Page 249

Chapter 6: The Fourth Day: 23 May

The Withdrawal of 5 Brigade

About four o’clock on the afternoon of 22 May General Ringel had received his orders to take command of all forces in Crete and fly to Maleme at once. His instructions from General Löhr, commander of 4 Air Fleet, were to secure Maleme airfield, to clear Suda Bay, to relieve the paratroops at Retimo, to make contact with Heraklion, and to occupy the whole island.

About 8 p.m. he and his HQ landed on the beach west of Maleme – Maleme airfield itself still being under shellfire. He made himself acquainted with the general position and found that I Battalion, 85 Mountain Regiment, had been advancing since 4 p.m. from Point 197 (about four miles south of Point 107) in an easterly direction, with Mount Monodhendri (Point 259) as the ultimate objective. It was expected to reach Point 229 (Mount Psathoyiannos) about ten o’clock. I Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment was following up. The main body of II Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, was in the area of Kamisiana and Point 295, but elements of it were also engaged on protective duties.

Since effective contact could not yet be made with any of the other groups under his command, Ringel’s orders issued that evening confined their scope to the reorganisation of the reinforced Group West and preliminary preparations for an intensified drive towards Canea. He defined the task of his force as first of all to secure the airfield and by neutralising the defence’s guns to permit further troops to land unhampered.

For this purpose he formed three battle groups. The first consisted of 95 Engineer Battalion under Major Schaette. It was to relieve II Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment of all protective duties and to cover Maleme from the west and south by clearing Kastelli and Palaiokhora. The second group consisted of all the paratroops and was under Colonel Ramcke, who now reverted to the command of the Assault Regiment. His task was to assemble the paratroops and form them into a strong battalion under regimental command. With this he would cover the airfield

Page 250

against attack from the east and co-operate with the third group in the attack towards Canea.

The third group consisted of Colonel Utz’s I and II Battalions of 100 Mountain Regiment and I Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment. On it the enemy’s main hopes now rested. Its task was to drive east in conjunction with Ramcke Group, and to continue the enveloping movement round the south flank that had already begun. By this manoeuvre Ringel hoped to eliminate the New Zealand artillery, join up with Heidrich’s Group Centre, and cut the coast road near Ay Marina.

Had 5 Brigade remained in its forward positions another twenty-four hours it seems likely that the enemy plan might have brought about the result which Brigadier Hargest feared and cut off the brigade. And if the second counter-attack had been carried out the net would have had a still larger yield. But, as we have seen, orders were already on the way that night for 5 Brigade to withdraw. They reached Hargest about 1 a.m. At roughly the same time Captain Dawson got back over the hills from 23 Battalion. This was fortunate; for, owing to the destruction of the last No. 18 set, there was no wireless communication forward. The route was dangerous and familiar to few; no one had a better chance than the resolute Dawson – weary though he was – of getting through in the dark. So, while the Brigadier arranged transport for the evacuation of 5 Field Ambulance, Dawson drew up the withdrawal orders.

An hour later the orders were ready and with Lieutenants Chinchen1 two liaison officers, Dawson set out. Two light tanks which had been ordered to cover the evacuation of 5 Field Ambulance from Modhion left at the same time. Once on the main road, the tank commander was told by troops there that the enemy had an anti-tank gun and a machine gun covering the Platanias bridge. Dawson was sceptical, having crossed the bridge without difficulty two hours before. But he could not persuade the tanks to take his party forward. He therefore left the tanks2 and walked on with the two LOs. At first he was going to ford the stream and avoid the bridge; but to save time and

Page 251

because ‘water too cold’ he used the bridge. There was no enemy there, and the party went on, apprising the Engineer Detachment of the withdrawal en route3 and reaching 23 Battalion in the early dawn.

His arrival is described by Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie:

... Capt. Dawson arrived at 23 Bn HQ very exhausted. It was full daylight. He said he had some ‘very surprising news’ for me. My remark was, ‘What! Have they tossed it in?’ (Wishful thinking, I’m afraid; but I did feel that we had made a mess of them the day before. And the morning was so quiet and peaceful with not even a plane in the sky, as yet.) Dawson said, ‘We are to retire to the Platanias R line. Will you get in touch with all Bns. The withdrawal was supposed to start half-an-hour ago.’ I gave Dawson my blanket and told him to have a sleep. I would wake him up in good time. We had phone communication to Jim Burrows and John Allen. Jim said he would inform Dittmer.4

By about 5 a.m. all the battalion commanders except Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer had reached 23 Battalion HQ for a conference.5 the orders were bald enough. The battalions were to withdraw at 5.30 a.m.,6 each providing its own protection. The route was to be over the hills south of the coast road, and defensive positions were to be taken up by 10 a.m. The 28th Battalion was to hold its original front. The other units were all allotted new positions in the same general area – except for 20 Battalion which was to move back to the Canea area and come once more under the command of 4 Brigade.

The order to withdraw came as a surprise to the battalion commanders. ‘None of the unit representatives present considered they would have any difficulty in disengaging, as the enemy was so quiet at this stage. All were of opinion that we could hold the position.’7 Yet the withdrawal was necessary. The last chance of counter-attack was already gone. For 5 Brigade to be left where it was would have been to invite disaster. And the enemy quiescence on which Leckie comments was deceptive; for the move round the south flank was already under way.

It remained now to carry out the orders. Among those present had been the commander of 1 Company 27 MG Battalion, and he set off at once with all except Lieutenant MacDonald’s platoon to take up a new position at Ay Marina.

Page 252

Meanwhile Dittmer had learned from one of his officers that the 23 Battalion companies on his right were about to withdraw. Leaving orders for his company commanders to report to his HQ he hurried to 23 Battalion HQ, about a thousand yards away. Here he discovered that not only was the withdrawal to take place but that 28 Battalion was to be rearguard. ‘I went extremely rude about being left in such a manner but had little time to go into the reason for it. I knew that enemy would see other units going over high ground to East and then 28 Bn would catch it.’8

It is not difficult to sympathise. A daylight withdrawal was an extremely disagreeable thing to have to contemplate, and withdrawal was not temperamentally congenial to a man of Dittmer’s fighting spirit. But it was necessary none the less, and the unfortunate failure of the news to reach him in good time was the sort of mishap that, although it never fails to infuriate its victim, is inevitable in the haste of battle.

Time was needed for the orders to get down to companies and platoons. But about 6.30 a.m. The main body of 23 Battalion, led by Major Thomason9 and accompanied by Captain Dawson, left the area. C Company under Lieutenant W. B. Thomas followed half an hour later, acting as rearguard to the battalion. A platoon of D Company came out separately and Headquarters Company 2 withdrew with 21 Battalion. Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie, who had stayed behind to see that all his men got safely away, buried the battalion’s payroll and finally came out alone, overtaking a platoon of 21 Battalion near Modhion.

Leckie left without his Medical Officer, Captain Stewart,10 however. For, although the walking wounded in 23 Battalion RAP had gone back before full daylight, Stewart still had some sixty stretcher cases under his charge. These men came from 20, 22, 23, and 28 Battalions. The Medical Officer of 22 Battalion, Captain Longmore, had been taken prisoner along with the rest of his RAP on 21 May; Captain Gilmour11 of 20 Battalion had no facilities; Captain Mules12 of 28 Battalion had been wounded; and Captain Moody, who had come back with the survivors of 22 Battalion, belonged to 5 Field Ambulance.

Stewart took the hard decision that it was his duty to remain with those of the wounded who could not be moved and see that

Page 253

They were properly treated by the enemy; for at that time it was by no means certain that the Germans would follow the usages of war with regard to prisoners as punctiliously as they did on the whole in the Mediterranean theatre.

Captain Griffiths,13 the 23 Battalion chaplain, decided for similar reasons to remain with Stewart. And their two orderlies, Privates Walsh14 and Buchanan,15 also elected to stay, as did Corporal Collie,16 a medical orderly from 20 Battalion. To the two officers fell the grim task of explaining to the wounded that capture was inevitable.

Meanwhile 23 Battalion had gone on its way and, after some casualties from air attack en route, reached the Platanias area about eight o’clock. It was at once put into line west of Platanias ridge and ordered to hold it until the other battalions passed through. C Company, the battalion rearguard, came back by a different route, along the line of the canal, and was in time to assist at an engagement near Platanias bridge.

Shortly after 23 Battalion, 22 Battalion moved out and went through Kondomari over the hills towards Platanias. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew and his adjutant checked the men through as they set off in two groups. There were some casualties on the way, but the battalion reached the Platanias area without major mishap and Andrew reported to Brigade HQ at 8.27 a.m. From here he went on to Division, where he received his orders: the battalion, now rather more than 200 strong and divided into two companies under Captains Hanton and Campbell (who had been with 21 Battalion but had brought his group out separately), was to take up a position east of the Engineer Detachment – now in new positions near Ay Marina.

The 21st Battalion received the order for withdrawal from Major Harding, who may have represented Lieutenant-Colonel Allen at the dawn conference. It was decided that Headquarters Company should act as rearguard to the battalion, Allen remaining with it, and that the others should go ahead under Harding. Captain Hetherington,17 the RMO, preferred to stay behind with the 70 wounded in his RAP, and the chaplain of 22 Battalion, Captain

Page 254

Hurst,18 decided to stay and help. The main body was clear of the position by 6.30 a.m. and Headquarters Company followed half an hour later. Both groups came under fire along the way and had casualties, but they reached Platanias about half past eight or shortly afterwards. The battalion then reformed and took up positions on the high ground south-east of Platanias.

The three companies of 20 Battalion had not had time to reform as a unit, and Major Burrows ordered the platoons to march with the units to which they were attached and to reorganise when they had reached their destination. This they did; but only A Company was sent on to join 4 Brigade again, the remainder being held back to help defend the Platanias line. Of those already in Platanias since falling back the day before – Headquarters Company and D Company – it will be more convenient to speak later.19

Dittmer had gone back to his battalion from 23 Battalion HQ meditating his plans for the withdrawal and rearguard. When he reached his own HQ and found his company commanders waiting he issued his orders carefully. The main body was to move out, guided by the Intelligence Officer, Captain Bennett,20 as soon as possible. Their departure would be covered by a rearguard party, consisting of an officer and section from each company, the whole group being commanded by Major Dyer.21

It was some time after six o’clock when the main body left. It met no opposition and reached the Platanias area about half past eight. As orders were to occupy the old position with whatever assistance could be found, the Intelligence Officer used the troops he had as well as he could and, within a quarter of an hour, had them manning a line.22

The rear party, meanwhile, was having a more difficult time. Major Dyer’s orders had been to keep the enemy off until the troops had time to reach Platanias and man the line. He resolved to take about three hours over his task and to reach Platanias between half past nine and ten o’clock.

An enemy advance began almost as soon as the main body had begun to move. The Bren guns of the rear party at once opened up and the enemy was checked. Dyer then sent back his two centre sections. As they were taking up an intermediate position

Page 255

The enemy followed up with fire from mortars and machine guns. The two outside sections then fell back into line with the centre sections. This manoeuvre was repeated with variations to a second and a third intermediate position. At each pause two sections had to cover the retirement of the other two; and at each pause there was firing not only from the front but from the flanks. Dyer was especially concerned for his sea flank, for there the enemy was pressing hard and using captured Bofors viciously.

At the third pause – which seems to have been on the high ground between Kondomari and Modhion – Dyer found Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer who, with a platoon of about thirty men, had halted there to support the rear party. ‘It looked as though we were likely to be cut off, and under the circumstances, we felt the greatest admiration for our CO who had given us a tough task and then stayed back to see the job through.’23

The party made two more stages, encountering en route much less machine-gun fire than before. At the last stage they found themselves getting covering fire from their comrades at Platanias. But by this time the enemy had advanced level with them along the axis of the coast road and had brought up guns with him – perhaps Bofors – as well as machine guns, and these proved very troublesome. The rear party were forced to wade south along the river for some distance. Then one last dash was made up a slope almost destitute of cover and, although seven or eight men were hit, the greater number got over the crest and back inside their own front line. The time is difficult to establish but may have been as late as 2 p.m.

While the forward battalions were making this withdrawal, the troops east of them had also had to be on the move. The Engineer Detachment and the Field Punishment Centre had been able to make their way out before daylight and had gone on to the area of Ay Marina. One outlying picket of 19 Army Troops Company failed to get the order but, finding the others gone, managed to extricate itself and, moving south through the hills, rejoined its unit at Sfakia – a considerable feat.

The men of the Field Punishment Centre were reluctant to sacrifice their captured spandau machine guns and a heavy load of ammunition. They got them as far as the road but decided they would need help to get them any farther. Three men therefore went into enemy-held territory and impressed a donkey. Donkey carrying the machine guns and men the ammunition, they set off

Page 256

again, by now only three as the others had gone on. Enemy fire soon forced them south into the hills and they decided to come on Platanias from the south. As they approached they found themselves in the middle of a minor battle, mounted two of their spandaus, and assisted in the capture of 20 enemy. By late afternoon they were back with 22 Battalion, their parent unit, to be welcomed by Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew with: ‘What have you been pinching this time?’ But spandaus and prodigals were a welcome addition to the battalion strength.24

The story of the artillery is less fortunate. Major Philp had got his orders from 5 Brigade at 4 a.m. This did not leave him time to organise the removal of his guns, even had there been transport to get them out in the dark. Thus A Troop had to leave both its 3·7 howitzers and B Troop its three Italian 75s. A few men from each troop stayed behind to disable them. C Troop had less distance to go and had four trucks to assist in towing its four guns. But one truck went over a steep bank and the other was found to have no towing attachment. Two guns had therefore to be ‘spiked’ and left behind. The remaining two were got safely to positions at Ay Marina chosen by Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt.

Without artillery, the gunners of A and B Troops and HQ 27 Battery now became infantrymen and went into line alongside the Maori Battalion. At this stage, it is worth noting, Strutt had in support of 5 Brigade the following guns: two French 75s from C Troop; his own four 75s (Italian) from 2/3 RAA Regiment; two Bofors from 156 LAA Regiment; two two-pounders from 106 RHA; and perhaps two French 75s from 2/3 RAA Regiment. All these were in position round Platanias and Ay Marina at this time.

By ten o’clock that morning the new line had been established just west of Platanias and the main bodies of the battalions were all settled in. The Maori Battalion had taken over its old positions – from Platanias bridge south-east in a curve covering Platanias – as it came in; and on the high ground to its east were 21 and 23 Battalions. Farther east, in the Ay Marina area, were the Engineer Detachment with the remnants of 1 MG Company and the guns. And 22 Battalion was a little farther to the east of the engineers.

The vital point in the front line at this stage was the ‘Platanias bridge’, about a mile west of Platanias itself. In the original system this bridge was the responsibility of D Company of the

Page 257

Platanias and Stalos, 23 

Platanias and Stalos, 23 May

Maori Battalion.25 And at daylight on 23 May Captain Baker and about fifteen men of D Company had been in the area. But when Baker saw the Engineer Detachment withdraw and learnt from it that there was to be a general withdrawal to the east of the Platanias River, he decided to take his small force back to Brigade HQ and ask for orders. After some changes of plan he was finally ordered to collect elements of Headquarters Company and D Company of 20 Battalion – 60–70 men and officers – who had come back that morning from the counter-attack, and with them and his own party return to the D Company area and be ready to hold on there for the next twenty-four hours. He found these men at breakfast and divided them into two platoons.

But meanwhile the enemy had been moving fast. Using captured RAF trucks from Maleme and bringing with them mortars, they had come along the road; and no doubt it was this advance that had given the Maori rearguard so much worry about being outflanked.

Lieutenant Farran and Squadron Sergeant-Major Childs had been on guard at the bridge from about four in the morning to cover the withdrawal. What they understood to be the last party of

Page 258

28 Battalion came through them some time before 8.45.26 According to Farran, his orders had been to fall back on Platanias when the Maoris were all through and so, with the enemy infantry advancing and some anti-tank fire troubling him, he withdrew his two tanks to the other two tanks of the squadron which had been ordered to cover the right flank of the brigade. Farran’s two tanks were now ordered to cover the beach.

In this interval which left the bridge uncovered the enemy had kept coming forward, and while Baker was still organising his force to occupy the area word reached him that there were about 200 enemy already in the old D Company positions and that they were getting mortars ready to open fire. It is not clear at what time this happened. The 28th Battalion war diary reports that at 11.5 a.m. about 100 Germans approached the bridge bringing up what looked like a mortar; that five minutes later they attempted to cross the river south of the bridge dragging a field gun; and that at 11.30 the gun was set up on the east side of the bridge but was withdrawn owing to attentions from our artillery.27

It seems likely, however, that these reports refer to later enemy concentrations than the one reported to Captain Baker. At all events, Baker at once decided to attack, though he was short of automatic weapons and had no supporting arms. He began to filter his force forward under such cover as there was. His men had not gone far and were about 900 yards from the river in low, flat open ground when they came under mortar fire and concentrated fire from machine guns. None the less they managed to reduce the gap to about 500 yards before the fire became intolerably intense.

Baker decided that to go on would be suicidal. He therefore ordered a withdrawal to the positions formerly prepared by D Company’s reserve platoon. The order was passed forward section by section and, when he thought all ranks had safely withdrawn, including the wounded Captain Garriock28 who had commanded one of the ad hoc platoons, he himself followed under cover of the smoke from houses which had been set on fire by mortars.

While he had been waiting, the troops had come under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire in their new positions. ‘We were not there very long before Jerry turned all his fury loose at us. Mortars and MG, the Mortar fire was terrific, I think it was the

Page 259

hottest hour I had during the war. We were simply being blasted out of the place.’29 the men therefore continued to fall back and many of them went on to their original battalion area. Baker himself, unable to find them and seeing that Captain Tui Love30 of Headquarters Company 28 Battalion was holding a line across the road, went through and reported to Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer, who put him in command of A Company.

But the attack had been more successful than Baker knew. Lieutenant Markham31 managed to get a detachment within 100 yards of the bridge, where the enemy had a gun in the middle of the road and busy mortars and machine guns on both sides. ‘My section had no dug positions and they brought very heavy Mortar fire to bear on us. We were able to put the gun temporarily out of action by killing or disposing of the crew. ...’32 Lieutenant P. Maxwell also got a section as far forward as the riverbed and captured a Bofors. He then got in touch with Markham, who pointed out a column of enemy coming up the road with more field guns. The two officers considered their position: they had few men with them and among those few casualties were steadily occurring; ammunition was short; and the enemy was reinforcing. They decided to withdraw and were confirmed in this by the arrival of Baker’s message. In falling back they failed to find Baker and appear to have helped the Maori Headquarters Company in the outskirts of Platanias.

This probably happened late in the morning. The enemy was cautious from now on, and it is not till 2.20 p.m. that 28 Battalion war diary mentions him again. At that time enemy parties were reported to be digging gun emplacements along the main road about 500 yards west of the bridge. A quarter of an hour later concentrations were reported in the stream bed and at five minutes to three enemy were seen laying wire between the bridge area and a house on the beach, probably a local HQ. Then at 3.22 a gun from Maleme began to shell A Company and trucks brought up infantry and material. An assault seemed imminent.

It was about this time that the defence were heartened by their first sight of the RAF. At five minutes to four a bomber was seen to attack the airfield and five minutes later three more. Six planes at least were observed to be on fire and transport aircraft appeared to be leaving the airfield.

Page 260

Meanwhile our own artillery had begun to shell the German concentrations at the bridge. Already during the early morning the retiring gunners of 27 Battery had been delighted to hear two six-inch naval guns at Suda Bay shelling Stalos as a likely enemy headquarters. As soon as they themselves were in position they set about getting their two surviving guns into action, their difficulty being that they had no way of calculating where their shells were likely to land. But early in the afternoon an Australian troop went into position nearby and, correcting the elevation of his own guns by means of the Australian OP, Lieutenant Boyce33 was able to come into action.34 Soon after, however, an enemy mortar scored a direct hit on one gun and set fire to the ammunition. In spite of the danger Corporal Buchanan,35 a newcomer from 4 Field Regiment, shovelled earth over the flames and put out the fire. But from then on the Australian OP was too busy serving its own guns and the second gun had to remain silent.

Counter-battery fire was not the only danger to the artillery. By this time enemy parties were filtering in from the south and at one time during the morning a sudden enemy sally took the two Bofors in Strutt’s little group. But they were successfully retaken.

The Australian guns continued to work hard all afternoon. At one stage a message to 5 Mountain Division records that the parachute artillery battery had fired three times its ammunition establishment. Even so it had not been able to silence the Australians who, besides shelling Pirgos, drove an enemy party in company strength out of the bridge area, silenced two enemy guns that came into action in the same neighbourhood, and destroyed one of two motor cycles that came to rescue them. In fact it seems likely that the enemy’s failure to mount a full-scale assault on the front that day may in large measure be due to the guns.

It was not only near the bridge that the enemy was trying to get forward, and there was plenty of work for the defending infantry. On the right, between the road and the sea, were B and C Companies of 20 Battalion – each about 40 strong – which Brigadier Hargest had decided must join in the defence instead of going back to their original area. These combined with Maori detachments in the same area to break up several enemy attempts to get through along the beach, and Lieutenant Rhodes,36 mortar

Page 261

officer of 20 Battalion, did good execution with his single mortar and two Maori mortars – one complete, one without a base-plate, and one without a firing pin. An enemy effort to retaliate by bringing up a gun was thwarted by a spirited attack led by Captain Love of 28 Battalion.

South of the road and in the hills there was less direct contact but – as everywhere else that day – much trouble from enemy mortars, captured Bofors and enemy aircraft. The 23rd Battalion alone had 35 wounded, who were cared for in an improvised RAP by the RQMS, W. H. Dalton.37

As the day wore on it became apparent that the enemy was preparing an outflanking attack from the south in addition to the frontal attack that had been threatening all afternoon.38 Parties of enemy were seen making their way south-east from Pirgos into the hills, and A Company of 28 Battalion during the afternoon ‘carried on snap-shooting practice with occasional good grenade throwing against small parties of enemy who had moved up on the southern and south-western side of the Company area and finally took cover in caves below our position.’39 the 23rd Battalion felt similar pressure on the left flank and was forced to strengthen it with an additional company; while farther to the east the Engineer Detachment found its positions threatened from the south, where an enemy party had established itself in a farmhouse not far away and caused 14 or 15 casualties.

It was clear to both Brigadiers Hargest and Puttick that 5 Brigade was in a dangerous position. Its withdrawal and a move forward by the Composite Battalion of 10 Brigade40 had improved the situation from that of the day before. None the less, the enemy was obviously stronger and more aggressive, and 5 Brigade was still too far forward to be proof against a strong attack from the south at its point of juncture with 10 Brigade. Already at eleven o’clock that morning Puttick was discussing the situation with General Freyberg, and the upshot was his decision to withdraw 5 Brigade after dark into Divisional Reserve.

Hargest also was coming to see that further withdrawal was inevitable. At 1.10 p.m. he reported to Puttick that the enemy had crossed the bridge with mortars and guns and that the front

Page 262

line was just west of Platanias. The 23rd Battalion was forming a second line and he hoped to be able to hold out on this at least till nightfall.41 there is no record of Puttick’s reply, unless it may be inferred from the fact that at 2.30 Hargest was making arrangements with 23 Battalion which envisaged the strengthening of this second line and its prolongation south. The troops forward of it would probably withdraw into it at dusk. And again at 2.50 p.m. he signalled to Puttick that a new line running through ‘Platanias Hill Village’ was being prepared and that he proposed to withdraw to it at dusk ‘if can hold out that long’. The Engineer Detachment had been ordered to be ready to come forward and assist. He ended by asking what relief Puttick proposed to give and stated his strength in men to be 600.42

To this – and perhaps later unrecorded messages – Puttick replied by special despatch rider at 3.15 p.m.: 5 Brigade was to withdraw that night but not, except for reconnaissance parties, before 8.45 p.m. Detailed orders reached 5 Brigade at 5 p.m. Their substance was as follows: the New Zealand Division would hold a line running from the coast at Staliana Khania south to Point 98·4, from there south-east to Ruin Hill, and thence south-east again via Cemetery Hill and the feature immediately west of the Prison to the Turkish fort.43

The right of this line would be held by 4 Brigade with the Composite Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry under command and, also under command, two 75s from 5 Brigade and a machine-gun detachment of six guns from 10 Brigade. The left of the line would be held by 19 Australian Brigade. The boundary between the brigades, inclusive to 4 Brigade, would be the Prison–Canea road. Fifth Brigade was to go into reserve east of Karatsos in much the same area as that originally held by 18 and 20 Battalions.

To this Hargest in an untimed message replied that the order would be carried out at 10 p.m. The Brigadier pointed out that his units would need a day to reorganise, that some of 20 Battalion had been kept in the line instead of returning to 4 Brigade, and that he would like to keep the Engineer Detachment for at least another day. And since he speaks of 22 Battalion as being with 4 Brigade, he was evidently unaware that Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew had returned on Puttick’s orders to support the Engineer Detachment near Ay Marina.

Page 263

The estimate of unit strengths given in this message shows as well as any figures can the hard fighting the brigade had had: 21 Battalion was down to 170, 22 to 110, 23 to 250, and the Engineer Detachment to 300.44 No statement is made about the number of wounded but they must have been numerous, and Hargest was anxious that at least one or two medical officers should be sent up together with medical equipment. And in a message at 7.15 p.m. he asked for ambulances to be sent up at nine o’clock.

No copy of Hargest’s order to his units for the withdrawal is available, but no doubt it went out to the battalions by runner soon after the divisional order was received, and there must have been further communication between the two commanders since arrangements were made by which the six-inch guns at Suda Bay were to begin firing on enemy-held territory from midnight on.45 the tanks of 3 Hussars were to act as rearguard.46

Both 20 and 28 Battalions effected their withdrawal safely and were settled in their new areas before daylight. The 21st Battalion followed them, and after it came 23 Battalion. The atmosphere of the move is well conveyed in the narrative of Lieutenant Thomas, then commanding C Company 23 Battalion:

We withdrew under orders soon after midnight, carrying our wounded on improvised stretchers down the steep cliff face and then along a difficult clay creek bed to the road. Then we marched until nearly dawn. I was very impressed by the continued discipline of the men. Mile after mile we trudged. Everyone was tired. All were vaguely resentful, although none of us could have put a finger on the reason. Those who could bear the strain better carried the rifles and bren guns of those who were fatigued. Len Diamond, a rough and lovable West Coast miner with a difficult stammer, raised a smile whenever things seemed a bit much.47

Difficulties for the wounded did not end with arrival at the road. Two of the three trucks assigned to 23 Battalion had been shot up and the last had to be crammed. ‘This delayed the move, and C Company 23 Battalion, which was co-operating with two tanks and some 28 Battalion Bren carriers in doing the rearguard, had some worried moments when the enemy began to follow up. But the company put up road blocks and was safely back in its allotted area by 4 a.m.

Page 264

While these units were on the move the Engineer Detachment also withdrew, and got back without trouble. Captain Snadden – back again in spite of his wounds – got out the two guns of C Troop and parked them for the night near the point where the road to Galatas branches from the coast road – the Galatas turn-off, as it was usually called. Moreover Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt was able to report to Divisional HQ at 10.30 p.m. that he had brought back a total of four French 75s, four Italian 75s, two Bofors, and two two-pounders, a feat the more satisfactory as most of these had been reported lost at one stage or another of the day.

Perhaps the most difficult task of the evening fell to 5 Field Ambulance. It waited for ambulances until 3 a.m., when two arrived. These were loaded with wounded, and a party of those able to walk set off about this time also. Of the eight trucks which were to have come up, some were destroyed when the road was shelled by the enemy and others were appropriated by marching troops in the absence of the drivers who had abandoned them. Volunteer drivers had to be fetched from 5 Field Ambulance and found only three trucks that could be used. These three took off a full load at 4 a.m.; at half past five, as dawn was breaking, Captain Coutts48 arrived with fresh trucks, which were enough to take the rest of the patients and the skeleton staff which had been left with them. In all 135 patients were brought out. A new position was established for the MDS in that vacated by 6 Field Ambulance.

For the time being, and for the first time since the battle began, Brigadier Hargest and his battalions were out of the fighting. It was not to be for long.

The Canea-Galatas Front

For 10 Brigade 23 May was relatively quiet. Colonel Heidrich’s men were very short of ammunition;49 and no doubt he felt there was little point in launching further attacks when help was on the way, and when he had detached a large part of his force under Heilmann to try and cut the coast road.

The movement of enemy carrying parties on the high ground west of the 10 Brigade front gave the defence good grounds for suspecting that the enemy was attempting to cut the road

Page 265

and envelop 5 Brigade. It became urgent to push the right flank far enough forward to thwart this, and the important events on the front that day arose from the necessity.

The danger was in fact acute. Battle Group Heilmann – about 150 officers and men – had seized Stalos shortly after dawn and handed it over to 1 Engineer Company to hold; and the three battalions of 100 and 85 Mountain Regiments which had begun their right hook the evening before had made substantial progress. II Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment was, as we have seen, operating well to the north in conjunction with Ramcke Group and by midday was about two kilometres south-west of Platanias. The outflanking threat therefore came less from it than from I Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment, which by ten o’clock in the morning was not far from Padhelari.

Although Brigadier Puttick had no detailed knowledge of the enemy intention it was a fair inference that some such movement would be attempted, and he had ordered Colonel Kippenberger to advance the right flank of the Composite Battalion by a thousand yards.50 Even so there was still a dangerous gap between the rear of 5 Brigade and the right of 10 Brigade. Accordingly Puttick arranged for 4 Brigade to release B Company of 18 Battalion and send it to clear out a strong enemy pocket reported near Ay Marina and, by establishing a line of posts on the high ground south of the coast road, to cover the line of withdrawal for 5 Brigade.51 And, later on, when Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew reported to Division, he was ordered to take the two companies that now constituted his battalion into the Ay Marina area for a similar purpose.

Kippenberger told the two right-hand groups of the Composite Battalion to push forward and cover the ridges south of Ay Marina. Major Veale on the right therefore sent out Lieutenant Coleman52 with a company. As this advanced westwards it learnt from Greek civilians that the enemy was in Stalos. Coleman then decided to go ahead with an advance party of 15 men. He was soon pinned down by enemy fire. He therefore told his main body to fall back and took cover with his own party behind a stone wall. Ahead on a forward slope were two enemy machine guns, and for the best part of an hour he and his men engaged these with rifles and a captured spandau, eventually accounting for both.

Meanwhile B Company of 18 Battalion came forward and met Coleman’s party in a wadi north-east of Stalos. Coleman took

Page 266

Major Evans,53 OC B Company, to the high ground and showed him Stalos. Evans decided to attack. He set up the 3-inch mortar which the company brought and selected 11 Platoon to make the attack. The platoon took up its preliminary positions and about 11 a.m., after a bombardment by the mortar, it attacked, one section going south of the village, one north of it, and the other into the village itself.

The attack went very well and the enemy was driven out of the village, leaving behind at least five dead and two machine guns.54 One house, however, kept on holding out with a machine-gun post. As the platoon was about to deal with this one also, an order came forward from Major Evans for the platoon to withdraw; for Evans had by now come to the conclusion that the enemy in the area was about 200 strong and so too much for his force. The platoon therefore reluctantly let go its grip and fell back to its original positions.

The German 1 Engineer Company in Stalos makes much of the fighting it had that day and 11 Platoon must have given the enemy a sharp shock with its spirited assault. Nor, although he had thought it prudent to bring the platoon back, did Evans take too static a view of his role from now on. He sent a patrol round to the north-west of Stalos which had some contact with enemy parties, and it was doubtless the presence and activity of his vigorous company that made the enemy chary of any serious attempt at carrying out the original plan and cutting the coast road.

At the same time as Coleman’s party, another little force under Captain Nolan had set out from the centre group of the Composite Battalion. It met no enemy and remained forward all day, thus making a second link in the chain of outposts. The south terminal was supplied by Lieutenant Carson’s patrol, which did a good deal of skirmishing with enemy machine-gun posts before it met heavy opposition from the direction of Signal Hill, and eventually crossed the front northwards to come out on the coast road near Ay Marina. At the end of the day it returned to Composite Battalion HQ.

Back at 10 Brigade HQ Colonel Kippenberger had been able to make a tour of most of the Composite Battalion front during the morning and had been ‘forced to the reluctant conclusion that it was in no condition to meet the heavy attacks that must come soon.’55

Page 267

The battalion had been under fire from air and ground weapons for three days and had had numerous casualties without opportunity to retaliate effectively; the command organisation was too weak for the battalion to function as an effective whole; it was very short of officers and those it had were not trained for infantry fighting; the rank and file were, like their officers, mainly drawn from artillery and service units and so also lacked the background of training which would have given them confidence in the severe fighting that was imminent; and, as most of the fighting till now had been on the south of the front, they had not been able to acquire by actual experience of their own quality – for they were good material – the faith in themselves which training had not given them. So, partly because circumstances had left them too long in a passive role and partly because they were conscious of their shortcomings in infantry skill, some of the men were by this time rather dispirited.56

Kippenberger reported this state of affairs to Puttick at midday and it was decided to relieve the Composite Battalion that evening with 18 Battalion. The new arrangements were part of Operation Order No. 6 which we have already encountered in connection with the withdrawal of 5 Brigade.57 their result was that 10 Brigade now came under 4 Brigade, although Kippenberger remained in command of all the forward troops defending the Galatas line. The Composite Battalion was to withdraw to Ruin Ridge, just north-west of Galatas, and 18 Battalion was to take over the positions it vacated. South of Galatas Russell Force – the Divisional Cavalry and the Petrol Company – were to remain where they were and, with them, the Greeks under command. But the Petrol Company, which had lost many men by this time, was reinforced by a platoon of 4 Field Regiment under Lieutenant Dill – till now employed on the front of the Divisional Supply Company. Dill’s was to be a difficult assignment; for he was given the task of holding the crest of Pink Hill, which after the first day’s savage fighting had been allowed to become a no-man’s-land.

The 19th Battalion was to remain in the positions it had held throughout the battle but it reverted to the command of 4 Brigade. The machine-gun detachments also came under command and were allotted to 18 Battalion. Except for the addition of two 75s from

Page 268

5 Brigade, artillery arrangements stayed as they were, with F Troop 28 Battery giving what support it could. Kippenberger’s HQ moved to the eastern exits of Galatas, and with it Captain Forrester’s force of Greeks.

None of the new adjustments could be carried out till after dark. Till then there was the usual mortaring and strafing on the front, with an ominous increase in the former. In the south Russell Force was often engaged with enemy patrols from the Prison area and the machine guns and artillery were busy taking on enemy parties in the Prison Valley and near Signal Hill. These activities stepped up as the day went on and, in a signal from 10 Brigade to Division at 7.50 p.m., were interpreted as boding an attack next day.58

But, although 18 Battalion would not be able to relieve the Composite Battalion till after dark, preliminary reconnaissance was possible; and so during the late afternoon Brigadier Inglis and Lieutenant-Colonel Gray came forward. ‘ ... Inglis came up with his dispassionate, calm efficiency, and we sat under an olive tree with cannon and machine-gun bullets and planes flying all around us, and coolly summarised the situation.’59 Inglis foresaw that there were bound to be gaps in the defence of the long new frontage that 18 Battalion would have to hold, but thought that these could be covered by the Composite Battalion on Ruin Ridge. It could counter-attack any enemy who got through the gaps and restore the position.

Gray was disturbed about the length of his front, none the less – it was about twice the normal front of a battalion – and seems to have decided to shorten it by leaving out Ruin Hill. The result was that, when 18 Battalion moved forward at 9.45 p.m. and took over from the Composite Battalion, Ruin Hill was not included in the line. The withdrawal of the Supply Company with the rest of the Composite Battalion to Ruin Ridge left it undefended. Now that the junction of Group West and Group Centre could be no more than a matter of hours and would enable the enemy to launch a far more formidable infantry assault on the Galatas line than anything experienced so far, the consequences of leaving a vital feature unmanned were bound to be serious.

On the remainder of the Canea-Galatas front the only important developments were connected with readjustments of position. For 4 Brigade the relief of the Composite Battalion meant that 18

Page 269

Battalion was to move up to what from now on would be the main front line; but the new positions of the companies will be better dealt with under the events of 24 May.

Now that there was a prospect of the main battle coming closer to the sector held by 2/8 Australian Battalion and 2 Greek Regiment, it was felt that a more serious effort must be made to co-ordinate the activities of the troops in this area, and during 23 May a conference took place at the headquarters of the Greeks with this object. Major-General Weston, under whose command 19 Australian Brigade still was, Brigadier Vasey, Major A. S. Key, the commander of 2/8 Battalion, and presumably the Greek commander, were all present. The plan was that 2/7 Battalion, which was to return that night from Divisional Reserve to Vasey’s command, would move in on the right of 2/8 Battalion and link up with 19 NZ Battalion; 2/8 Battalion was to move forward about 1500 yards from Mournies and take up a new position, with its left flank on the northern outskirts of Pirgos and its right flank linking with 2/7 Battalion at the junction of the Prison-Canea road and the creek that ran through Pirgos. The 2nd Greek Regiment, by moving into the area of Perivolia, would extend the line south to the hills.

Clearly these new arrangements for the sector were an improvement; yet it may be regretted that they came so late and still bore a somewhat passive stamp. The sea invasion was known to have been defeated the previous morning and, although it may have been thought necessary to keep 2/7 Battalion in reserve to assist or renew the counter-attack at Maleme, a perhaps better course would have been to transfer it to the left of the Galatas-Perivolia line then. If this had been done a determined effort could have been made to clear the enemy from the general area of the Turkish fort and establish a continuous front from the left of the Divisional Cavalry.

The two Australian units duly carried out their moves, 2/8 Battalion in the late afternoon and 2/7 Battalion beginning after dark and ending after midnight. For some reason, however, 2 Greek Regiment did not move into Perivolia, perhaps because the Greeks were more intent on destroying an enemy post on their left, a task they successfully carried out during the day. For them the day closed with the return of Major Wooller from Canea, where he had been able to collect 100 rifles and 12 machine guns. In what daylight was left, the company which was to use these weapons was formed up to train for an attack next day in co-operation with the Australians on an enemy-occupied hill.

Page 270

All enemy pockets round Canea itself had by now been wiped out and so there was no fighting for the infantry under Weston. For the AA forces, however, there was plenty to do. All the guns were regrouped so as to produce an umbrella defence over Suda harbour and special arrangements were made to render concealment and surprise more effective. The enemy bombing which enforced these arrangements continued, setting fire to part of Canea and to an oil tanker in Suda Bay. Its present severity and worse to come decided Weston to move his headquarters to the area of the Sanatorium near Suda.

Retimo, Heraklion, and Creforce

At Retimo during 23 May the general situation did not greatly alter. In the eastern sector there was a truce from midday till one o’clock to allow dead and wounded to be brought in. At the end of it 70 German wounded had come in to the Australian ADS at Adhele, and about the same time a German envoy from the oil factory came forward to demand surrender on the ground that a German victory had taken place in all the other sectors. The demand was refused and the refusal emphasized by the shelling of the oil factory shortly afterwards. On the 24th there were 252 Germans in the Australian ADS.

In the western sector 2/11 Battalion beat off a German attack from Perivolia, and in a sustained attack by about fifty German aircraft two companies lost 39 men.

The enemy himself remained on the defensive and, as his aircraft landed only supplies and not reinforcements during the day, the high command evidently still thought that the main effort would prove more profitable elsewhere. And in fact, though the paratroops could no longer hope to capture the airfield, they were doing good service by containing troops which might otherwise have been used to reinforce the Canea front. For Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell’s force, cut off from Canea, were in a sense themselves beleaguered.

Although at Retimo the enemy had become reconciled to a policy of containment, at Heraklion this day’s activities suggested that his forces there might not be sufficient even for this. But reinforcements of paratroops were not yet available and only supplies could be dropped. So his main aim of depriving us of the use of the

Page 271

airfield could not be successful and, though machine guns could fire on it, a Hurricane from Egypt succeeded in landing during the early afternoon. Then in the late afternoon a further six Hurricanes appeared while a bombing raid was in progress, and a dogfight took place, after which the Hurricanes landed, four of them damaged.60

The garrison had correctly appreciated that the main threat was from the east. In the morning therefore, two companies were sent east to raid the German positions, and the guns were used to harass them. The two companies returned towards evening with the report that the enemy were not numerous but were strongly armed.

Meanwhile two tanks arrived about midday, having fought their way through from Tymbaki, and reported that 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were approaching. According to General Freyberg’s plan, both tanks were sent on to Suda Bay by lighter.

The Germans by now were showing signs of exasperation at their failure to make better progress, and at 7 p.m. sent an ultimatum which threatened the destruction of Heraklion town unless the Greeks surrendered. Although the Greek population had been somewhat affected by the bombing already endured, their leaders refused this ultimatum but took the precaution of evacuating the civilians.

Apart from these there were no other notable developments, and when the day ended the defence could at least consider that the position had not altered for the worse.

At Creforce HQ Freyberg was doing his best to keep General Wavell apprised of all developments. Even if he had not been himself aware of the importance of the battle, there was encouragement from without. The day began with a message from Mr. Churchill to the effect that the eyes of the world were on the battle and that great things turned on it. From Wavell also came cheering words: the world was being given a splendid example by the courage and resolution of Freyberg and his troops. There was evidence that the Germans themselves were meeting great difficulties, and Wavell would do and was doing his best to help the defence.

Indeed, from the time the battle had begun and it was too late to attempt more than small-scale help, a conviction of the importance

Page 272

of Crete seems to have overtaken everyone. On 21 May Churchill had told the Defence Committee that Crete should be regarded as a key post in the Mediterranean; and he judged from Freyberg’s attitude that the defence would be able to hold out if reinforcements could be landed on the south coast and if the Navy could stop a landing by sea.

As we have seen, the Navy was able to do so. But the cost had to be carefully counted and, when the Chiefs of Staff met on 22 May, Admiral Pound told their Committee that if damage continued on the same heavy scale the invasion could not be stopped. No solution seemed to offer, however, and the Chiefs of Staff decided to call on the Commanders-in-Chief Middle East for their view of the situation.

By 23 May it had become clear to the Defence Committee that the enemy had gained a foothold, and Mr. Churchill telegraphed to General Wavell that the battle must go on so as to gain time in the Western Desert. He hoped that Wavell was reinforcing the island every night to the greatest possible extent. And at other meetings the possibility of sending Beaufighters either from home waters or from Malta to the assistance of the Fleet was canvassed.

So far as Freyberg was concerned the need for air help was the most immediate. He answered Wavell’s offer of the day before to send fighters which could strafe until their petrol and ammunition were exhausted, if the situation were serious enough to warrant it, by saying that the position at Maleme was indeed serious and that all possible air help should be sent.61

Wavell responded by sending two flights, each of six Hurricanes, with orders to land at Heraklion. Of the first flight only one reached Heraklion and was destroyed, as we have seen. The rest were shot up by a British naval barrage en route, with the result that two were lost and three had to return to base. Of the other flight, four were damaged on arrival and had to return to Egypt next morning and one of the remaining two was shot up and burnt out on the ground.62

In addition to this twelve Blenheims made the long flight from the mainland in the afternoon and bombed Maleme, while a further force of Blenheims and Marylands bombed and machine-gunned it in the evening. Ten Junkers 52 were claimed destroyed and others damaged.63 But these attacks, though they were carried out with

Page 273

devotion and did their share of damage, could not have any serious effect on the land operations. Nor were the strategic attacks conducted on other nights against airfields in Greece itself likely to produce much more decisive results.

There was one other respect in which aircraft proved themselves useful, although not as useful as they might have been had our air transport been as well developed for military purposes at this stage of the war as was the enemy’s. Supplies of stores had been dropped the night before at Heraklion and at Retimo. But those for Retimo landed in the sea. By now Freyberg was seriously concerned for its situation: it was cut off by road, and a company of Rangers sent during the day from Canea had failed to get through. And so he asked the RAF to try again that night to drop stores and medical supplies.

Apart from this and the operational position, with which he kept Wavell in as full touch as bad communications and a fluid and confusing situation permitted, General Freyberg’s most anxious thoughts were given to the problem of supplies as a whole. Two messages sent on the morning of 23 May show clearly what were his difficulties.64

The first of these dealt with an inquiry from GHQ Middle East about the possibility of developing the ports in the south of Crete, defending them against the enemy air force, and using them for the landing of supplies. Freyberg pointed out in reply that there was not time to construct the facilities required for ships to be able to discharge on the quays, but that it might be possible for them to discharge by lighter if Middle East could provide the shipping, the protection against aircraft and submarines, the transport and the lighters. There were two ports that might be used in this way: Selino Kastelli (Palaiokhora) and Ay Galene. But the former was the only one with a road to the beach, and if the other were to be used four miles of road would have to be built. Again, Tymbaki could take a small discharge of tonnage during the hours of darkness; or, if the Navy thought either Sfakia Bay or Sudsuro Bay possible, motor transport could probably be got to them. In all cases the enemy’s command of the air would have to be taken into account.

Until one of these could be developed into a protected anchorage, however, General Freyberg indicated that he thought it better to go on using Suda Bay, where ships could come alongside and where anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defences already existed.

Page 274

His second message dealt with the maintenance problem more generally. Counting British troops, Greek troops, and Greek civilians together, he had 128,000 mouths to feed in the Suda Bay sector, 65,000 in the Retimo sector, and 290,000 in the sector which included Heraklion and the territory east of it; a total of nearly half a million. The only transport were the 150 15-cwt trucks, 117 carrier vehicles of miscellaneous other kinds, and seven ambulances which had to serve the whole British force, with its artillery; and a very few trucks and carts which had to serve the Greeks. And even this scanty number was continually dwindling through air attack and the lack of repair facilities.

The problem was further complicated by the state of the roads. The lateral road through Retimo and Heraklion could not be relied upon because of the enemy troops in both places. The road to Selino Kastelli was no longer open. The only other road fit for motor transport was that from Heraklion to Tymbaki and that could serve only Heraklion. To serve Suda Bay he was trying to get the road to Sfakia in a fit state. He doubted whether a road could be got through from Retimo to Ay Galene.

Thus it was clear that Suda Bay would have to go on being used at least in part; and if the southern beaches were to be used more transport would have to be provided and more lighters.

Freyberg then turned to the question of existing supplies. Suda Bay sector had rations only for 10 days, Retimo for 18 days, and Heraklion for 14 days. Even so, this assumed a reduced scale of rationing and the scale was now two-thirds. Thus early supplies were needed, and picks, shovels, and wire were also required for the preparing of defensive positions.

He concluded that, big convoys being out of the question with the enemy so strong in the air and ground defences so weak, Middle East must somehow contrive a method of supplying the island by small but frequent deliveries.

Meanwhile the Navy, as always, was doing its best to help. At eight minutes past four that morning Admiral Cunningham had decided, as we have seen, that he would have to withdraw all his naval forces to Alexandria, except Glenroy and her escort with its battalion of men from the Queen’s Royal Regiment. By daylight this policy was being put into action and all the naval forces were making southward except for 10 Destroyer Flotilla, which was searching for survivors from Fiji, and two ships from Force A 1, Jaguar and Defender, which were on their way to Suda Bay with urgently needed ammunition.

Page 275

Of the ships making their way south only 5 Destroyer Flotilla met trouble. Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling were travelling together when, at 7.55 a.m., 24 dive-bombers appeared and attacked. Kelly and Kashmir were sunk and the enemy aircraft machine-gunned the survivors swimming in the water. Undeterred, Kipling closed in to pick up survivors and, in spite of six high-level bombing attacks, got 279 aboard. She then resumed her course south and, though between 8.20 a.m. and 1 p.m. no fewer than 40 aircraft attacked her and dropped 83 bombs, by eight o’clock next morning she was 50 miles from Alexandria. There her exhausted fuel was replenished by Protector from Alexandria and she made the rest of the voyage in safety.

Jaguar and Defender reached Suda Bay without mishap and the ammunition was got ashore in the dark that night. The career of Glenroy with her reinforcements was more chequered. At 11.27 a.m. Cunningham decided that the odds in the air were too great for her and her escort and ordered her back, planning to get the reinforcements to Crete by means of the Abdiel or fast destroyers. This order was countermanded at 4.51 p.m. by the Admiralty, which urged upon Admiral Cunningham the necessity of getting the reinforcements ashore that night if possible. In the upshot, however, it became obvious that even if Glenroy did proceed she would arrive too late. Accordingly she was ordered back to Alexandria. The troops already on Crete would have to carry on for another twenty-four hours unaided.

Behind these changes of plan lay an interchange of signals between Cunningham and the Admiralty which reveals the full seriousness of the dilemma. At 1.40 p.m. Cunningham signalled that the operations of the preceding four days had been a trial of strength between the Navy and the German Air Force, and that there was nothing for it but for the Navy to admit defeat so far as the coastal area was concerned. Losses were so heavy that there could be no justification for continuing the attempt to prevent invasion by sea. The only aircraft carrier, the Formidable, could not be used because she had only five serviceable fighters, and without air cover the odds were too great.

To this the Admiralty replied that His Majesty’s Government considered success vital and that reinforcements were absolutely necessary. It was for this reason that the risk to the Glenroy would have to be accepted.

In a later message on 23 May, however, the Admiralty accepted Cunningham’s view, though not without qualification. It stressed once more the importance of the battle and said it was vital that the sea invasion should be held off for another day or two to give the Army a chance of dealing with the enemy landed by air. It

Page 276

Therefore indicated that Jaguar and Defender, when they had landed the ammunition for Suda Bay, ought to attack the shipping in Melos unless some still more important target were found at sea.

To this Cunningham replied that the withdrawal of his forces had been forced on him by the fact that all his ships were in need of refuelling and were running out of AA ammunition. Four of his six remaining cruisers were damaged and would have to be repaired, and several of the destroyers were in a similar condition. As the centre of operations was 400 miles from base at Alexandria, it was out of the question to get any powerful force there that night. The two destroyers, Jaguar and Defender, would not have time to reach Melos before daylight after they had landed their ammunition and, if they did go, would not have the fuel with which to come back. All he could do would be to order them to deal with any landing attempts near Maleme and send out another force of cruisers and destroyers from Alexandria the following day. He was also sending off some army reinforcements to Suda Bay that night by the Abdiel.

The difficulties of the Navy and its need of air cover were not lost upon Air Marshal Tedder, and during the afternoon he signalled to the Chief of Air Staff asking for the rest of the Beaufighter squadron, of which two had already arrived in an unserviceable condition. In reply the Air Ministry told him that all the Beaufighters in Malta were to be sent to Egypt and that 15 more were being sent from the United Kingdom in the next few days. They were to be used solely for the protection of the Fleet.

Tedder’s next message throws further light on the whole difficult situation. He explained that his main problem was how to provide adequate air support. His two night attempts at bombing Maleme had been ineffective because the aircraft could not tell which was friend and which was enemy. He had therefore risked day operations by sending Blenheims from the Western Desert to attack Maleme and Hurricanes to Heraklion. His two Beaufighters were covering a disabled destroyer. He was using Wellingtons for night supply, and would be attacking Scarpanto and Maleme with them that night.

But, the Fleet being withdrawn, the enemy could now use ships by day and there was little hope that the Blenheims could stop them. He would have to concentrate what force he had against troops being landed or already there, and the outlook was not bright. For the few sorties that the Hurricanes might make from Heraklion would be costly, while Blenheims or Marylands operating from North Africa were at the limit of their range. The only fighters

Page 277

with the requisite range were Beaufighters, and when he got those promised he proposed to use them primarily to cover the Fleet but also to attack air and sea transport. Even so, this meant switching almost the whole of his effort in the air from the Western Desert to Crete.

It will be seen from all this what difficulties faced General Wavell in carrying out his instructions to reinforce the island. The day ended with his hoping to land two commando battalions that night at Selino Kastelli and have them marched over the hills to the north. The prospect for a solution of General Freyberg’s difficulties was not bright.