraklion the decision of the German High Command to concentrate on Maleme had also had its effects. The onslaught from the air was noticeably reduced. Supplies were dropped and some light guns, but most of this fell as manna into the hands of the defence. Towards evening, however, there was further strafing of the airfield and finally more parachutists came down – about 300 of them west of the town and about 500 west of the airfield.79 Of the first party, a strong force dug itself in astride the road to Retimo about two miles west of the town.
Our own troops were far from inactive. Patrols from 2 Yorks and Lancs mopped up south of the town and were busy all day; and west of the town Greek troops did good work cleaning out machine-gun posts. The Greek barracks at the west end of the airfield was finally cleared during the day while patrols from the Black Watch, aided at first by two I tanks which soon broke down, cleared the east end.
The 2nd Leicesters and 2/4 Australian Battalion patrolled to the south of their positions, and the former with the aid of the guns forced the surrender of a fairly large body of enemy.
The only serious danger to the general position at this stage was in the east, where the Germans, mindful no doubt of their orders to deny us the use of the airfield, held on strongly to positions from which they could enfilade it. It was not possible to muster a force strong enough to drive them out, but two companies of 2 Leicesters were sent to reinforce the Black Watch in case they should attack.
General Freyberg’s reactions to the main battle in the Maleme area on 22 May have already been dealt with in the section dealing with the decision to withdraw. About Retimo and Heraklion he
felt less serious concern. Wireless contact seems to have been working well enough for him to know that the situation in both sectors was in hand and he was able to give a reasonably cheerful account of them to General Wavell. The fact that the enemy had cut road communications between Canea and Retimo and perhaps between Heraklion and Retimo was causing him some worry, but he hoped that the Retimo garrison would be able to clear up the situation provided there were no further landings. He had by now ordered 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to concentrate on Heraklion, but because the position there was so much less grim than at Maleme, he had done so not to reinforce the garrison there but in the hope of bringing the battalion by road to the support of his main front.
Indeed, his main problem was how to reinforce this. At 2.10 p.m. he signalled to Wavell asking that the battalion of Queen’s Royal Regiment, which he hoped would be sent from Egypt as reinforcements, be put ashore at Suda Bay since too much loss of time would follow if it were to land at Tymbaki according to plan.80 But back came the reply that, after consultation with the Navy, General Wavell had decided it was impossible to land any troops in Suda Bay, and there was nothing for it but to try and hold on with what troops were already there. It is evident from this message that Wavell, not yet realising how desperate the situation was, still had hopes that the enemy might not be able to go on standing up to his losses; and he promised relief when the situation allowed it. More concrete was his statement that he was trying to arrange for a commando to land in the south and cross the hills northwards to help. And if Freyberg thought the situation at Maleme was really grave he would try and arrange for RAF fighters to strafe the front early next morning and land within the defence perimeter when their ammunition and petrol were exhausted. He advised Freyberg to consider whether it would not be possible to move troops from Retimo to Canea, replacing them with troops from Heraklion, and in Heraklion making good the loss by replacements from Tymbaki.
There was scant comfort in all this for General Freyberg. The addition of a commando to his force would not turn the battle; nor would a raid by fighters, however cheering the sight of the RAF might be for his men. Still, he must take such heart from it as he could, at the same time doing his best to ensure that the true situation was seen plainly at GHQ Middle East.
Accordingly, late that night he set out to explain the position. He had already reported that he was trying to have three I tanks
brought by sea that night from Heraklion.81 In the same message he had briefly explained that 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had not yet reached Heraklion, that withdrawal to a new line had become necessary, and that the administrative situation was becoming difficult. He now went on to amplify these statements.
At Retimo and Heraklion the situation was reasonably satisfactory. But the former was probably cut off from the latter and from Canea. None the less, he had ordered the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to close on Heraklion, with which they were already in touch, and try to make their way from there by road to Suda.
At Maleme the enemy had kept on landing troop-carriers, not only on the airfield but on the beaches and in the area to the west. In three hours during the afternoon 59 had been counted landing, and this rate of 20 an hour might be taken as an average for this day and the preceding day. Freyberg’s intention of attacking the aerodrome area that night had been frustrated by a thrust up to the coast road which would cut off the troops on the Maleme front. He had therefore decided he must secure his defence by withdrawal to a shorter line. But this meant that Maleme could now become an operational airfield in enemy hands and within a very short distance of Suda Bay.
Nor was this the only danger. Some small German parties were reported to have been landed by sea on the Akrotiri Peninsula already that day. It had to be remembered that all the routes used by the defence were vulnerable to landings by sea or parachute.
Taking everything into account, he had been forced to decide on the shorter line. But the enemy would soon be equal in numbers and his own troops could not fight without rest. None the less they would fight all the same if they could be maintained. But this would have to be done by using Suda. For Tymbaki and Sfakia were the only ports open in the south, and only the road to Tymbaki was complete, while there was not transport to enable the use of either.82
It will be seen from this message that Freyberg was mainly concerned, apart from the immediate operational situation which had forced the withdrawal, with the problems of reinforcement and maintenance. At this time he evidently knew that 2 Queen’s was on the way but felt that it would not be of immediate use unless it were landed where it could at once be brought into action. This would be possible only if it landed at Suda Bay; and this
in its turn was impossible because of the enemy control of the air.83 Even if it had been possible we may doubt whether a single battalion would have been enough, and must assume that stronger forces could not be got together in time.84
The maintenance problem, which had now become so pressing, General Freyberg dealt with at greater length in a message sent the following morning, and it will be convenient to defer treatment of it until a later chapter.85
It is evident from the messages sent about this time that although Freyberg was still painfully conscious of the fact that his communication routes were vulnerable to sea landings, the danger was much less acute than it had been. This was largely due to the Navy’s successful operations during the previous night and these have already been described.86 But the Navy’s losses had been heavy, and full credit cannot be given to its men for the part they played at sea unless we make clear in what difficult circumstances that part was played.
When we left the Fleet Force D had destroyed or dispersed the vessels of the enemy’s 1 Motor Sailing Flotilla, and Force C, under Rear-Admiral King, after making contact with what must have been 2 Motor Sailing Flotilla leaving Melos, had withdrawn because ammunition was running low and because the speed of the force was the speed of its slowest vessel, HMS Carlisle.
Force D after its engagement with the enemy convoy took a further sweep to the east and north but met with nothing further. At 3.30 a.m. its commander, Rear-Admiral Glennie, turned west, giving his ships a rendezvous for 6 a.m. about 30 miles to the west of Crete. His original orders from the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean had been, if there were no developments during the night, to work to the northward; but there had indeed been developments, and the force was so low in AA ammunition that he felt it might not be able to deal with the air attack that must certainly be expected if it were caught by day in northern waters. Accordingly the force sailed to the west, and it was not till it had already left the Aegean that it received an amplifying order from the Commander-in-Chief by which it was to join Force C and sweep in search of convoys within 25 miles of Melos.
This was the reason why Force C found itself alone when it encountered 2 Motor Sailing Flotilla near Melos. Had the two forces been together they might have felt justified in pressing home an attack, relying on their combined AA power to deter bombing attack. Withdrawal did not save Force C, however, from this: the force was under continual bombing attack from 9.45 a.m. till 1.15 p.m., with the result that Naiad had two turrets put out of action and her speed reduced to 16 knots, while Carlisle was also hit.
Finding his force isolated under this severe attack, the commander of Force C called on the main body west of Crete, Force A 1, for help and made towards the Kithera Channel. The commander of Force A 1 answered the call for support at 12.25 p.m. by making for the Aegean. It was by this time without Force D which, because of its ammunition shortage, had been ordered back to Alexandria. But it had been joined by Force B which had made no contact during the night, had found itself at daylight about 25 miles north of Canea and, after a bombing which lasted from 6.30 to 8 a.m. and in which Fiji and Gloucester were both hit, had joined the main body at half past eight.
The whole of this force was also rather short of ammunition, Gloucester being reduced to 18 per cent, Fiji to 30 per cent, Dido to 25 per cent, Orion to 38 per cent and Ajax to 40 per cent. Valiant and Warspite were best off, with 66 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.
It was a serious weakness with which to face what was to be a punishing day. The first casualty was Greyhound. About the time of the junction with Force C, she was returning from the sinking of a large caique when she was hit by two bombs. At 2.6 p.m. she sank. When she was hit, 15 minutes before, Kandahar and Kingston were sent to pick up survivors. At 2.2 p.m. Fiji, and five minutes later Gloucester, were sent to give Kandahar and Kingston AA support. The men from Greyhound swimming in the water and the ships trying to rescue them were alike bombed and machine-gunned continuously.
Force A 1 now closed with Force C – at only 18 knots as Warspite had been hit and her 4-inch and 6-inch batteries put out of action – to help, and its commander told the commander of Force C that Fiji and Gloucester were very short of HAA ammunition. Accordingly the commander of Force C ordered both to withdraw.
At 3.30 p.m. both Fiji and Gloucester were seen coming up astern of Force A 1 at high speed with enemy aircraft overhead. Twenty minutes later Gloucester was hit, set on fire, and
immobilised. The air was too hot with enemy planes for Fiji to be able to help, and the commanders of Force A 1 and Force C decided they could not risk the battle fleet to go back and support her.
Air attack continued for the rest of the afternoon with a break after ten minutes past three. But it was renewed at 4.45 and Valiant was hit by two bombs, though without serious damage. By this time both forces were withdrawing to the south-west, Force C almost out of HAA ammunition.
The next casualty was Fiji. With Kandahar and Kingston she had lost sight of the main fleet and was 30 miles due east of it when she fell victim to a lone Me 109. A single bomb dropped alongside and the engines were crippled. Other bombs followed and at 8.15 p.m. The ship heeled over. Kandahar and Kingston lowered boats and rafts and then withdrew to wait till dark. They then returned and rescued 523 men. At 10.45 they set off to join Force C.
Meanwhile Force A 1 had been joined during the afternoon by 5 Destroyer Flotilla from Malta – Kelly, Kashmir, Kipling, Kelvin and Jackal. As soon as he learnt at 7.28 p.m. that Fiji was sinking, the commander of Force A 1 sent 10 Destroyer Flotilla – Stuart, Voyager and Vendetta – which had left Alexandria the preceding day and was now en route to join him, to the rescue.
It was by now dark and the day’s losses were complete: two cruisers and one destroyer sunk ( Gloucester, Fiji and Greyhound), two battleships and two cruisers damaged ( Warspite, Valiant, Naiad and Carlisle). The fleet claimed two enemy aircraft certainly shot down, six probably shot down, and five damaged.
But the day’s work was not yet over. The commander of Force A 1 received orders at half past eight to send Decoy and Hero to the south coast to pick up the King of Greece, and on his own account sent 5 Destroyer Flotilla to patrol inside Kisamos and Canea Bays. Kipling developed steering trouble almost at once, but Kelly, Kashmir, Kelvin and Jackal carried on without her. In Canea Bay the first two met a caique full of troops and damaged it badly with gunfire. They then bombarded Maleme and withdrew. As they did so they met a second caique and this they set on fire. Kelvin and Jackal after investigating some shore lights withdrew independently.
Meanwhile 14 Destroyer Flotilla – Jervis, Ilex, Nizam and Havock – were patrolling off Heraklion, where they were to have been joined by Ajax and Orion who were on their way back to Alexandria with the rest of Force D. But at 10.30 p.m. The Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean received a message from the commander of Force A 1 reporting on the ammunition situation.
From this message the Commander-in-Chief understood that the battleships were out of pom-pom ammunition. He therefore decided to withdraw all forces to Alexandria.
The other naval activities of the day that ought to be mentioned are those of the Abdiel, which laid mines during darkness between Cephalonia and Levkas, and of the Rorqual which did the same in the Gulf of Salonika. And it was this night also that the Glenroy sailed from Alexandria for Tymbaki with HQ 16 Infantry Brigade, 900 men of the Queen’s Royal Regiment, and 18 vehicles. Escorting her were Coventry, Auckland and Flamingo.