Chapter 7: The Fifth Day: 24 May
The Canea–Galatas Front
In the course of 23 May the enemy had become still stronger. His priority had been artillery rather than infantry, and I and II Batteries of 95 Mountain Artillery Regiment, with 95 Anti-Tank Battalion (twenty 50-millimetre guns, of which eight were motorised), were brought over; 55 Motor Cycle Battalion had also arrived. And in the evening of the same day ‘the long awaited transfer of fighters to Maleme airfield could take place.’1
During 23 May, also, General Ringel had made sure that his writ would run with Colonel Heidrich by promulgating an order to the effect that from now on West and Centre Groups were both under his command and would be known collectively as Ringel Group. In spite of his gathering strength, however, his orders for 24 May, issued at 8 p.m. on 23 May, were not notably enterprising. Although in his opinion the defence had only ‘a handful of well-placed infantry in his forward line’,2 Ringel laid it down that his group would do no more than secure the positions it had already reached, pushing forward level with Platanias on the left flank and centre and on the right thrusting towards the Canea–Alikianou road and the Galatas heights in order to make a final junction with Heidrich’s 3 Parachute Regiment.
Thus Ramcke Group would keep the positions it had already reached and patrol south-east towards Stalos. Colonel Utz with his three mountain battalions would advance astride the Canea–Alikianou road until he reached the high ground near Galatas. He would keep two of his battalions north of the road and one south of it, and would leave a protecting force near Alikianou. He would make contact with Heidrich’s force at Stalos and south of Galatas.
The two batteries of 95 Artillery Regiment and the two batteries of parachute artillery, grouped under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Wittmann, were to give their main support to Ramcke
Group and help him deal with any counter-attacks; but they were also to give all possible help to Colonel Utz.
In the rear, 95 Engineer Battalion was to take Kastelli3 and the newly arrived 55 Motor Cycle Battalion, with two troops from 95 Anti-Tank Battalion, was to go south through Kandanos and take Palaiokhora. The remainder of the anti-tank battery would be under divisional command.4
The support of dive-bombers for the main fronts was being asked for and Utz would also be getting a troop of heavy infantry guns. Meanwhile reconnaissance was to be carried out all over the front, and particularly on the south flank, to see if any gaps could be found in the defences.
The fact that 5 Brigade had withdrawn during the night enabled this programme to be improved upon to some extent. Patrols from Ramcke Group were sent out during the morning towards the high ground at Platanias and reported ‘weak enemy forces’ which withdrew when the patrols approached. Captain Gericke and a paratroop force then went forward through Platanias and Ay Marina to link up with any of 100 Mountain Regiment or 3 Parachute Regiment they might find there. Once this was done Colonel Ramcke was able to regroup his forces, this being his first opportunity of doing so. Reorganised, his group consisted of Gericke Battalion (three strong companies), Stentzler Battalion (four strong companies), Stolz Battalion (two strong companies), and an anti-tank troop with six 50-millimetre guns and twenty machine guns.
Meanwhile in the centre II Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, had joined up with Heilmann’s battle group in Stalos, the coast road had been blocked, and patrols were being sent west towards Galatas. By the end of the day Utz had established his HQ near Lake Aghya power station; II Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, was in the area north of Troulous; and I Battalion was near Point 116 (Ruin Hill). I Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment had reverted to regimental command as Colonel Krakau, the commander of the regiment, had landed in the early morning and III Battalion during the day. A fresh battle group was to be formed from these two battalions, but meanwhile I Battalion was to remain at Episkopi and protect the south flank – a task the more necessary because patrols had reported that Alikianou was held and that advance farther south was blocked.
While the enemy was making these cautious forward movements, the New Zealand units had been resorting themselves. When the morning came the units of 5 Brigade were back in Divisional Reserve: Brigade HQ was south of the main road about half a mile east of Evthymi, and 23 Battalion was in the same area. North of the road was 21 Battalion. The 28th Battalion had spent the last part of the night close to the main road, but moved half-way through the morning to a position between 23 Battalion and 2/7 Australian Battalion. Cheering news for Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer and his Maoris was a message from General Freyberg that he intended to inform New Zealand of ‘their splendid conduct and dash during the operations of the last few days.’5
The 22nd Battalion, in the fork of the Prison–Canea and Maleme– Canea roads, had the task of protecting Divisional HQ, and nearby was the Engineer Detachment.
In these new positions the battalions were to reorganise and to be ready by 8 p.m. to take up any one of four possible roles: anti-parachutist, beach protection, counter-attack, or defence in the line. The day was therefore a busy one for unit commanders and the rest the men had looked forward to only relative. It was at last possible to draw rations, but they were not plentiful and it was forbidden to light fires.6
During the morning the Engineer Detachment was savagely strafed. Shortly after this the detachment was split. By Puttick’s orders 19 Army Troops Company came under command of 19 Australian Brigade and moved to the Perivolia area; 7 Field Company was put under 4 Brigade and given a reserve position in support of 20 Battalion. The going of these two units was warmly regretted by 5 Brigade which had had good reason to appreciate their fighting qualities. ‘they had been an excellent fighting unit under Ferguson. Whenever I passed through their area, which was quite often, there was no restlessness. They were solid. They went out and dealt with the enemy without asking if they had to, did the job and then reported what they had done.’7
The other ad hoc infantry unit which had served 5 Brigade well was the Field Punishment Centre, prisoners and guards alike. But the unit was by now dissolved. The sight of their own units in the withdrawal had been too tempting for the men. They had one by
one slipped away and, back with their own battalions, they could be sure of a welcome and not too many questions.8
For the remains of 27 Battery the pause meant reorganisation. After seeing his guns out of Ay Marina, Captain Snadden had been ordered to hospital by Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt to have his four wounds attended to. Lieutenant Gibson9 then took over the troop and was told to get his two guns into a position from which they could support 4 Brigade. He spent 24 May and part of the evening reconnoitring sites and getting his guns to them. One gun he placed between Galatas village and the turn-off and the other on the coast road about a mile west of the turn-off. A truck had to be borrowed to tow them in and it was late at night before all was ready. ‘Tired as they were,’ says Gibson, ‘the men did not have to be told to dig in. Experience is the best teacher and by the first streaks of daylight slit trenches had been dug and the guns had been dug in and camouflaged.’10
The battery itself was under the command of Captain Beaumont who had taken over from the wounded Major Philp. From the gunners not employed with Gibson’s two guns – the only guns left in the battery – Beaumont was ordered to provide crews for six Breda heavy machine guns which were to be distributed in twos to 4, 5, and 19 Brigades. The crews were duly formed and sent off. The rest of the gunners were formed into an infantry detachment under Beaumont and put under command of 20 Battalion.
Captain Duigan of 28 Battery now took under his command C Troop 2/3 Australian Field Regiment (Captain Laybourne-Smith), and its four Italian 75s were sited that night just east of the road from Galatas to the coast, not far from one of Gibson’s guns, with an observation post near that of F Troop on the right front of 18 Battalion. The three 75s of Duigan’s own F Troop also moved during the night to fresh fire positions some 300 yards north of the original site, which had become exposed to the enemy’s view from ground and air; a fire the previous afternoon, started by burning propellant charges, had swept the surrounding trees clear of cover.
The detachments of 27 MG Battalion which had served with 5 Brigade now had no guns. Some of the men saw action during the day with 4 Brigade, but late that night Captain Grant got them
all together – 45 men all told – and they were attached for the time being to Divisional Signals so that Brigadier Hargest could keep in touch with them. Two guns and some ammunition were expected to be available next day.
Owing to the cautious character of General Ringel’s plans, the enemy put in no serious attacks on 19 Australian Brigade’s front on 24 May. No doubt it was felt to be imprudent to press too hard on this flank while Galatas was still held. The two Australian battalions, however, did not feel compelled to wait for an enemy initiative and they did a good deal of patrolling and had some minor skirmishes in consequence. The 2/8 Battalion was treated to some bombing and strafing and had 16 casualties. In the lulls from this the battalion commander modified his company positions to tactical advantage. And by the end of the day the battalion had acquired some home-made base-plates for its mortars and an Italian machine gun – presumably one of Beaumont’s Bredas.
This battalion also provided covering fire for the local attack by 2 Greek Regiment against two hills near the Turkish fort. The attack went in at 5.30 a.m., two companies strong. The left-hand company gained the lower slopes of its objective but the right-hand company was less successful. Fighting was very fierce and many Germans were killed by Greek grenades and bayonets. Greek casualties were also severe. At five o’clock that evening there was still fighting going on; but Major Wooller and the Greek commander decided that it was too late for success any longer to be hoped for and they withdrew the two companies.11
Fourth Brigade had its new role laid down in a brigade operation order issued at 12.50 that morning. It was to be in its defensive line by 5 a.m., with 18 Battalion on the right and, under 18 Battalion command, a two-pounder from 106 RHA and six medium machine guns. In the centre were the Composite Battalion, stepped back from the front line after its relief by 18 Battalion, and the Divisional Cavalry. On the left was 19 Battalion with the other two-pounder. The 20th Battalion was in reserve and its primary task was to counter-attack in support of 19 Battalion.
For artillery support the brigade had the two guns of C Troop, three guns of F Troop, and the four guns of C Troop 2/3 Field
Regiment. This was meagre for a front which was now the main one. But there were no more guns to be had, and infantry and gunners alike had by now come to accept a shortage of weapons and ammunition as an inevitable feature of the battle.
A word may be said about the system of command. Brigadier Inglis, as commander of 4 Brigade, was in command of the front. He decided to keep his HQ back near the Galatas turn-off, whence he would be able to control the movement of reinforcement and keep a special eye on the north sector of the front. Colonel Kippenberger he left forward in the Galatas area as a sub-area commander, instead of returning him to the command of 20 Battalion. The reason for this was his desire to have a strong commander on the spot to look after the Composite Battalion and co-ordinate its actions with those of the other units. ‘In the result I think this compromise worked as well as any other that
would have been practicable under the circumstances – mainly because Kippenberger and I had complete confidence in each other.’12
The frontage held by 18 Battalion at first light on 24 May extended from the coast to Wheat Hill and excluded, for the reason already explained, Ruin Hill. D Company held the right flank as far south as the northern slopes of Red Hill; C Company was in the centre from Red Hill to the northern slopes of Wheat Hill; Wheat Hill itself was held by A Company. B Company, which had come in from its forward patrol late the night before, was in reserve behind D Company, and Headquarters Company was also in reserve in the same area.
When daylight revealed it clearly to them, the defenders could not have relished the new situation. Wheat Hill was partly overlooked by the undefended Ruin Hill, and Red Hill completely so. This would have been bad enough even in a well-dug position. But the weapon pits which the companies inherited and which had been dug long before the evacuation from Greece were of an old-fashioned type, about six feet wide and, as the Composite Battalion had already found, very vulnerable to mortars. While it was still dark the company commanders had set their men to work trying to improve them, but what the Composite Battalion with more time had not been able to effect 18 Battalion could not do in the space of a very few hours. The position had to be accepted for what it was, although there was some resiting of section posts during the morning.
There were other shortcomings. The front, some 2500 yards, was poorly wired and in such close country it was too long even for a full-strength battalion. For a weak and partially equipped battalion, with bad communications and the slenderest artillery support, its length was a particularly serious difficulty. In addition, the area in front could not be easily swept with fire. The ground was too broken, and the frequent olive trees and vineyards gave cover for advancing infantry and restricted the defence to very short fields of fire. Nor was the length of front and the consequent opportunity for infiltration compensated for by depth; for the defence had to be stretched to cover the front even as well as it did. Finally, the fact that Ruin Hill overlooked so much of the line made it difficult for runners to keep touch between companies and platoons – although, to begin with at least, there was telephone communication between companies and Battalion HQ.
On the rest of the front the situation was much what it had been before. The Petrol Company was still on the lower slopes of Pink Hill, supported by Lieutenant Dill’s platoon of gunners
on the crest. Left again was the Divisional Cavalry and left of the Cavalry four companies of 19 Battalion – D, C, A, and HQ Companies in that order – facing south-west and south towards the Prison–Canea road.
The Composite Battalion was by now back on Ruin Ridge, north of Galatas. The 6th Greek Regiment, with several officers and about 360 men, was disposed about Galatas, though about sixty Greeks under Lieutenant Michel had remained in the line with the Divisional Cavalry. The 20th Battalion had moved in the early hours of the morning to a position east of the road from the coast to Karatsos and was in reserve there.
Morning on the brigade front was one of great tension and feverish preparation for what was expected to be a formidable onslaught and one that would come soon. Air attacks were frequent, mortaring and machine-gun fire increased throughout the day, and there was a good deal of movement to be seen in both the Prison area and that of the coast road. At 10.50 a.m. Division warned the brigades that the enemy had light armoured vehicles and ordered road blocks with anti-tank mines to be established. And 18 Battalion saw what seemed to be tanks, but were more probably gun tractors, coming down the road from Maleme. Enemy parties were also seen from time to time on the high ground to the front and were dispersed by artillery fire.
There were two false alarms during the morning. The Petrol Company was reported to be in trouble, and Captain Bliss’s group was ordered to the rescue but found all comparatively quiet.13 A similar disturbance resulted in the Supply Company being sent out to counter-attack past Wheat Hill. Again no enemy was met with. Some of the Supply Company, seeing Ruin Hill undefended, went forward to reoccupy it but were called back. Both these alarms probably had their origins in enemy probing patrols.
Air attacks shortly after midday were so heavy that they seemed to be the prelude to the ground assault, and once an attack was thought to be developing up the road from the Prison; but the time passed and the expected did not happen.
Afternoon came and went in the same uneasy fashion. The first result of this enemy preparation was a strong probe about two o’clock at the southern end of the 18 Battalion line. No attack developed from it, however, and it was beaten off by mortar fire.
Then, about four o’clock, the enemy came forward in a more determined fashion, after artillery preparation by 95 Artillery Regiment, which had settled itself in round Platanias and Ay Marina, and under cover of heavy machine-gun fire from Ruin
Hill where I Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment had established posts. This particular action is probably the one described in 5 Mountain Division war diary as ‘a reconnaissance in force’. The pressure was so heavy on Red Hill and the positions of C Company were so exposed that at one point the forward sections had to fall back.
As soon as Gray heard of this local withdrawal he at once called up a platoon of B Company from reserve and took it forward, only to find that the enemy had already withdrawn. No doubt fire from the flanks of the gap had made their situation too uncomfortable and they had recalled that their role was after all one of reconnaissance. At all events they reported back that Galatas was strongly defended and as a result, with the approval of General Ringel, Colonel Utz decided that the assault would have to be deferred till next day after ‘a thorough softening up by Stukas.’14
A second episode of a similar type took place at dusk in the same area. There is no entry in the enemy reports to account for it, but it was presumably a reconnaissance in force also and intended to amplify information already obtained.15 This time C Company again gave ground and Gray again sent in a counter-attack. The transport platoon of Headquarters Company under Second-Lieutenant Copeland16 carried this out, aiming not merely at the recapture of lost positions but at the seizure of an outlying feature of Red Hill which had not been included in the defensive system but which was now seen to be essential. The platoon was successful, and by midnight the whole of Red Hill was again in the hands of 18 Battalion.
Meanwhile, however, Gray had realised the implications of his failure to man Ruin Hill. He now decided that the enfilading fire from this feature would make Red Hill itself untenable in the face of the serious assault that was bound to come. Accordingly, he rearranged his dispositions so as to hold a line just east of Red Hill while making the hill itself untenable to the enemy. B Company, one of the reserve companies, he moved onto the north end of Murray Hill – the next ridge to the east – and its three platoons, 5, 10, and 11, were put on the forward slopes. C Company he moved back to the south end of Murray Hill between 10 Platoon of B Company at the south end and 5 and 11 Platoons at the north end. D Company stood fast in its original positions
from the coast to the church near Ay Dhimitrios. A Company also stayed where it was in the Wheat Hill area. And Headquarters Company, now the only company in reserve, was disposed to the east of Murray Hill. The main result of this was that Red Hill was no longer defended except by fire.
When the attack on Red Hill had first begun Gray had called on Colonel Kippenberger for assistance. Kippenberger replied by sending the gunners still under Captain Bliss and Captain Boyce’s Supply Company group.
Bliss’s gunners had been organised into two companies, one under Captain Nolan and the other under Captain Kissel.17 Of Nolan’s company only one platoon – Lieutenant MacLean’s – was available, the others being in the line on the right of the Divisional Petrol Company where they had been put during the morning. Kissel had two platoons, the third – Lieutenant Dill’s – being on Pink Hill between the Divisional Cavalry and the Petrol Company.
MacLean’s platoon reached Lieutenant-Colonel Gray during the evening and was at first placed in the gully behind Red Hill but, when the positions were readjusted, was fitted into the right of C Company on Murray Hill and just in the rear of 5 Platoon B Company. By this time Kissel’s two platoons had arrived; one of them was placed on Ruin Ridge with the Composite Battalion while the other went into reserve near 18 Battalion HQ. Bliss himself became second-in-command B Company.18
With the exception of MacLean’s platoon, all these gunners arrived and had to be posted in the dark; and the same was true of Boyce’s Divisional Supply Company. This also was split: a detachment of about 16 men under Lieutenant Rawle19 had already moved into position on Murray Hill at 2 a.m., an hour before they were joined by 11 Platoon of B Company; the remainder of Boyce’s men reinforced C Company.
Thus fitted after a patchwork manner into the line, these reinforcements tried to use the very little time that was left to get some sleep. It was nearly dawn, they were exhausted after the urgent confusions of the night, they mostly had no trenches or tools with which to dig them, they were not trained infantrymen, and there had been no time for them to learn much of the situation to their front or on their flanks. Yet, though they had five hard days behind them and days that looked no more promising to come,
They took what sleep they could and prepared stoically enough for another battle.
Elsewhere on the Galatas line there was no important action and the enemy contented himself with minor patrols. All was set for the next day’s fighting, the enemy clear about his own plans for an attack in the 18 Battalion sector, and the defence foreseeing it but unable to do more than what has already been recounted.
To Brigadier Puttick, although the day had been got through without a major attack, the situation could not have seemed cheerful. The enemy was now at liberty to land as many men and supplies from his relatively unlimited resources in Greece as he had aircraft to carry; and his troops already on the ground west of Canea were free to join forces and to concentrate against a single front in what might prove overwhelming force. Puttick, on the other hand, was running short of ammunition – the 72 three-inch mortar bombs which were all he had left were distributed that day – and only small-arms ammunition was reasonably plentiful; he had lost two and a half troops of guns in the withdrawal; he was bedevilled by bad communications – to his rear the enemy bombing constantly cut the lines and kept the signals units busy with mend and makeshift answers to recurring emergencies, and the bridge on the coast road out of Canea had been made impassable to heavy traffic. But worst of all was the fact that his fighting units were being steadily depleted by the casualties of each day’s fighting and there was no way of making good the losses. The total of killed, wounded, and missing was already 20 per cent of the divisional strength and a much higher percentage of the strength of each fighting battalion.20
In addition, the tactical situation was not one that promised much rest or relief even for units not now in the line. A message sent by Division to the three brigades at 7.45 p.m. sufficiently sets the tone:
Owing to possible difficulty of communications during an enemy attack comd Cake [4 Brigade] may call on Wuna [5 Brigade] to send Bena [23 Battalion] to replace Oggu [20 Battalion] in the event of its being necessary to employ Oggu. Bena will make the necessary recces forthwith. Kela [28 Battalion] will recce with a view to counter attack Southwards on front Ruck [19 Brigade] under orders Duke [NZ Division].21
In Suda Area command the ground fighting was now over; the air attack, on the other hand, had been stepped up to a furious maximum, with heavy bombers flying over Canea in swarms and reducing the town to a flaming ruin.
The fact that the main battle was now on the Galatas line made it obvious that the defence of Suda Area must be rearranged to take account of this. That the threat was from the west was all too plain. Accordingly, a second defensive line was formed along the line of the river which runs south through Mournies. On the right of this line were the Royal Perivolians, at the confluence of the two streams north-east of Platanos; in the centre was S Searchlight Battery of the Royal Marines; round Mournies was 2/2 Australian Field Regiment; and in reserve at the W/T station was 106 RHA with 250 riflemen.22 This mixed force, about 2000 strong, was put under command of Lieutenant-Colonel A. F. Hely, RHA, and known as Suda Brigade.
At the same time it was still felt that General Freyberg should have some reserve which was not committed to any specific defensive role, and so 1 Welch, 1 Rangers, and Northumberland Hussars were withdrawn into Force Reserve.
Other Fronts and Creforce
May the 24th was to be the last day of the defence of Kastelli, and so it seems proper to resume here the account of the isolated force of 1 Greek Regiment and Major Bedding’s party of New Zealanders, whom we left on 20 May triumphant over Lieutenant Muerbe’s detachment of parachutists and in full control of the immediate front.23
At the end of that first day’s fighting Bedding had 28 prisoners on his hands, 15 of them wounded. Because of the angry bearing of the Greeks he had to place guards from his own men over the Germans, whom he put in the local jail, and make careful arrangements that they got fed.
These arrangements settled, he could turn to his other problem – communications. Telephone lines had been cut and he was troubled about what course he should next pursue. In the meantime, however, there was nothing for it but to distribute captured weapons and
continue clearing the area. At least the first day had been satisfactory enough.
On 21 May there was still no news except what meagre information could be gleaned from the BBC. Bedding pondered whether the best course might not be to make for Maleme with one battalion of Greeks, leaving the other to guard Kastelli. But one battalion might not be enough for this latter purpose which was, after all, his prime task. And it seemed risky to chance the long march under hostile aircraft to Maleme without knowing what his tired and ill-equipped battalion would have to face when it got there. He therefore decided to stay where he was and prepare his defences to meet an attack from the east as the most probable quarter. Accordingly he arranged for night patrols west of the town, disposed his men and weapons as effectively as he could, reduced the ration scale, and settled down to wait for attack. An attempt on the part of Sergeant Adams,24 Corporal Friend,25 and two Cretans to make contact with Canea that night by caique failed
when the rudder was lost and the party was forced to return – perhaps luckily as, with the Navy about, it was not good for caiques to be at sea in the dark.
Till now the enemy had been mainly interested in clearing the road to Palaiokhora against the possibility of reinforcement reaching that port; so far as Kastelli was concerned he seems to have felt that he was not strong enough to try to clear it and must in any case concentrate against Maleme. The responsibility of covering the road from Kastelli to Maleme had been left to a company of 95 Engineer Battalion and some paratroops about 70 strong. And these forces were too weak to attempt an assault.
By 23 May, however, it had become plain that if a port was to be got for landing armour it would have to be Kastelli. By this time, too, the enemy felt himself able to divert a force strong enough to take it. The 95th Engineer Battalion was therefore ordered to go to a point about seven kilometres east of the town and join the paratroops there. A troop of anti-tank guns would be sent to reinforce them as soon as 95 Anti-Tank Battalion arrived. Some heavy machine guns would also be sent. The attack would begin on 24 May and would be preceded by a dive-bombing at 9.30 a.m.
The dive-bombing duly occurred and was lucky enough to hit Major Bedding’s HQ. In the excitement of the raid the Greek guards, who had by now relieved the New Zealanders, took cover and the German prisoners escaped and procured weapons. As Bedding and Second-Lieutenant Baigent26 were leaving their HQ to rally the Greek troops against the attack to which they guessed this bombing was a prelude, they were surprised and captured by the escaped prisoners. When this was discovered by Lieutenants Campbell27 and Yorke28 they organised a rescue attempt. The attempt failed and Campbell was killed.
The enemy on the ground had followed up the dive-bombing. By midday they had reached the outskirts of the town and by the middle of the afternoon had taken it, thus thwarting an attempt on the part of Bedding to persuade his present captors and former prisoners that their best course was to surrender.
In this engagement the enemy, without stating their own losses, claim to have inflicted casualties of over 200 killed and wounded,
and so the Greeks, though ill-armed and ill-trained, must have fought bravely.
Fighting continued just beyond the town, according to German sources, for at least two more days, denying the enemy the use of the jetty, and fierce and fiercely resented guerrilla warfare was maintained in the neighbourhood until even later. The Germans concentrated on getting the port clear for shipping but it was not until 27 May that they were able to land some light tanks. The importance of this delay for the defence of Crete is obvious.
May the 24th brought no major change on the Retimo front. For the defence it was a disappointing day. A company of Rangers, which General Freyberg had sent the day before from Canea in an attempt to make contact, attacked the German forces round Perivolia from the west at dawn but, being few and without heavy weapons, failed to break through, and finally returned to Canea. The 2/11 Battalion and the Greeks had planned to attack these same positions from the east in the afternoon with the support of a tank. But the tank was used in the morning to hold back an enemy move south-west from the oil factory and the driver was wounded. Without its support an infantry attack seemed useless, and so there was nothing for it but to postpone action till the following day.
At Retimo the enemy air force had done no more than drop supplies and strafe. But Heraklion was thought important enough for more active measures. The appearance of the Hurricanes the previous day had caused some alarm, and further steps were now taken to deny us the use of the aerodrome. A battalion was organised from the parties of 7 Air Division which had for one reason or another not so far been sent to Crete. It consisted of two heavy companies and two rifle companies. Heraklion town was bombed in the early morning and intermittently throughout the day – no doubt in reprisal for the rejected ultimatum. After the bombing began the fresh troops which had been raised, along with their supplies, began dropping west of the town about eight o’clock in the morning. The main body arrived just as 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were trying to fight their way in from the south. In consequence the Highlanders failed to get to the garrison and had to withdraw.
In his main object the enemy was frustrated. The new arrivals had been intended to reinforce the enemy west of the town and then close on the group to the east of the airfield. But the junction could not be effected.
Freyberg’s messages to Middle East Headquarters for 24 May show that in spite of bad communications Creforce was still in a position to give a fairly accurate picture of the situation in the various sectors. He was still in touch with Heraklion by cable and so was able to report the fresh landings and the failure of 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to get through. To Retimo there was only communication by wireless and this was handicapped by the absence of codes; but his report to Middle East on the day’s operations shows that the wireless was still operating well enough for him to be kept informed of the difficulties there. With the western/sector he was naturally in more immediate touch and his reports to General Wavell make it clear that, while the day’s operations had brought no major change, he was well aware of the trial to come. And all his messages stress the ferocity of air attack on the front line and on Canea and its environs.
One message in particular sets out to give Wavell a clear idea of the whole position.29 It assesses the total casualties of the defence in all sectors at 1909 and explains that three-quarters of these had been inflicted on the New Zealand Division. The total of enemy losses he calculated at 3340, more than a thousand being killed. But, though the enemy’s losses were thus so much higher, he pointed out that his own men were very tired and that the scale of air attack was far greater than anything he had ever visualised. He did not believe that the enemy would ever again use his parachutists in a similar operation.30 But the battle continued and a further attack was to be expected in which the enemy would use heavy bombs to try and blast his way through. Tired though they were, the troops could be counted on to do their best; but the result would be in the balance and any help that could be given to reduce the enemy’s air superiority would be of the greatest value.
Some help in the air did come and on that day. Five Hurricanes operating from North Africa with extra fuel tanks attacked enemy positions at Heraklion, and that night an attack was made on Maleme by eight Wellingtons. But, however successful such attacks might be, they were on too small a scale to affect the enemy’s control of the air or to interfere seriously with his plans.
There was hope, too, of land reinforcement. The 16th Infantry Brigade HQ and 2 Queen’s had, it is true, turned back to Alexandria the day before. But it was now planned to send Layforce, a commando brigade of two battalions under Colonel R. E. Laycock. The major part of the force embarked on Isis, Hero, and Nizam,
which left Alexandria at 9.30 a.m. The rest of the force, about 200 strong, embarked on Abdiel. The original plan was for this force to be landed at Kastelli. When Freyberg learnt of this he at once signalled that Kastelli might now be in enemy hands and that, even if it were not, there was little prospect of Layforce being able to join up with the main front. He suggested instead a landing at Sfakia. In the end the main body tried to land on the south coast and, foiled by bad weather, had to return to Alexandria. The Abdiel party landed late that night at Suda.
Freyberg’s private view of the situation at this time was even grimmer than these sober messages suggest. ‘At this stage I was quite clear in my own mind that the troops would not be able to last much longer against a continuation of the air attacks which they had had during the previous five days. The enemy bombing was accurate and it was only a question of time before our now shaken troops must be driven out of positions they occupied. The danger was quite clear. We were gradually being driven back on our Base areas, the loss of which would deprive us of our food and ammunition. If this heavy air attack continued it would not be long before we were driven right off our meagre food and ammunition resources. I really knew at this time that there were two alternatives, defeat in the field and capture or withdrawal. Without tools, artillery and transport we could not readjust our rearward defences.’31
To the Chiefs of Staff in London, waiting for a general appreciation from Wavell, it was still possible to take a rosier view, and they telegraphed to the Commanders-in-Chief that if only we could hold out the enemy’s drive might yet drag to a halt. They therefore urged the sending of the maximum amount of reinforcement.32
Meanwhile, however, General Wavell was sending the expected appreciation which was not to reach its destination till early the following morning. In this message Wavell explained that Suda Bay was essential both to us and the enemy and that therefore our main object was to prevent its falling into enemy hands. He estimated the enemy forces in the area west of Canea at one airborne division and about 3000 paratroops. Our own forces in the area were roughly equal in numbers but were under considerable strain and very tired. The enemy had control of the air and could support his ground forces by continuous and heavy bombing. The
only immediate prospect of reinforcing the defence was to land about 500 commandos on the south coast that night.33
The administrative situation also was unsatisfactory. There was only about ten day’s supply left of standard rations, though of some items there was supply for a longer period. And there were similar shortages in ammunition, tools, and medical supplies. So long as the enemy’s control of the air remained what it was, these supplies could be replenished only by fast ships at night.
On the other hand the enemy was also in administrative difficulties. He had little or no land transport and had lost a good many of his transport aircraft. Unless he could take Suda Bay and use it as a supply base, his situation was bound to become very awkward. If he took it, however, we should ourselves be deprived of our chief supply port and, although it would be possible for us to withdraw on to Retimo and Heraklion, we should in the end run out of supplies and ammunition and be forced to the difficult and dangerous resort of evacuation.
Meanwhile the Navy could not operate in the Aegean by day and the RAF could hardly hope, if the enemy began to supply his forces by sea, to stop him doing so. We should be able to continue the defence only if we could prevent the enemy exploiting our situation by making other landings, if we could reinforce our troops already there, and if we could avoid giving further ground. At least the vital importance of the island was realised and the Commanders-in-Chief thought themselves justified in using forces from elsewhere, not excepting the Western Desert, in its defence.34
The fact that in the contest between the German Air Force and the Navy the ships had been worsted and had had heavy losses was reflected in the reduced scale of the Fleet’s Aegean activities. The only ships abroad on 24 May on business connected with Crete were Abdiel, Isis, Hero and Nizam. And of these only the first succeeded, as we have seen, in landing her quota of troops, supplies, and ammunition. If the Commander-in-Chief was right in thinking that the defence depended on our ability to reinforce, the situation was far from promising. But already, in fact, events in Crete itself were moving at too fast a pace. If a large enough body of reinforcements had been available on this night, if there had been ships to transport them and the harbour to take them, it might still have been possible to rush them up to the line. It was the last opportunity.