Chapter 11: Withdrawal and Evacuation
The Ninth Day: 28 May
There was jubilation at General Ringel’s HQ on the evening of 27 May and no great disposition to examine the claims of the forward troops too narrowly. Indeed the advance had been considerable: Canea was in Ringel’s hands and Suda, in effect cut off, would soon be his also. Even discounting the claims made by Ringel on behalf of 85 Mountain Regiment to have taken Armenoi, Megala Khorafia and Stilos, and to have reached Neon Khorion, I Battalion had got its main body very close to the Stilos turn-off and II Battalion was established on Point 444, about three miles east of the road running south to Stilos. There may even be some foundation for the more forward claims: a member of Colonel Laycock’s staff reports that while D Battalion was lying up on the main road short of the Stilos turn-off about a company of enemy appeared and, after some fighting, made off again.1 But it seems unlikely that any but the smallest patrols could have got across the Stilos road or to Neon Khorion on that crowded day without being observed.
However that may be, the pursuit was now on and Ringel determined at once to exploit the day’s successes and hasten to the relief of Retimo and Heraklion. He does not yet seem to have realised that these two objects were not identical. For his orders for 28 May were: ‘Ringel Gp will pursue the enemy eastwards through Retimo to Heraklion without a pause. First objective Retimo and the relief of the paratroops fighting there.’
He designed to carry out this intention with his freshest forces. Heidrich’s paratroops were given the relatively easy task of clearing the Akrotiri Peninsula – where the cut-off troops the previous day had made the enemy fight for his progress – and then taking over its coastal defence. Ramcke’s paratroops were to clear Canea and then take over coastal defence as far as Maleme.
For the main pursuit as he saw it, Ringel formed an advance guard under Lieutenant-Colonel Wittmann, commander of 95 Artillery Regiment. It was to consist of the greater part of 95 Motor Cycle Battalion, 95 Reconnaissance Unit, two troops of 95 Anti-Tank Battalion, some mobile artillery and motorised engineers. This force was to be ready to move off before dawn and its task was to drive through to Retimo and thence to Heraklion. Detachments to protect the right flank were to be left west of Alikambos and at Episkopi.
The 85th Mountain Regiment was to push across the road south of the Stilos turn-off and go on via Armenoi and Episkopi to Retimo; 141 Mountain Regiment, with a third battalion which had arrived from Greece that day, was to go via Kalami and Vamos towards Retimo, and 100 Mountain Regiment was to follow. But at Alikambos and Episkopi it was to relieve the flank guards and take over the protection of the whole area to the west and south of Cape Dhrapanon. It was also to clear the road from Armenoi as far as Sfakia and Porto Loutro.
The importance of Ringel’s failure to appreciate the direction of the withdrawal needs no underlining. Had he realised that General Freyberg’s main force was already moving south towards Sfakia, he could easily have brought strong forces to bear and still spared enough to get through to Retimo. But the enemy’s military intelligence throughout this campaign was conspicuously bad, and he must have been to some extent misled by the constant overestimate of opposition that his battalion commanders’ reports contain. Even so, it is surprising that with complete command of the air he was not better informed. No doubt the practice our troops had gained in both Greece and Crete at speedy disappearances from the roads when aircraft were heard, and their compulsory habit of making main moves at night, made it more difficult for the enemy reconnaissance planes than might have seemed possible.
At all events the success of the evacuation was to owe much to Ringel’s faulty intelligence service and his tendency to over-caution – a tendency criticised by General Student.2
It will be remembered that the most northerly troops by the morning of 28 May were the rearguard detachments at Beritiana: the Maori force under Captain Royal, consisting of A and B Companies of 28 Battalion and, with their 130 men, about the strength of one strong company; and the party from Layforce.
According to Colonel Young this was E Company, the Spanish Company, of Layforce.
The commandos, whom Captain Royal found at Beritiana when he arrived, were guarding a road bridge and the high ground west of it. Royal decided to leave them in position, and as he had little doubt that the whole force would sooner or later be cut off and surrounded he arranged an all-round defence, putting one of his companies on the high ground east of the road and the other to cover the southern flank of the whole position. These arrangements were complete before dawn.
About 5 a.m. The Canadian captain who commanded the Layforce detachment reported that ‘the Spanish element’, about sixty men, had disappeared.3 Royal therefore sent his reserve, two platoons of B Company under Second-Lieutenant Pene,4 to replace them.
Hardly was this move complete when a general attack was made against the front. From their positions on the height the Maoris could see that the road from Suda Bay was ‘lined with enemy transport and troops, light armoured vehicles and field guns.’5 This was Wittmann’s advance guard and 95 Reconnaissance Unit which had been ordered to clear the pass. But there was another danger farther south. I Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment had sent a company across the road and round the rear of the Maori position to capture the bridge at Kalami, while the main body of the battalion came out on the Stilos road about two miles to the south.
After the fighting had been going on for some time the Canadian captain and a runner came to report that the rest of his detachment had fallen back.6 This had taken place after the enemy had laid down a heavy fire from guns and mortars. The enemy followed up, driving down the road towards Stilos and capturing a number of commandos on the way.7 At about the same time an enemy company was seen making its way down the Kofliaris Valley towards Stilos – most likely a company of 95 Reconnaissance Unit sent to outflank the Maoris from the east. Thus Royal’s force was virtually surrounded.
As soon as the opposition at Beritiana developed General Ringel had ordered I Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment to come north up the road and take it in the rear. In these orders Ringel expressly told the regiment not to let itself be drawn south. Retimo was
still the objective, and 100 Mountain Regiment would come along later and attend to the protection of the south flank.
When the Canadian captain had reported the departure of his men – he and his runner stayed on with Captain Royal – Royal withdrew his forward troops behind the ridge which they had been manning, and posted a Maori and two Australians, who had joined him the night before, on the right flank with orders to cover the forward slope of the ridge. This they did very effectively.
But Royal could see that he would have to leave before long if his force was not to be overrun.8 About half past ten he sent out his wounded under Sergeant Pitman,9 with men to carry those who could not walk. They were to throw away their weapons and try to persuade the enemy to let them through. After the wounded were gone the main column, including Pene’s two platoons, set off across country. Royal went in front to choose the route and A Company was rearguard. The route was arduous because they avoided mapped tracks and kept as far as possible under cover. One canal had to be swum seven times. They crossed the Kofliaris Valley under heavy machine-gun fire and climbed up its south side. They then headed south-east over the ridges and came out in the Mesopotamos Valley. Here they rested half an hour before going on. Just before they entered Armenoi they were met by bursts of machine-gun fire. Royal formed his men into two columns with tommy-gunners in front and Bren gunners in the rear, and they charged through the village. No doubt the enemy there were weak advance patrols and did not have the stomach to tackle the determined Maoris.
From Armenoi Royal led his men on, still south-east, towards Kaina. The enemy was hot on his heels, and at one point the column halted while the rearguard turned on the pursuers and checked their ardour. Then the column went on again and climbed over more hills under machine-gun fire. Passing Kaina, it reached the main south road about a mile north-west of Vrises at 6 p.m. Casualties for the day had been one killed and six wounded, the latter being all brought out safely.
At Stilos the battalions of 5 Brigade had bedded down after they had got their rations and prepared for the sleep they desperately needed. It is difficult to give an accurate picture of the way the battalions were disposed. But 21 Battalion Group seems
to have straddled the road just north of the village, with 23 Battalion to its front and mainly on the west side of the road. The 19th Battalion was north-west of the village and 28 Battalion west of it. The 22nd Battalion was south-east of 28 Battalion and close to the village.10
Two of the few remaining officers of 23 Battalion, Lieutenant Norris11 of A Company and Lieutenant G. H. Cunningham of D Company, felt uneasy and decided to reconnoitre a little while their men settled down. It was fortunate that they did so, for their inspection revealed a party of enemy emerging from a wadi bed about 400 yards to their front. The alarm was immediately given:
In great haste the troops of the two companies, many of whom had already dropped off to sleep, were summoned to the top of the ridge. They reached the stone wall and began firing from behind it just when the leading elements of the enemy were approaching some 15 yards away. One of the first to arrive and open fire was Sgt Hulme who after the enemy had been repelled the first time was to be seen sitting side saddle on the stone wall shooting at the enemy down on the lower slopes. His example did much to maintain the morale of men whose reserves of nervous and physical energy were nearly exhausted.12
Meanwhile, support was given from 21 Battalion Group, and 19 Battalion had also heard the alarm and come up with a company on the left:
There was a terrific scramble up to the ridge and in places the ascent was almost precipitous. On getting to the top of the ridge we came under fairly heavy mortar fire and there were, unfortunately, quite a few casualties. Some of the enemy had advanced to within 20 to 30 yards of the stone wall which ran right along the ridge like a backbone of a hog’s back and these, of course, were sitters if one cared to take the risk of looking over the wall which, of course, we had to do.13
Finding no way forward to the front, the enemy now sent a party out towards the left who crept close up to the wall and began to throw grenades across. A section of 19 Battalion was sent to deal with this party and arrived in time to despatch an enemy officer and about six men who stood up at the wall with a machine gun. Eventually the attack was beaten off.
The enemy troops in this engagement belonged to II Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment, which came south when it reached the road and indeed must have laagered the night before only a mile or two from the Stilos positions. The fighting seems to have impressed the battalion since the language of the regimental report is stronger even than usual. ‘the strong enemy force at Stylos was taken by surprise by this unlooked-for attack on his withdrawal
route. A terrific struggle developed, including bloody hand-to-hand fighting.’14
At 7 a.m., while the engagement was still going on, there was a brigade conference at which it was decided to extend the line to the left by moving across A Company of 20 Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry. By 8 a.m. this movement was complete, but meanwhile the fighting had spread to the right flank as well and Layforce I tanks could be seen engaging enemy vehicles away to the front.15
The new developments put Brigadier Hargest into some anxiety. After the conference at 7 a.m. a despatch rider was sent to Division with a report on the situation and a message asking Brigadier Vasey to come forward. Shortly after he left, the liaison officer who had been sent the night before came back from Division. He brought an answer, timed 5.20 a.m., to the message sent by 5 Brigade the preceding evening:
We were informed yesterday by Comd Raft [Creforce] that operations for the withdrawal fwd units were under comd Maj Gen Weston and NOT us owing to difficulty communications. Impossible despatch Tp Arty now. We have arranged for 4 Inf Bde to move to ASKIPLIO PLAIN for protection against airborne landings and to hold northern exit to plain where there is strong posn but 4 Inf Bde very weak and dispersed partly against parachutists. Understand amn and rations also supplied to you from DID south of STYLOS. Major Leggat has only 30 men and has joined 4 Inf Bde. Location remainder 4 Inf Bde unknown. All other tps moving through here have been ordered to SPAKIA. As soon as light enough establishing an HQ close to southern exit ASKIPLIO PLAIN.16
Brigadier Hargest answered at once:
Received your note at 0735 hrs. My position is now serious.
We held line yesterday subjected to heavy bombing and heavy ground attack which we repulsed.
Extracted ourselves last night arrived here before dawn. Left two companies at top of pass at Beritiana but owing to infiltration from the right they are cut off.
No other tps except 19 Aust Bde are of any use to us.
We will endeavour to hold small position here today and move back tonight but owing to exhausted state of tps this will be very difficult.
We will do our damndest but look to you to give us all the assistance you can.
We would still like you to send up the guns.
Reported that great number of Italian prisoners moving along road from rear towards us – estimated 1000.17
The column of Italian prisoners referred to in this message added a touch of painful farce to the situation. They were troubled by mortar fire from the Germans and at the same time got very unfriendly looks from the New Zealanders. Eventually Hargest let them through because of their nuisance value. Trigger fingers itched as they passed on and finally disappeared with loud shouts towards the enemy front.
Meanwhile Brigadier Vasey had come forward in answer to Hargest’s message. He had already seen General Weston about four o’clock that morning and told him that the two brigades intended to lie up that day and go on after dark. Weston does not seem to have been able to improve on this programme but took the opportunity to enlighten Vasey on the role and organisation of Layforce.
After the two brigadiers had conferred, the battalion commanders were called together about 9 a.m.:
At 9 we met. The alternatives were simple. Would we risk staying and becoming engaged in battle and so surrounded or would we march out in daylight in view of the Hun planes and their ground strafers.
The COs were divided. Vasey was for marching.
I put the question to each in turn.
Can you fight all day and march all night tonight if we can extricate ourselves?
The answer was, ‘No.’
Well, we’ll march at 10.
Vasey agreed to cooperate. His troops were well on the way there. He would hold a side road.18
Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer indeed had objected. ‘OC 28 because of two of his Coys being at junct of the coast and STILOS rds stated at Conference that the remainder of his Bn would take a dim view of pulling out and leaving A and B Coys high and dry.’19 But Hargest said they were cut off in any case and he was trying to get a message through to them.
This message went off by despatch rider at 9.15 a.m.:
You will withdraw forthwith moving back under as much cover as possible on both sides of road. Move back via main STYLOS Rd if possible to rejoin parent unit. Parent unit is moving back from STYLOS via main road some time today.20
According to both Brigadier Hargest and Captain Dawson, some carriers and a tank were also sent off about this time to try and relieve the rearguard; and the despatch rider probably went with
Them.21 This attempt to get through to Beritiana failed, not surprisingly since the enemy now had many troops and guns along the road.
Meanwhile arrangements went ahead for the withdrawal of 5 Brigade. The 2/7 Battalion, from its positions south of Stilos, was to cover the rear of the withdrawal while 2/8 Battalion went south from Neon Khorion to strengthen D Battalion at Babali Hani. While 2/8 Battalion was getting into position 5 Brigade HQ would hold the Babali Hani crossroads in front. The 5th Brigade units would pass through this screen and reassemble behind 2/8 Battalion; 2/7 Battalion would then follow.
Although his men were exhausted, Hargest had good hopes that if he could get them clear they would be able to march as far as Vrises and hide up there before the heat of the afternoon set in. At 10 a.m. Brigade HQ moved off, passed through 2/7 Battalion and then Layforce, and reached the crossroads. The battalions followed at intervals, 21 Battalion Group covering them until they had passed through 22 Battalion and then itself following. Just before withdrawal began 23 Battalion sources report that the enemy again began to attack and it was thought that a counter-attack would have to be launched. But at the critical moment ‘shouts, hakas and yells were heard from the rear of the Germans who suddenly ceased attacking and withdrew in some confusion.’22 According to this account the new arrivals were a strong party from Captain Royal’s detachment who had been sent back with the wounded. Royal, however, says that he had told the escort and the wounded to throw away their weapons. We must assume either that they had acquired fresh weapons on the way or that they had been joined by parties from A Battalion or by men who had had to fall out on the march but who were now ready to make a further bid for freedom.
In spite of the difficulties of getting the companies back from their deployed positions, all went well and soon the column was on the march, the troops marching in single file on each side of the road with the sections well spread. Hargest rode up and down in a Bren carrier to see that all was going well. He then went on ahead to the crossroads and waited:
At last they came, fast but together, keeping to the sides of the road – thirsty, almost exhausted, but they kept on – they knew the issue. We spelled
them at water points and the promise of a long rest heartened them. They were magnificent.23
After a brief rest south of the crossroads the battalions moved on towards Vrises. The last to arrive was 21 Battalion Group which passed the control post at the crossroads at 1.40 p.m. Then 2/7 Battalion came back and 5 Brigade HQ was relieved by 2/8 Battalion, which had been assembled about a mile to the south and now came forward to assist Layforce.
The road thus sealed behind them, 2/7 Battalion and 5 Brigade marched on towards Vrises. The feeling among the men was beginning to spread that this day and march were also to be long ones. ‘We are tired and our feet are sore but by now we realise that this is going to be some job and nobody talks much but settle down doggedly to conserve energy and keep up with the party.’24 the stragglers from the parties which had gone on before were grim enough evidence that the going would be hard.
Layforce’s D Battalion was disposed just north of the Babali Hani crossroads. There were no digging tools and the men had to make sangars for themselves out of stones taken from the walls thereabouts. Owing to the absence of the Spanish Company (E Company), Lieutenant-Colonel Young had only four companies
to cover a front of 2500 yards – the width of the valley which he was trying to block. Even stretching his front as far as possible he could cover only about 1000 yards. He therefore put A and D Companies on the right of the road, with a front of about 500 yards and the right flank fairly secure because it rested on rising ground. B and C Companies he put to cover about 500 yards on the left of the road, with their left flank more or less open. In reserve he put a troop of A Battalion which Colonel Laycock had put under his command that morning, together with one of the I tanks.25 the 2/8 Battalion was in reserve.
From midday onwards there was a good deal of mortar fire, and then, about half past one, after the withdrawing troops had passed through, came the first attack. It fell on C Company, the company just west of the road. For half an hour the enemy tried to break through and everywhere he was repulsed. Then the fighting died down again. About half past three heavy mortar and machine-gun fire heralded a second attempt, again on the left flank but threatening to move round it as well. Young used every man he could to extend his flank and asked 2/8 Battalion to assist with its two companies. These, a counter-attack by B Company, and the I tank which kept making sorties up the road, enabled the line to hold. It had been touch and go; for now that the Australians were committed Young had only the troop from A Battalion in reserve.
The first enemy attack had come from the joint force of Wittmann Battle Group and II Battalion, 85 Mountain Regiment failure forced the committal of the whole Wittman Battle Group in the second attack. ‘the enemy’s actions pointed to his intending to hold his positions at all costs at least until the evening and then withdrawing under cover of darkness. He even made small counter-attacks from time to time, and often the fighting came to close quarters. Observation was too poor for our artillery to be effective, and our tanks had not yet arrived, and so we had to desist from attacking, as it would have been too costly under the circumstances.’26
The enemy now planned a two-battalion attack by 85 Mountain Regiment at dusk. But the attack arrived too late. For during the afternoon the defence had received its orders to withdraw at dark and about 9.15 p.m. The battalions began to pull out. Their stubborn stand had made the withdrawal of 2/7 Battalion and 5 Brigade a much less hazardous affair than it would otherwise have been.
Babali Hani was the last engagement fought on 28 May and the last defensive position to be held north of the White Mountains. But to the troops making for the south coast these mountains were an obstacle so formidable as almost to rank as a second enemy. From Stilos to the Askifou Plain – the next main halting place – is a distance of only about 15 miles by road. But a glance at the map will show that that road leads upwards all the way; from less than 300 feet above sea level round Stilos it climbs until it passes, by constantly more tortuous zigzags, hairpin bends and serpentines, through mountains which are not the highest of the range but which are, at the crown of the pass, over 3000 feet.
For fresh men even in peacetime to cross this barrier would have been an exacting march. It came now as a cruel culmination to a battle which had ended in defeat; and not to be able to cross it was to become a prisoner. For two days and two nights men had been streaming over it, some crammed into the few vehicles that were still functioning, the rest marching, stumbling, and at times reduced to crawling on hands and knees. The natural savage grandeur of the mountain road was overprinted with the chaos of war. Every yard of the road carried its tale of disaster, personal and military. The verges were strewn with abandoned equipment, packs cast aside when the galling weight had proved too much for chafed skin and exhausted shoulders; empty water bottles; suitcases and officers’ valises gaping their glimpses of khaki linen and pullovers knitted by laborious love in homes that the owners might not live to see again; steel helmets half buried in the dust; all the grotesque and unpredictable bric-a-brac of withdrawal, the personal property treasured till it became an impediment and then discarded so that its owner could keep up with his desperate urge for life.
Every here and there, too, were trucks which had gone on as long as they could, heavily overloaded, and then had broken down for lack of petrol, leaving their occupants to bundle out and, without their packs, trudge upward on foot. Other trucks had crashed over steep cliffs in the dark and lay on their backs below the road, wheels in the air like the legs of tumbled beetles. Others again, their metal scored and scarred, lay at the side of the road where they had been pushed after the bomb or the bullets had struck them.
These things were the commonplaces of the withdrawal, scarcely calling for a glance from the men who trudged by, heads down and shoulders stooped, each one intent on enduring the thirst that tormented every mile of the march, on eluding the enemy aircraft
that swooped from time to time and raked the road, and above all on climbing the vast range with its interminable series of disappointing false crests that were crossed only to reveal a further and higher ridge above. From each individual purgatory of parched mouth, panting lungs, straining back and raw feet there were few who could look out with more than apathy at the occasional corpse that from beside the stony path looked up at the sky with unclosed eyes, at last resting.
By day the road was not so crowded. The need for sleep and the fear of enemy aircraft kept many prostrate in the olive groves or whatever shelter could be afforded by rocks and scrub. Only a few knots and bunches of men, whose anxiety to reach the sea was greater than their fear of bombs, kept climbing in the sweat and dust of the day. At dusk, however, the troops, some in organised groups and taking pride from one another’s company, others alone or in twos and threes, their units lost and themselves reduced to the anarchy of isolation, stirred from their shelters and made their way to the road. And as the night wore on an occasional flare from an enemy aircraft would reveal, as far as an eye could reach, the long column winding like the road from darkness into darkness and at such a moment stationary, waiting to see whether a bomb would follow and where it would fall.
In such a time men revert to what their natures have kept below their training. Trucks would pass ruthlessly along the column, ignoring the appeals of wounded men who would not fall out while their legs assured them that they might still be free. Or sometimes a truck would stop and one of its occupants would gruffly get out to make room for a man on foot whose condition was so bad that the passenger could not bear to ride while he walked. And of those who marched some went stonily on, ignoring the appeals of companions who could go no further; while others showed an awareness of something greater than their own exhaustion and did their best to struggle forwards, a wounded companion slung on a blanket or a broken stretcher between them. And time and again the sight of a man stumbling along with an arm round the neck of each of two comrades who took turns carrying his rifle stressed its echo of Calvary.
Over this terrible pass on the night of 27 May 4 Brigade and the various units of the Composite Battalion had gone on already, men like Lieutenant-Colonel Gray of 18 Battalion – with that stamina which owes its strength to concern for others – marching back and forth along the column of their units, infusing strength by example and somehow carrying their men forward as a unit still, ready if the need came to throw off weariness yet again and
fight as an organised force.27 the 20th Battalion, too, had been like itself: ‘ ... along came the 20 Bn with Kip marching under extreme difficulties at the head of them. It was really good to see a unit still under perfect control, retiring in an orderly and well organised manner thanks to Kip’s good discipline (no rabble or rafferty rules about this outfit).’28
The men of the Composite Battalion did not have the advantage that the infantry battalions possessed; for their unit had been formed only for the defensive action at Galatas and they were not trained infantry. At the beginning of the march the battalion had virtually broken up into its component groups. But the officers and the NCOs who led these groups behaved with great devotion, and the men under them stuck loyally to the road even when the supreme test of the White Mountains loomed before them. Thus Major Veale, sending the men with bad feet on in front, collected the rest of his group and before starting told them: ‘Tonight you’re going to march as you’ve never marched before. I’ll set the pace and you’ve got to keep up.’ When they reached the top of the pass at 2.30 a.m. on 28 May they had marched for more than seven hours, stopping five minutes in each half hour.
In much the same way the gunners also crossed, having disabled and abandoned their guns at the foot of the pass. Here again individuals like Major Bull, to mention only one, showed the resolution of the good commander in adversity and succeeded in keeping the pattern of discipline that in such times dissolves so quickly and leaves the breeding ground for panic.
Towards this terrible crossing, after they left Stilos, the men of 5 Brigade were headed. Few of them had any idea of the distance that still lay between them and the sea or of the demands that the White Mountains had yet to make on them. Their minds were set rather on the immediate problems: whether they would get the promised rest at Vrises, whether there would be a chance to fill
Their water bottles, whether and how soon they might have to fight again.
On they went, past men who had fallen out and now sat on the verges of the road with head in hands or lay sprawled a little to the side. For all their weariness the units kept together, marching briskly and passing small groups less inured than themselves but still struggling to get on. About 3 p.m. They came to Vrises – ‘a row of brickdust’, as Captain Snadden describes it, after days of bombing. There they were able to drink all they could drink and fill the water bottles that had to be so carefully nursed along the march. There, too, the enemy aircraft which had not troubled them so far that day appeared and kept them alert as they lay wherever there was grass and shelter.
But the rest was not to be for long. At half past five Brigadier Hargest issued a new movement order. Brigade HQ, 19 and 23 Battalions were to leave at 6 p.m., 28 Battalion at 6.15, 21 and 22 Battalions at 6.30. On reaching Amigdhalokorfi, at the top of the pass over the White Mountains, 23 Battalion was to take up a line through which the other units would pass. It would hold that line till further orders. The two Australian battalions would also be passing through and ultimately British troops would probably take over. Meanwhile every effort would be made that night to get the head of the brigade to Sin Ammoudhari.
Of all the troops who crossed the White Mountains none had a more gruelling time than 5 Brigade. Few men in it could say they had had anything like a night’s sleep since the battle began nine days before. Almost the whole of the brigade had been engaged in the fighting on 26 May, 23 Battalion on 25 May as well. The night of 26 May had been spent on the march back to 42nd Street, the day of 27 May in the fighting there. Then they had marched all night, only to find themselves fighting again on the morning of the 28th. Since then, apart from the rest at Vrises, they had been marching again. And now before them lay the White Mountains. To men in the last stages of exhaustion, sleepless and weary from fighting and marching, marching and fighting, it was to be a supreme test of endurance.
We pass all sorts and conditions of folk. Among some Greek airmen a very pretty blonde, a Greek nurse, looking strangely incongruous in all this wild assemblage. The road gets worse and it is little more than a cart track. We are near the summit of the foothills but it is not till dusk that we reach the foot of the Pass. Halts are infrequent. There is still a trail of littered equipment, arms and vehicles and occasionally a ‘stiff ‘un’. We seem to be standing in a treadmill and the world goes past us. We are senseless to all feeling.29
In these days of grim withdrawal after withdrawal and forever being brought to bay, Brigadier Hargest had found in himself resources of energy which he lavished in care and concern for his men. The night of this march was one which he would not easily forget.
Never will I forget it. As the sun fell the men struggled upwards lame and sleepy even after their rest but the road surfaces were galling them. Near Vrises there is a huge incline, steep and ending in a pass – near it was a rocky eminence which had been prepared for demolition by the RE. Just after we passed some fool ordered its explosion and up went the road in front of our tired troops and the Aust.30
No doubt the road was blown by one of those errors that are explicable enough in the haste and confusion of withdrawal – a time too rigidly adhered to, a mistaken belief that all the troops to come have crossed. But to the troops on whom it forced a serious detour it was a maddening exasperation; for by now each man was reckoning his stamina in terms of yards, of the next large rock, or the top of the next rise, or the next halt at which he had promised himself a pull from his water bottle. And here, by what would seem the act of a lunatic, were hundreds of yards of difficult extra going thrust upon them. Thus 21 Battalion Group, which reached the demolition at 9.45 p.m., had not finished getting round it till half past eleven. Moreover the demolition, besides adding hours to the agony of the marching men, meant that no more vehicles could cross. From now on they would have to be destroyed at the foot of the pass.
Here at the foot of the pass was the last well until the other side was reached. For all the troops who had already passed, the few wells had been prayed for long before they were reached. And at them the observer could soon have seen whether the troops there were units still under discipline or men broken into a mere aggregate of individuals. There had been ugly scenes at times where the latter was the case. If the original lifting device – a long pole – was still in place things were not so bad. Water bottles could be filled quickly and a turn could be had without waiting too long. But in many wells the pole was absent and men had to fill their bottles by lowering them on equipment straps or pull-throughs tied together, a clumsy and slow operation. The circumference of the well mouth would be crowded with parched troops and others pressing behind them for a place; and the water often would hardly have reached the rim when overeagerness or a jostling rival would have spilt it.
With organised units like those now passing, however, it was different, and there were officers and NCOs to see that each man had his turn, especially as this well was the last.
The water here is dirty and tastes of petrol, giving us all the hiccoughs. We drink and fill our bottles. We rest for half an hour and then start our climb. It seems endless. We have been warned that our bottles must last for the whole of the next day. The average is half a bottle per man and we are to spend the next day at the top of the pass as rearguard. The going is rough. At one halt a man lights a cigarette and a Sgt. gives him the sharp end of a tin hat over the ear. He curses as his smoke is knocked out and over into the gorge. We climb up and up and below us spreads the country we have traversed at such speed. At some forgotten hour in the night we are halted.31
The responsibility of battalion officers and NCOs in this march lay heavy on them. They had the advantage that they had to keep themselves going in order to give an example to their men and so had little time for the debilitating luxuries of self-pity. But they had also to be, as it were, simultaneously at the head of their men to set the pace and at the rear to see that no straggler was lost through lack of incitement to go on. And going up and down the columns they had to support the sight of the terrible condition of the men who had fought under them so enduringly in the long days and nights that lay behind. How harrowing this was may be gathered from the description by Lieutenant Cockerill:
Unfortunately during this march many men dropped by the wayside. For a time the troops helped their comrades along who were too weak to make the grade but it was quite obvious that this would prove to be impossible for the distance and they were made as comfortable as they could be on the side of the road with one or two water bottles. I have no doubt that most of these were picked up although some did escape into the hills. Lots of the men, through not having been able to bathe and wash their clothes, found that the chafing was becoming very serious and, in very many cases, we could see the humour in soldiers walking along with arms over their shoulders and no trousers on. ... It was pitiful in some cases to see the men come in, especially in one or two cases, more or less on their hands and knees.
Eventually, after many weary hours, discipline and determination conquered. Each battalion in turn reached the top of the pass. The 23rd Battalion left the column and took up a defensive position as best it could in the dark, with D Company on the left of the road, Headquarters Company, A Company, and the detachment of gunners under the indefatigable Captain Snadden on the right. ‘We have never slept on such boulders but it might as well be a feather bed; it makes no difference.’
The other units marched on through the night and down the other side of the pass, reaching the Askifou Plain at dawn, the Maori Battalion impressing all who were there to see it with the untroubled unison of its march.
Fourth Brigade’s units had taken until midday of 28 May to forgather in the Askifou Plain and take up their anti-paratroop role. The light tanks arrived there shortly after daylight. During the morning Division warned Brigadier Inglis that his battalions were to guard the northern entrance to the plain and might have to go on doing so as late as darkness on 30 May. The 18th Battalion was therefore put into position at the north end. Fourth Brigade at 4.40 p.m. issued a formal order to 18 and 20 Battalions. The brigade was to remain in position until 5 Brigade had passed through. It was expected to begin doing so that night. The main body of 18 Battalion was to remain near Sin Kares, but a detachment of about fifty men was to be sent after dark to hold the head of the pass about a mile west of Kerates. This detachment would remain there until ordered to move by 4 Brigade HQ. From 11 p.m. it would have a light tank under command. The 20th Battalion was also to remain in its present positions but was to reconnoitre the southern exit from the plain and be ready to move there on getting orders from Brigade HQ.
An order to the commander of C Squadron was also sent at 5.8 p.m. covering his part in the rear detachment. One of the remaining four light tanks was duly sent but, presumably because of a change in orders, neither the 18 Battalion detachment nor the tank went out until dawn next morning.
Creforce HQ had established a control post at the south end of the plain, and here officers were trying to break the continuous stream of stragglers into groups of about fifty. So far as was possible the officers of the former Composite Battalion were still trying to keep their men together, a task of almost superhuman difficulty with so many men on the road and all the confusion of many mixed troops withdrawing in various stages of exhaustion. Darkness very often broke up the groups that were formed by day but none the less they kept some semblance of unity, Majors Bull and Bliss being prominent among the officers; and other groups like 5 Field Park Company, the RMT, the Petrol Company, and the Supply Column also managed more or less to keep together.
The only guns by now were those of C Troop 2/3 Regiment RAA which had been got as far as the Askifou Plain and were put under command of 4 Brigade. Those of F Troop 28 Battery had had to be put out of action at the foot of the White Mountains, there
being practically no ammunition to make it worthwhile towing them farther. From the time they had overshot the forward brigades at 42nd Street, there would have been little hope of getting them back against the stream of retreat even had the ammunition been available or communications permitted the passage of orders.
The New Zealand medical units which had moved to Kalivia during the night of 26 May had had to move again on the night of the 27th in order to get as far as possible on the road towards Sfakia. The trucks carrying stretcher cases went straight through to Imvros, where a main dressing station was established by 3 p.m. on 28 May and under Lieutenant-Colonel Twhigg’s32 able direction soon became a very efficient unit.33 Two walking wounded collecting posts were also set up: one about a mile south of Imvros under Captain Lomas,34 and the other under Captain A. C. Rumsey of 189 Field Ambulance at the end of the formed road. Both were staffed from 5 and 6 Field Ambulances.
The trucks passing along the roads had improvised Red Cross flags from red and white hospital blankets and these were respected by enemy aircraft. But when they attempted to go back over the pass and collect more wounded from Lieutenant-Colonel Bull’s dressing station at Neon Khorion, they found that they were unable to do so because of the demolition already mentioned. Even had they been able to get back, however, they would have been too late; for Bull, his small staff, and some thirty seriously wounded men were captured during the afternoon.
The walking wounded who kept filtering across the pass all night and day were mostly scattered in the hills at the northern end of the Askifou Plain, though there were some sheltering under trees at many points between there and Imvros.
Meanwhile arrangements were going ahead for the evacuation of wounded that night, when Creforce had decided that they and medical staffs should have priority. Preliminary arrangements were made by Major Fisher with Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt and Lieutenant-Colonel W. E. Cremor, now in charge of embarkation, while Major
Christie and Major Palmer35 reconnoitred the beach – it could be reached only by a precipitous goat track from Komitadhes – and found that Creforce HQ had arranged for an assembly area about two miles from the embarkation point and that 189 Field Ambulance had established an RAP there.
When he reached Sin Ammoudhari on the morning of 28 May Brigadier Puttick’s first concern had been for 5 Brigade. But there was nothing he could do to provide them with the guns they needed and little he could do to help in any other way.
Late in the morning the operational directive which Creforce had drawn up the day before36 was received, and no doubt it was as a result of this that 4 Brigade was given its orders to hold the north of the pass.
The first reliable news of 5 Brigade seems to have come from General Weston, who visited Division at 3 p.m. and reported that 5 Brigade was making a daylight withdrawal to Vrises. Puttick was able to inform him in return of 4 Brigade’s dispositions and also to offer him any help in his power, including the loan of his staff. Weston took advantage of this offer only so far as to borrow Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt to organise dispersal areas on the hills above Sfakia and the despatch of parties to the beach.
At 9 p.m. Division moved farther south and just below Imvros. Before the move a further discussion was held at which it was decided that both 18 and 20 Battalions would move next morning to the south end of the plain and cover the further withdrawal of 5 Brigade. But the plan of leaving a rear detachment of 18 Battalion was adhered to.
General Weston had been able to force his way upstream against the traffic as far as Brigadier Vasey’s HQ at Neon Khorion very early on the morning of 28 May, and was there given a picture of the general situation as then known and the plans of the two forward brigadiers.
There was little Weston could now do but rejoin his HQ, which had gone on to Sin Ammoudhari and had arrived there at 7 a.m. During the day it moved on to Imvros, attending among other things to the extemporisation of a battalion of Royal Marines to
carry out the tasks laid down in Creforce’s operational directive which Weston no doubt received on his return. Now that the brigades were coming back into a single area there was for the first time a prospect of his being able to carry out the role of co-ordination assigned to him when withdrawal began; and it was in preparation for this that he visited Brigadier Puttick’s HQ during the late afternoon.
At three o’clock in the morning of 28 May Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell’s Australians at Retimo had once more attacked Perivolia. In spite of the fact that the Greek troops helping to cover the two companies of 2/11 Battalion opened fire against orders and thus gave the enemy the alarm, the attack went well and the Australians fought their way right through the village, killing about eighty enemy and destroying a number of machine-gun posts. But all the officers of D Company except one became casualties and the company withdrew. B Company, the other company engaged, was thus left isolated and was forced to withdraw also.
Meanwhile General Freyberg had discovered with chagrin that Lieutenant Haig had left the night before, too soon for the message about evacuation to reach him.37 At 8.25 on the morning of 28 May, therefore, he signalled General Wavell that the orders had not got through and that there was no cipher by which so important an instruction could be passed by wireless. He asked that his message of the day before, of which he gave Wavell the text, be dropped to the garrison, preferably by day, together with £1000 in drachmae in case they should be useful. He also explained that, as his own HQ had moved to Sfakia, he was not yet in wireless contact with Retimo and was not certain that he would be able to establish it and be able to send messages even in the garbled code that was safe enough for less important signals. And so he asked that Middle East should also relay by wireless in this code a
further message to the effect that an aeroplane would be dropping something at 1.2 p.m.38
When the wireless at Sfakia was working Freyberg also had the code message sent out to Retimo from there. But from the time of the break in communication the night before, Retimo was unable to pick up any further signals from Creforce, perhaps because of the mountain barrier that lay between the two.39
Wavell meanwhile had received Freyberg’s signal and replied that he would pass it on to Retimo together with the money, but that nothing could be done till early next morning. Wireless contact between Middle East and Retimo was now re-established and the second code message passed with the comment that it was probably too late since the time was by now 6 p.m. Wavell therefore asked Freyberg to prepare another code message by which Retimo could be warned that messages and money would be dropped before seven o’clock next morning.
In a second message General Wavell sent a code which could be used in clear for messages between Creforce and Retimo and a copy of which would be dropped to Retimo with the other messages next morning. Acting on the first of these two instructions – which must have reached Creforce very late since the reply is dated 29 May – Creforce replied in guarded language with a message for Retimo to the effect that messages were being dropped before breakfast. Retimo was asked to acknowledge receipt of the message to Middle East.40
This message was not received at Retimo, and the result was that the garrison still had no news of the evacuation or their part in it.
At Heraklion on 28 May Brigadier Chappel held a conference and gave his orders for the evacuation so that his officers could get on with their preparations. These included aggressive patrols to blind the enemy to what was afoot.
The orders to go had been none too soon. The enemy flew in a substantial number of reinforcements during the morning, dropped more supplies, and showed signs of offensive intentions. No doubt he was well posted with news of the victories elsewhere on the
island and was preparing an attempt to show the expected relieving troops that he had not been idle either.
According to plan Chappel’s troops began to withdraw through an inner perimeter held by 2 Leicesters at 10 p.m. Unfortunately the presence of strong enemy forces between the British and the Greeks prevented news of the withdrawal being got through to the latter. It is doubtful whether any Greek troops could have been taken off, however, as the shipping programme allowed for only 4000 and there were 4200 British troops.
Orion, Ajax, Dido and six destroyers had been on their way from Alexandria since morning and had run into air attack from five o’clock in the afternoon. Ajax received some damage and was ordered back to Alexandria after dark, but the rest of the ships were off Heraklion at half past eleven. The destroyers then entered the harbour and ferried troops to the cruisers. By 3 a.m. all were aboard, except for the wounded who had to be left behind and a detachment guarding a road block, and the convoy sailed.
Early on 28 May General Freyberg’s staff on Creforce issued the formal evacuation order, addressed to General Weston with copies to the other parties affected. It confirmed that all troops were under Weston’s command for operational purposes while it assigned to Creforce HQ responsibility for evacuation arrangements. It laid down the evacuation programme already sent to Admiral Cunningham: 1000 to be taken off that night; 6000 the following night; 3000 on the night of 30 May; and 3000 on the night of the 31st.
The order assumed that 5 and 19 Brigades, both probably exhausted, would with Layforce withdraw through the Askifou Plain area now occupied by 4 Brigade; and it therefore stated that they should be withdrawn straight to the assembly area if the tactical situation allowed. In preparation for this Weston’s Royal Marines were to be put into a defensive position south of the plain and Layforce, or part of it, should be put under command of 4 Brigade.
The enemy could be expected to make contact with 4 Brigade in the afternoon of 29 May. The brigade would therefore hold him off till dark that night and then it was hoped that, with Layforce, it could withdraw straight to the beaches, where Layforce would revert to Weston’s direct command. This forecast would have to be reviewed as the situation developed.
The enemy was expected to follow up 4 Brigade’s withdrawal and so bump against the Royal Marine positions at the south end
of the plain on 30 May. The Marines would have to hold him off till dark that night. As that same night was the night when it was hoped to embark 5 and 19 Brigades, the Marines and Layforce would also have to hold a delaying position on 31 May. They would disengage after dark and be embarked that night.
It had been laid down that fighting troops would embark first and that the wounded and those who had fought longest would have priority. There was a chance that the programme might be expedited and the need for a delaying position between the south end of the plain and the sea not arise.41
On the same day the DA & QMG of Creforce, Brigadier G. S. Brunskill, issued an instruction on embarkation arrangements. By this General Weston was made responsible for the flow of troops to the beach and for the establishment of a suitable assembly area. It laid down that only organised parties travelling from the assembly area by a specified route were to be embarked and that parties given particular tasks on any one night should have priority of embarkation the following night. It allotted numbers for that night’s embarkation: 200 wounded, 10 seamen, 100 RAF, 50 Cypriots, 640 Coast Defence AA, and fighting troops not required for defence – all in that order of priority. And it concluded with some administrative arrangements about transport and walking wounded.
While his staff were issuing these orders General Freyberg and Brigadier Stewart were still on their way towards Sfakia, which Freyberg was very anxious to reach so as to use the RAF wireless there for contact with General Wavell. He reached the advanced HQ which had been set up by Colonel Frowen in a cave some time during the morning.
There was a worrying time at first. The RAF wireless was short of batteries and the naval and military sets still surviving had not yet arrived. No contact could be made with Middle East. Eventually, however, messages could be got through, and the first to be sent dealt with the problem of getting orders to Retimo.
By midday enough news from the front had filtered through for Freyberg to be able to report on the tactical situation. He explained that it had been impossible to disengage completely and it seemed unlikely that they would be able to hold out until the night of 31 May. Only the New Zealand and Australian infantry were able to form military bodies capable of fighting; and an optimistic view of their numbers would be under 2000, with three guns (limited to 140 rounds of ammunition) and three light tanks to support them. There were large numbers of unarmed stragglers,
but he proposed to concentrate on embarking armed troops next night – which he feared might be the last night possible. Any left over he would tell to make their way west towards Porto Loutro and Franco Kastelli (Frangokasterion). He asked that everything possible should be done to expedite the embarkation.42
In the evening General Freyberg dictated a message which Lieutenant White,43 his Personal Assistant, was to take off that night. In this message Freyberg stressed the role of the enemy’s aircraft in the defeat of the defence. It had thwarted all counter-attacks, broken up defence positions, and made tanks incapable of effecting anything. The ground troops of the enemy and his parachutists had all been dealt with effectively enough, but the enemy’s strength in aircraft prevented any permanent result. General Freyberg’s own troops were disorganised on arrival from Greece and the Greeks had been without adequate equipment. But the troops had fought well and could not be blamed for the failure. The difficulty was now that of the evacuation and Creforce was hampered by lack of transport, communications, and staff.
Having dictated this message Freyberg set off in the closing stages of the evening to visit General Weston and Brigadier Puttick.
On the beach itself preparations were being made for the embarkation of the 1000 men. There were to be four destroyers – Napier, Nizam, Kelvin and Kandahar – and these arrived about 10 p.m., bringing extra boats to help with the embarkation and a supply of rations. All walking wounded in the assembly area – some who had walked right across the island in spite of severe wounds – were got forward, about 300 in all. There was some scrimmaging and jockeying for place by the stragglers who had managed to evade the control posts, but all the wounded except about seventy were got on board, together with 800 men from the Suda Area, including the RAF contingent. At 3 a.m. The destroyers sailed.
Behind them there was still work to do. Not all of the rations brought were of much use – there were cases of matches and bags of flour – but everything had to be moved under cover before daylight brought the enemy reconnaissance aircraft. This took time; but when dawn came the beach was clear once more.
The Tenth Day: 29 May
The rearguards had been lucky to disengage successfully at Stilos and Babali Hani on 28 May. For, apart from the fact that 85 Mountain Regiment and Wittmann’s advance guard were preparing to encircle the latter position, 141 Mountain Regiment reached Vamos during the afternoon and sent a company south through Vrises to take the Babali Hani position in the right flank; and 100 Mountain Regiment was also now arriving. It was fortunate for 5 Brigade, 19 Brigade, and D Battalion that they were clear on the other side of the White Mountains by next morning.44
The relative peace from air attack on 28 May was also something to be grateful for and may be attributed largely to the causes which had already been diminishing the enemy air effort for a day or so, though in part to General Ringel’s infatuation with Retimo. For on 29 May Ringel’s forces were ordered to continue carrying through the orders issued on the night of the 27th. The advance guard, 85 Mountain Regiment, and 141 Mountain Regiment were therefore to go no farther south but to push east and then north towards Retimo. Only 100 Mountain Regiment was spared for operations in the south where the true opportunity for frustrating evacuation lay.
With 23 Battalion covering the road in a strong natural position at Amigdhalokorfi and the two Australian battalions to the immediate rear, there was no immediate danger on the morning of 29 May that the enemy might rush the Askifou Plain. As a further precaution A Company of 18 Battalion, supported by one of C Squadron’s light tanks, had been sent to cover the entrance to the plain about a mile west of Kerates. From here it would also be able to aid the withdrawal of 23 Battalion when the time came.
For the first time since the withdrawal began the various commanders were now able to meet and confer about plans for the final stages. The main conference, at which General Weston, the three brigade commanders and Brigadier Stewart were all present, took place in the early afternoon. Here it was decided that 4 Brigade should concentrate at the southern exit from the plain and hold it till nightfall, when it would retire to the beaches;
5 Brigade would also concentrate and move to a dispersal area near Komitadhes; Layforce – D Battalion and remains of A Battalion – would take up a defensive position near Komitadhes and cover the exit from the Imvrotiko Ravine; 19 Brigade with its three guns would move into a rearguard position near Vitsilokoumos and be there by nightfall, the Royal Marine battalion, the tanks of 3 Hussars, and the last three Bren carriers of 2/8 Battalion all coming under command.
A timed programme was issued. Fourth Brigade would march to the beach at 11 p.m.; 5 Brigade, except for 23 Battalion, would trickle forward from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. in small parties widely spaced; 19 Brigade would begin the march to its new area at 9 p.m.; the Royal Marine battalion (and presumably Layforce) would move from its position near Kombroselia at 10 p.m.
The orders also stated that General Weston’s HQ and Brigadier Puttick’s would both move that night to the beaches west of General Freyberg’s HQ. And it was specified that the orders assumed that embarkation would be completed on the night of 30 May. Should another night be required, 19 Brigade and the Royal Marines must be prepared to hold the rear for another twenty-four hours.
Fifth Brigade expected no difficulty in carrying out these orders, unless in extricating 23 Battalion – the unit farthest from the beaches and likely to become engaged during the day. Indeed, already at 7.15 a.m. The battalion had reported enemy in the distance, no doubt the forward patrols of I Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment. This news was confirmed by Captain Dawson when he returned from 23 Battalion late in the morning; for, indefatigable as ever, and concerned for the shortage of water in the pass, he had collected every water bottle and container he could lay hands on in Sin Kares, filled them, borrowed a truck and delivered them to 23 Battalion.
At 12.30 p.m. Brigadier Hargest reported (still to Division, so strong was habit) that he had ordered 23 Battalion to begin trickling small parties to Sin Kares at half past five and was sending Dawson forward again at 4 p.m. Probably about the same time he sent further orders to Major Thomason who now commanded the battalion: he informed him of the whereabouts and role of the 18 Battalion detachment, predicted that demolitions would prevent a heavy attack that day, and ordered him to begin thinning out ‘about 3 or 4 o’clock’ but to keep his forward companies in position till just before dark.
Dawson duly went up again about half past four and found that Thomason would have to be evacuated because of bomb blast and that the command had passed to Lieutenant Bond,45 the senior of the six remaining officers. The orders Dawson then wrote out were for immediate withdrawal to conform with the arrangements made at General Weston’s conference. The companies were to move out in sections as covertly as possible and go to Sin Ammoudhari, where the wounded and sick – many had dysentery – would be left to wait for transport. The others would go on till met by guides.
The orders were welcome. It was very hot for the weary troops, unable to escape the sun in the baking rocky gorge. Rations were few and water very short. Enemy aircraft had been over and the prospect of bombs among the splintering rocks was not pleasant. And the enemy, about two companies strong, had begun probing, encouraged perhaps by supplies which his aircraft dropped in front of where D Company, with 16 men, held the high ground of Rogdhia.
Headquarters Company in the centre was able to begin pulling out almost at once. For the flanks it was less easy. D Company on the left lost a man killed. On the right A Company and Captain Snadden’s gunners, who had the farthest to go, also came under fire.
We have to run the gauntlet for about fifty yards to a protecting bluff. I send the party off in irregular groups and we all get across but not without some ‘hurry up’. We pick up a trail of blood leading to a goat track that will shorten our march. Our lungs are bursting and our feet aching and burning after our long rest. The bullets are still singing past but now we hear a new sound. There is an Aussie Bren detachment in action ahead of us and without much trouble we cross the divide and are on our way down towards the sea covered with their protective fire. Going up was bad but coming down was ten times worse. New muscles ached and the soles of our feet seemed to slip and slide inside our boots. Our sox were full of holes. Many of us wrapped our feet in first field dressings.46
Nevertheless, thus aided by covering fire from 2/7 Battalion, the 23 Battalion men were able to get safely down and through Sin Kares, where they found some Royal Marine trucks which took them on south.
While 23 Battalion was making this withdrawal the rest of 5 Brigade had been marching back to its dispersal area.47 This was
reached at 11 p.m., A Company being retrieved by 20 Battalion on the way and Major Leggat’s party finding its way back to 22 Battalion at the halt. The dispersal area itself was rocky and the only shelter a little scrub. ‘the place was literally swarming with men of all sorts and nearly all units who had straggled and were now at a loose end eating up rations and using water that fighting troops needed – down below on the plain (sea coast) it was supposed to be worse.’48
Fourth Brigade had begun the day with its units still scattered. The 18th Battalion was at the northern end of the plain, while 20 Battalion and Brigade HQ were at the western edge near Sin Ammoudhari; 19 Battalion was out of touch with 5 Brigade, having overshot its area during the night and – after some confusion which is reflected in 5 Brigade’s orders for the day – returned to 4 Brigade command. And the 19 Battalion RSM, who had assumed command of the mortar platoon and had lost touch with the unit, after attaching himself to 18 Battalion, had taken the platoon north with A Company of that unit when it set off to strengthen the rearguard west of Kerates.
The 20th Battalion moved at 7 a.m. to a position at the south exit from the plain. Here it was followed later by the remaining companies of 18 Battalion, by 19 Battalion, and by 19 Army Troops. These units were placed on either side of the road so as to cover the approaches from the plain. Thus the whole brigade was now together and there was only A Company of 18 Battalion still to come.
This company, meanwhile, was waiting for 23 Battalion to pass through from the top of the pass. For so small a force the danger of being outflanked was considerable and it became more so once 23 Battalion was on the move. Accordingly, at 6 p.m., Brigadier Inglis called for the support of the three guns of 2/3 Australian Regiment.
Once the last of 23 Battalion came through the enemy were not long in following, and A Company was kept busy engaging them until dusk. With so few men – about fifty – it was not an easy front to defend, and although Major Lynch moved his sections about and managed to produce a counter at first for every enemy threat, an enemy machine gun eventually got in behind him and covered the road leading down to the plain. The Australians with
Their ancient Italian 75s were directed on to the machine gun by Brigadier Inglis, and Lieutenant-Colonel Gray acted as spotter. ‘It was the first time I had ever spotted for artillery and Geoff Kirk and I sat on the rocks above the road directing the fire and calling out corrections to the guns. The range, by trial and error, was 3200 yards and they literally rocked it in, firing, I believe, all the 40 rounds which was all they possessed.’49
This sturdy little action and the approach of night persuaded the enemy to prudence. At half past eight the 3 Hussars tank withdrew together with the rest of the rearguard, and lower down the road Gray was waiting with trucks for the infantry. In this exploit the company, weak as it was, a single mortar, a handful of machine-gunners from 27 MG Battalion, and the supporting three guns, had held up at least two fresh German companies.
With A Company of 18 Battalion thus successfully disengaged and darkness come, 4 Brigade was ready to carry out its orders and head for the bivouac area allotted to it among the rocks and scrub west of the end of the road. The move began at 9 p.m. with 20 Battalion and Brigade HQ leading, 19 Battalion and 19 Army Troops following, and 18 Battalion bringing up the rear. The march was arduous and a way had to be forced through the stragglers who thronged the road. It was near daylight before the units reached the spot where the formed road ended and the steep goat track down to the beaches began. At this point the men lay down to seek what comfort weariness could give them among the stones.
To Brigadier Vasey fell the grim task of organising the last rearguard. Besides his own two battalions he had under command the Royal Marine battalion, the three guns, a platoon of 2/1 MG Battalion with two guns, the four tanks of 3 Hussars,50 and three Australian Bren carriers. The tanks and carriers were to delay the enemy as long as possible in front of the defence line and then fall back, the sappers of 42 Field Company RE blowing the road behind them.51
Responsibility for the defence of the new position was not expected to mean fighting until next morning; but there was much
to be done meanwhile. The line had to be reconnoitred and the two Australian battalions withdrawn from the north end of the plain. Accordingly, orders were sent to them both to be clear of Sin Ammoudhari by 9 p.m. Battalion reconnaissance parties left earlier to study their new positions.
The withdrawal from the north was safely carried through, though 2/8 Battalion at least could see enemy trucks and motor cycles coming down the pass towards them from Kerates as they moved out. The move to the new positions was greatly hampered by the stragglers on the road who, ironically enough, suspected that these men who were to cover the final stages of withdrawal were stealing a march to get to the boats. It was after three in the morning before they could occupy their positions, with 2/7 Battalion forward, 2/8 Battalion guarding the deep wadi on the left of the road, and the Royal Marines in reserve.
By the morning of 29 May the greater part of the New Zealand artillery and other components of the Composite Battalion who had managed to get across the mountains were scattered along the road from the Askifou Plain southwards. Many – indeed most – of them were organised in small groups under their officers or NCOs; but they were directionless and without orders and threatened to be a serious impediment to the movement of the larger units. To Major Bull belongs the main share of credit for ending this state of affairs. On his own initiative he soon had an organisation going by which the men were got off the roads, sorted into manageable parties, and assembled under fairly good control in the ravine by Komitadhes. There he arranged pickets and got the officers to prepare nominal rolls. Ultimately all sorts of units were represented and the numbers rose to over 3000. The problem of finding rations for such large numbers was not easy but was tackled, and eventually an issue of bully beef from rations dumped on the beach was arranged – three tins per group of fifty men.
Apart from the MDS at Imvros – which handled 94 of the serious cases in the 24 hours that it was open – there were by now several collecting posts for walking wounded, and British, Australian, and New Zealand medical officers and orderlies had their hands full with the problems of caring for patients, finding rations, and organising the onward transmission of wounded to the collecting post at the end of the road. But by nightfall most of the collecting posts
along the road had been cleared and the majority of the 500-odd patients were moving towards or already at the point where they were being concentrated for the final move to the ships. With each party of fifty wounded went a medical officer and five orderlies. Even this turned out to be not enough, so hard and painful was the track.
The preoccupations of General Weston’s HQ and Brigadier Puttick’s are implicit in what has already been said about the conferences held and the orders issued on this day. Both were much taken up with the superintendence of the various moves of large masses of men in a space continually more confined; and in addition there was much to be done in connection with the arrangements for that night’s embarkation.
For Divisional HQ something more was involved. Now that all the forces of the rearguard were close enough together to be susceptible of control and Weston was able for the first time to exercise the authority he had been given when withdrawal was first ordered, there was nothing further for Puttick and his staff to do, and General Freyberg thought it pointless for them to remain. He therefore sent orders during the day for Puttick to report to Creforce HQ and for Divisional HQ to embark that night.
In obedience to this order the senior officers set off at 5 p.m. Puttick and Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry went straight to Force HQ and reported there at 7.45. Major Davis,52 the GSO 2, and General Puttick’s ADC waited at the control point on top of the escarpment to meet the marching troops of the HQ who did not leave till 7 p.m.
By a quarter to nine this marching party had reached the control point. There they found that the delay caused by the attentions of enemy aircraft and the crowds of stragglers had cost them their passage that night. Those already on the beach and organised for embarkation made up the quota the ships could take. There was nothing for it but to go to the Imvrotiko Ravine and join there the crowds of troops whom Major Bull and the officers with him were still struggling to organise.
Puttick and Gentry meanwhile had stayed at Creforce HQ until 9 p.m. and then gone down to the beach with several officers from Creforce staff. When the time came to embark they did so, all unaware that their own marching party had been delayed and had failed to get aboard.
For the garrison at Retimo this was a sombre day. About 8 a.m. The naval detachment which had been operating the wireless reported that both Canea and Heraklion had gone off the air and, although contact was gained during the day with Alexandria, there was no information to be had, presumably because of security difficulties and the absence of ciphers. The few cases of ammunition and chocolate dropped by aircraft from Egypt at first light were of little help – especially as they were mostly smashed in landing.53
In the evening parties of enemy were seen. At half past nine the Greeks reported about a thousand Germans closing in on the right flank and rear. Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell ordered them to hold on, but against this opposition they were unable to do so and by 11 p.m. had had to withdraw. The 2/11 Battalion was then ordered east to replace them, leaving a company in its old positions, and was on the move till dawn. Midnight brought further reports that about 300 enemy on motor cycles had entered Retimo from the west during the afternoon. Rations were due to run out next day. No message or supplies had come from Heraklion although the road was thought to have been clear during the earlier part of the day. There was no communication with Creforce. Signals made to sea in the hope that naval forces might appear brought no result. The prospect for the next day was grim.
Less than half an hour after the convoy of ships evacuating the Heraklion garrison had put to sea there was a failure in the steering gear of the Imperial, caused no doubt by a near miss from a bomb the day before. The commander of the squadron decided that the only chance was to have Hotspur take off her troops and sink her, if the squadron was to get as far south as possible before daylight. By 4.45 a.m. this had been done and just after daylight Hotspur, with 900 men on board, rejoined the squadron.
The squadron was now an hour and a half behind time and it was sunrise before it could turn south through the Kaso Strait. At 6 a.m. The air attacks began. They were not to stop till 3 p.m., when the squadron was only 100 miles from Alexandria.
In the middle of the Kaso Strait Hereward was hit and lost speed. The commander of the squadron decided he must leave
her. She was last seen making for Crete, the enemy aircraft about her like wasps and the ship’s guns replying.
Arrangements had been made for fighter cover from the Kaso Strait onward and the time had been corrected to allow for the delay. But though the fighters appear to have come at the right time they did not find the ships.
By 7 a.m. Decoy and Orion had both been damaged and the speed of the squadron reduced to 21 knots. At last at noon two naval Fulmar fighters found it. But already the damage was serious. The captain of the Orion had been mortally wounded. Dido and Orion had both been hit, Orion twice. Both had a turret out of action and Orion’s lower conning tower was also gone; and there had been heavy casualties among the packed troops on board.
Other attacks followed in the afternoon but none so dangerous. And at 8 p.m. The ships reached Alexandria, Orion with only ten tons of fuel left and two rounds of 6-inch HE ammunition.
At Creforce HQ the Retimo garrison was still causing General Freyberg great anxiety. During the morning Middle East reported that it had so far been unable to get contact with Retimo but that it was dropping a message by air. This message began by explaining that it was too dangerous to send anything in clear and it then lapsed into code, of which the effect was probably that the garrison should go south to Plaka Bay. Creforce was asked to relay this, if possible, to make assurance doubly sure.
To this Freyberg replied that he had no communications with Retimo and that he doubted if this message would be understood. He suggested that another aircraft be sent to reconnoitre for the force and drop another message. He then gave a code version of a suitable message to the effect that a warship would arrive for them on 31 May.54
This message was indeed sent by Hurricane. The Hurricane did not return and so it was not known whether or not the message had been received. It had not. Freyberg’s worry is reflected in his report that day on the recent developments. After describing the loss of Force Reserve, the defence of 42nd Street and the subsequent withdrawal actions, and reckoning the effective strength of his brigades at less than 700, he went on: ‘Am anxious regarding Retimo garrison and will be grateful if you can assure me if orders for their withdrawal have reached them from GHQ ME. Also would welcome ME information regarding Heraklion.’55
That evening Freyberg received orders for his own evacuation. ‘You yourself will return to Egypt first opportunity.’56 As he had not yet made his plans to hand over to General Weston and was anxious not to leave his men until the last possible moment, he decided not to take this too literally. He would wait till next day.
In Egypt there were conflicting views about how many men were still to be taken off and how much risk should be taken in the attempt. Captain Morse had signalled from Creforce on 28 May that anything up to 10,000 troops would be ready to embark on the night of 29–30 May. From this and from Freyberg’s message about the tactical situation – the one saying that an optimistic view of the number of fighting troops he had would be 2000 – it wa finally inferred that 10,000 would still have to be embarked and that only 2000 of these would be in organised parties.57
The other question was graver. During the day Admiral Cunningham, Air Marshal Tedder and General Blamey conferred and concluded that the danger was too great for more Glen ships or cruisers to be risked but that destroyers would keep on trying till the night of 30 May. They would send or try to send four destroyers that night. But it would be the last.58
A message sent to the Admiralty by Admiral Cunningham at 1.5 p.m. gives the background of this decision. The Admiral explains that his losses for the preceding day and till noon of this were three cruisers and a destroyer damaged, of which the last should probably be reckoned lost; that the force which had had these casualties had probably evacuated 4000 men from Heraklion, to whom there had been 500 casualties; that the force carrying out the preceding night’s evacuation from Sfakia was being bombed at the time of signalling; that a Glen ship ( Glengyle) and cruisers were due that night at Sfakia to take off 6000 more and were already being shadowed by enemy aircraft; and that with meagre air protection further casualties to men and ships would have to be expected next day. The question had to be faced whether it was worthwhile to go on evacuating men in close-packed ships which were bound to be heavily bombed; and whether it was justifiable to go on accepting a scale of loss and damage to the Fleet which might, if continued, render it incapable of operating.
As against this he pointed out that not to accept these risks for
The sake of the jeopardised troops would be to fly in the face of all tradition and would be very bad for prestige. He concluded that, though he felt it his duty to put these objections, he was prepared to go on as long as there was a ship left to him.59
The message was discussed that day by the Defence Committee and alarmed its members enough to make them signal Cunningham that he should turn back Glengyle, though letting the other ships go on. The signal reached Cunningham too late for a change of plan and he telegraphed back accordingly. He added that he hoped for better fighter protection next day and was sending three extra destroyers for escort though not for convoy. This was approved.60
The three extra destroyers – Stuart, Jaguar and Defender – left that evening to escort the returning convoy next day and to help by taking off troops from any ship damaged. Moreover, the evidence from officers by now evacuated indicated that a further attempt next night would be worth while; and so it was decided to send four more destroyers for the night of 30 May.
Meanwhile the ships which had left Alexandria the night before – Glengyle, Phoebe, Perth, Calcutta, Coventry, Jervis, Janus and Hasty – after a single and unsuccessful attack by a bomber during the morning, arrived off Sfakia about half an hour before midnight on the night of 29 May.
The ferrying of troops by means of the Glengyle’s landing craft and two assault landing craft brought by the Perth then began. By 3.20 a.m. about 6000 men were aboard and the convoy sailed for Alexandria.
The Eleventh Day: 30 May
May the 29th had been another good day for General Ringel. The advance guard reached Retimo during the afternoon and relieved the paratroops at Perivolia. It was then decided to wait till next day for the two tanks which had arrived at Kastelli before going on.
The 100 Mountain Regiment, meanwhile, after its check above the Askifou Plain, was content to follow up the withdrawal during the night and claim the capture of the empty plain next morning.
Foremost in the rearguard which 100 Mountain Regiment had now to deal with were the three tanks of C Squadron and the Australian Bren carriers. Behind these were the 42 Field Company sappers, ready to blow the roads as the armoured vehicles fell back. At 6.45 a.m. came the first clash. About two companies of enemy with light AFVs appeared. The tank commanded by Corporal Summers at once opened fire. His first bursts had disposed of perhaps a dozen enemy when the guns jammed. He withdrew and Sergeant-Major Childs’ tank came into action, but it was soon hit in the petrol tank and immobilised. The armour then withdrew behind the first demolition, which the sappers blew at 8.55 a.m. In this brush the carrier crews had helped the tanks by dismounted action from fire positions on either side of the road.
One Bren carrier crew now took up a second dismounted position just north of Imvros and left of the road, while another covered the right. The tanks with their longer-range machine guns gave covering fire from the southern outskirts of the village. The enemy took time to come forward, and meanwhile a section of Royal Marines got established about a mile and a half south of Imvros.
About ten o’clock the new position was attacked and the enemy moved in cautiously to within a hundred yards of the Bren crews, who held their fire, waiting to be sure of not firing on stragglers. Once sure, they opened up, doing a good deal of damage before they withdrew under cover of the tanks. The Royal Marines had in the meantime fallen back, and after about half an hour more the tanks were too hard pressed and had to come back to the vacated Marine positions. The second and third demolitions were then blown.
Even without the infantry support which could have given the flanks some cover, the tanks and carriers were able to go on using the same tactics and hang on until at last they were again forced back by mortar fire – though not before they had by a feigned withdrawal caught the enemy exposed on the road and caused about forty casualties.
The enemy now became more cautious and tried outflanking. But the armour held on behind a further demolition until a new move was necessary. The wounded tank could go no farther and had to be destroyed. The other two and the carriers fell back to a final position. By 5 p.m. The two tanks were fit for nothing more and Major Peck reported to Brigadier Vasey. Vasey decided that both tanks and carriers would have to be wrecked and left. This was done at 5.45. The crews left for the dispersal area.
This coolly fought action had prevented the enemy coming up against the main positions much earlier and great credit is due to those who took part. In fact their resistance and the demolitions seem to have destroyed the enemy’s stomach for a frontal advance, and Colonel Utz, early in the afternoon, began to call for dive-bombers and motorised artillery. The call for air support got through too late to be complied with that day; and the guns were too far back to be got forward till 31 May.61
The enemy was now right up against the main delaying position where 2/7 Battalion barred the road, with the Royal Marine battalion behind to give the defence depth. Seeing no promise in a frontal attack Utz decided he must try the flanks.
Here, too, he was to be frustrated. Vasey had foreseen that an attempt might be made to penetrate down the Sfakiano and Imvrotiko Ravines on the left and right of the road, and had posted 2/8 Battalion to cover the former and Layforce to cover the latter. When the first enemy party appeared, about 2 p.m., it ran into fire from the Australians and from New Zealand troops bivouacked in the neighbourhood. Twenty-five enemy dead were later counted.62
The 20th Battalion also had a brush with a party which seems to have filtered through from another part of the Sfakiano Ravine. Colonel Kippenberger had been ordered by General Weston to take his battalion down to the beach and bring back rations for the rearguard. Two companies had reached the ravine at the bottom, close to Force HQ, and two more were following down the hill when firing broke out from the north end of it. Brigadier Inglis observed through his glasses about fifty enemy with mules, a mortar, and several machine guns. He at once sent Lieutenant Purcell63 to halt the two rear companies of 20 Battalion and get them to return the enemy fire. Meanwhile Kippenberger was himself taking action to block the ravine and put some of his men where they could command it from the western shoulder. To effect these two purposes he sent Captain Washbourn, with A Company, up the ravine bed and Captain Fountaine, with C Company, up the cliffs on its west side.
... Upham’s platoon was slowly climbing up the steep 600-foot hill west of the ravine. The men were weak and very weary but they kept slowly going, and we could see that Upham was working round above the Germans still in the bottom of the ravine and pinned down by Washbourn’s company and by fire from the eastern bank. Two hours after they had
started the climb there was another sharp outburst of firing. It lasted about a minute, there were then some single shots, and then silence. A little later Upham’s platoon started to come back and then a message came that all twenty-two of the enemy party had been killed, completely helpless under his plunging fire.64
Apart from some mortar fire during the day which gave 23 and 28 Battalions trouble and forced them to change their positions, there were no further serious excitements and the enemy reserved most of his dash for reports to higher headquarters.
Behind the defensive screen the problems of the night’s evacuation were being busily canvassed. General Freyberg held a conference at 9.30 a.m. which General Weston, Brigadiers Vasey, Inglis and Hargest all attended. He told them that four destroyers would come that night and each would take 500 men. The ships would have to be clear by 2 a.m. Both 4 and 5 Brigades were to go but, as room could not be found for all, one battalion would have to remain. The battalion to stay was to be from 5 Brigade and Hargest was asked to nominate it. He chose 21 Battalion.
... I sent for Col. John Allen 21st and told him, ‘I have to choose, John, your Bn with its attached troops is the strongest, you yourself are the youngest CO and the freshest ... you have to stay.’
He took it like a man.65
The laconic note in Lieutenant-Colonel Allen’s report suggests that this interview took place at 2 p.m. ‘1400 hrs. Went to Bde HQ. 21 Bn placed under 19 Aus Bde. Went to their HQ and saw the Brigadier (Vasey) who asked me to get the Bn disposed tactically. This I did. ...’66
At the conference General Freyberg had instructed Brigadier Inglis to take charge of the embarkation that night, impressing on him the need to keep the beach under firm control. Inglis decided to use 18 Battalion for this purpose and went with Gray to reconnoitre the beach and the route to it. On his return to Force HQ he was met by Captain Morse with a signal from Admiral Cunningham to the effect that no more than 250 troops were to be taken off in any one destroyer, because the ships would be exposed to air attack next day and the risk of casualties on a crowded boat was too great.
Inglis then went to General Freyberg for fresh orders. ‘He said, “You and your HQ must go. The CO and HQ of each 4 Bde Bn and 28 Bn must go. Hargest and the rest of his Bde will have to stay till tomorrow night.”‘67
Brigadier Inglis at once dictated the following warning order, timed 2.25 p.m.:
1. Force HQ directs that the following Tps only embark tonight:
(a) HQ 4 Inf Bde strength 70
(b) HQ and part 19 and 20 Bns strength in each case 230
(c) HQ and part 28 (Maori) Bn strength 230
(d) 18 Bn strength 234.
2. Balance of 19, 20 and 28 (Maori) Bns will be placed under Comd Lt-Col Burrows and is expected will be embarked tomorrow night.
3. HQ of each Bn must be embarked tonight.
4. Units will organise forthwith parties to be embarked tonight.
5. Orders for the move to the beaches will be issued shortly.
G. P. Sanders, Maj BM
The grim news came as a relief to Brigadier Hargest. ‘I obeyed with a light heart – no need now to ask Allen to stay. We were all staying.’68 He called his commanders together and told them that, except for 28 Battalion, the whole of 5 Brigade would have to stay another twenty-four hours. Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer at once objected. His battalion had fought the campaign as a unit and as a unit it should meet whatever came next, whether it was embarkation or being left behind. He spoke like a good battalion commander but Hargest had his orders and had to enforce them. The protest was overruled.
At 7.45 p.m. General Weston sent out a further order:
I propose to leave on top storey the following under Vasey: –
19 Inf Bde
21 NZ Bn
I should be glad if Comdr 5 NZ Bde would bring down with him for duty on the ground floor his two remaining Bns. The remnants of 4 NZ Bde under Lt Col Burrow[s] will be brigaded with 5 NZ and known as 4 Bn.
One Bn is immediately reqd for protection of western gully which has been giving a lot of trouble today.
This plan, in so far as it affected 21 Battalion Group, was modified soon after, however, and the battalion again came under
The command of 5 Brigade. Orders were given for the battalions to remain where they were for the night – 23 Battalion posting a platoon to cover the ravine – and to move down into positions covering the beach at 5 a.m. next day.
Meanwhile more encouraging prospects for next night’s embarkation were opened by a message from Weston at 8.5 p.m.:
Shipping is being laid on tomorrow night for a proportion of fighting tps. Advantage can only be taken of this if you hold on to present positions tomorrow. Am confident you will do this.
The valley and heights on your left will need attention. Suggest at least one coy each side of ravine.
It had been a difficult day for all the battalions and they badly needed cheering news. Food and water had been hard to come by. All the troops had been tried to the limit and had then had to summon up reserves they hardly knew they had in order to face the disappointment of no evacuation that night, the doubts about evacuation next night, and the knowledge that even if it came they would have to endure between now and then another twenty-four hours with the threat of infiltration always present and a further call to battle always possible. But they acquitted themselves well in these adversities as in all those that had gone before. The spirit which had overcome exhaustion and carried the men of 20 Battalion up the steep slope to counter the threat from the flank, like the spirit which animated Lieutenant-Colonel Allen when he received his orders to join the last rearguard, was characteristic of all that was best in the Division in this campaign and in many another to follow.
As commander of 4 Brigade and as officer responsible for the night’s embarkation, Brigadier Inglis was to get one more unpleasant shock before the day was out. During the morning engine trouble forced one of the four destroyers coming from Alexandria – the Kandahar – to turn back; and in the afternoon Kelvin, damaged by a near miss, was also ordered to return. News of this reached Captain Morse during the afternoon, after Inglis had issued his orders for the embarkation of 1000 men. Brigadier Inglis, when he knew, determined that he would make no change in his orders but would somehow or other get the thousand men aboard.
Daybreak had found the battalions of his brigade, like those of 5 Brigade, in their dispersal areas on the escarpment. Here 18 Battalion was now joined by its Headquarters Company which had hived off at Vrises to give flank protection. The battalion spent the day resting, a rest disturbed only by the necessity of sending B Company to the east bank of the ravine when the enemy’s
penetration threat arose during the afternoon. The 19th Battalion – now reduced to a strength of 213 – rested also.
The 20th Battalion’s only movements during the day arose from General Weston’s orders about bringing up rations from the beach,69 and the operation against infiltrating enemy already described. It was while Colonel Kippenberger was in the neighbourhood of Creforce HQ that he received the evacuation instruction for that night. He protested at Major Burrows’ being left behind instead of himself and was ‘sharply overruled’ – for General Freyberg had expressly said that unit commanders must go.
Kippenberger was left to contemplate one of the unhappiest situations a commander can be confronted with: the prospect of having to move off to safety leaving some of his men behind.
... I went back to the valley and with a heart as cold as stone sat down to consider the position. I had 306 men, including the Kiwi Concert Party and 4 Brigade Band. I decided that the Concert Party and band must stay, which left about 40 to remain from the Twentieth. These were apportioned between companies and I told them to make the selection any way they liked. I decided that Markham should be the officer to stay but, when a deputation of subalterns came to point out that he was married and to push their own claims to be left, selected Rolleston instead. I had to turn down very emphatically some urgent appeals to be left with the rear-party.70
Meanwhile C Company had come back from its stiff climb. Captain Fountaine explained the new situation to his weary men and asked for volunteers to stay behind.
... There was a gasp and then Grooby, the CSM, stepped forward. He was followed at once by Fraser, the CQMS, and by Kirk and Vincent, the two sergeants, and then the remaining forty men. The NCOs insisted on staying and after much argument lots had to be drawn for the men.71
At 3.15 p.m. more explicit instructions went out. The numbers to be evacuated from each battalion – 230 men – were repeated. All those to be left behind were to come under command of Major Burrows and to expect evacuation next night. Those due to embark were to begin moving towards an assembly area near Creforce HQ at once and to be there by eight o’clock. Precautions were to be taken to ensure that only those authorised should go, and 18 Battalion’s orders to provide a picket for the beach were confirmed.72
Accordingly, 18 Battalion moved down to the assembly area about four o’clock and stayed there till half past eight. It then went to
Sfakia beach, fixed bayonets, and formed a cordon through which only authorised units could come.
The 19th Battalion followed and reached the assembly area an hour after 18 Battalion. Seventeen men who had lost touch rejoined on the way and made up the authorised number. But there were others in the area who were not able to make contact. At last the time to embark came, at about midnight, and the men began to be ferried aboard.
The account given by Colonel Kippenberger is typical for the events and feelings of that night:
The afternoon wore miserably on, but at last there was nothing for it but to say good-bye and go. I spoke as reassuringly as I could to the rear-party, shook hands with Jim, and went off very sadly.
We had a tramp of some miles to the beach, the last part lined with men who had lost their units and were hoping for a place with us. Some begged and implored, most simply watched stonily, so that we felt bitterly ashamed. There was a cordon round the beach with orders to shoot any man who tried to break in. I had to count my men through. We were the last unit to pass, and on the principle that there is always room for one more, I bullied the cordon officer into letting me take Frank Davis, with some of Divisional Headquarters as well. I had Brian Bassett with me and just before embarking found that John Russell was in an ADS on the beach and insisted on taking him also.73
Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer had made his preparations early and nominated the officers to stay behind. Company commanders were to divide their men into those to go and those to stay. Major Dyer and Captain Rangi Royal, both men who had already shouldered ugly tasks in the days that now lay on the other side of the White Mountains, were to command the rear party.
At 6 p.m. those to embark set off and dispersed on the assembly area under cover from harassing enemy aircraft. After dark they went down in parties of fifty, were checked through the cordon, and eventually went aboard. Typical of the pride of the battalion is the story of A Company’s toilet that morning:
... on the morning of the 30th, by a pooling of resources the personnel of my Company Headquarters numbering, I think, seven, had all managed to change. One man had managed to locate a safety razor with an ancient well-used blade, another had sufficient water in his water-bottle, a third provided a brush, while my steel helmet was used as the shaving mug. It had been hard work as none of us had shaved for some few days and I think we all balked when it came to shaving the upper lip. The proportion of moustaches in the Battalion was high when we eventually reached Egypt.74
The marching personnel of Divisional HQ who had been left behind the night before had spent the day in the Komitadhes Ravine. During the day Major Davis got authority to move 50 of his men and 50 from Divisional Signals to the beach in case there should be room on the ships. Fortunately for them, the ship commanders were able to make room for 400 more than the quota of 1000 and, by the intervention of Brigadier Inglis and Colonel Kippenberger, the whole party was embarked. By Inglis’ authority also, it is pleasant to record, a number of wounded and the men of C Squadron 3 Hussars were also got aboard.75
With the last boat to leave the beach went the last of the 18 Battalion cordon and its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Gray.
Apart from Divisional HQ many other groups had been collected into the Komitadhes Ravine. Major Bull’s party was continually increased by other parties coming in and was organised as well as possible in the circumstances. A member of the embarkation staff had told Bull that word would be sent when parties were needed at the beach, and until then he kept the area picketed. He also organised ration parties to forage for food – though they found none. On such a mission in the village Second-Lieutenant Allison76 was offered embarkation by a beach officer but refused on the ground that it was his duty to return and report. ‘This action had immense moral effect, since some officers and NCOs were already voicing extremely undisciplined and self-centred views.’77
The magnitude of the refusal is not difficult to appreciate. For such a chance of embarkation offered release from a grim situation. These were men who, mostly from no fault of their own, had been cut off from their units and had done their share of fighting in most cases. They must now have felt lost, despairing, and unfairly excluded from the organised embarkation. There was little information and no strong reason to hope that the boats would come again or that, if they came, what had happened before would not recur: the infantry organised in their brigades and with brigadiers to look to their interests would be taken off; the troops from specialised arms or services, without a high-ranking spokesman, would once more be left behind; and left behind to the certainty of long years cut off from their comrades and the war they had come to fight, languishing in prison camps.
For the New Zealander, whose habit of seeing for himself and deciding by what his own spirit and intelligence tells him makes him such a formidable fighter, but also makes him impatient of sitting down passively to await for an undesirable fate, such a prospect was exceedingly difficult to bear. And so it is hard not to sympathise with questioning murmurs that met Major Bull’s policy. On the other hand, that policy was founded on the discipline which makes men soldiers as well as fighters and holds them together in good times and bad. If we cannot withhold sympathy from those who grumbled we cannot fail to give it to Bull and those who helped him. The firmness and lack of solicitude for self which they showed is beyond praise.
There were still other groups of gunners and others from the former Composite Battalion who had missed the control point and had gone into the Sfakia area – parties with Major Bliss, Lieutenant Coleman and other officers. These found that only the infantry units were being embarked and Bliss therefore dispersed them with orders to reassemble next night. This was unlucky for they missed the chance which arose when the ships took more than their quota.
The morning of 30 May was made even gloomier for General Freyberg than it need have been by a miscalculation of the number of men taken off the night before. It was thought that because of delay in getting off wounded only 3500 men had been embarked, and this belief is reflected in the situation report sent to General Wavell at 9 a.m. In this Freyberg also explained the operations of the previous day and the position as it was at the time of despatch with all the troops withdrawn behind Brigadier Vasey’s rearguard. And in another message sent about the same time he pressed for every effort to be made to embark the maximum number of troops, not only that night but on the night of 31 May as well. Then he discovered the mistake about the numbers embarked the night before and telegraphed again to General Wavell that the number was now thought to be 6500. It was probably after this, at 1.30 p.m., that he sent a further message pleading for one last lift the next night which would take up to 7000 men and expressing despair at the idea that these men who had fought the rearguard so gallantly should be left behind.78
To these messages Wavell replied that everything possible was being done to effect a rescue, that Mr. Fraser and General Blamey were being consulted and their agreement to every decision taken
could be assumed, that Brigadier Vasey was to be embarked that night if possible, and that risks far beyond the justifiable were being taken to carry the evacuation through.
In the hope that Mr. Fraser might be able to bring additional pressure to bear, General Freyberg also sent him a signal at 2.50 p.m. asking him if he could get more ships to take part in the following night’s evacuation. Fraser’s part in these arrangements is dealt with below.79
Further messages from Middle East confirmed that destroyers were on their way to carry out the night’s evacuation and that flying boats would come during darkness to pick up Freyberg’s own party. He was ordered to make sure that he came by warship should bad weather prevent the flying boats from arriving.
There was now little more that Freyberg could do. After handing over the command to General Weston he sent one final appeal to General Wavell: he begged him to do everything possible to provide ships next night for the evacuation of the gallant British, New Zealand, and Australian troops who had carried the weight of the fighting.80 This done, he had made his final plea. And he had done his best to get into communication with Retimo, though without result. There was nothing for it now but to wait for the Sunderlands to arrive.
At 8.45 p.m. The party to go back to Egypt by air gathered in the caves of the RAF HQ. It consisted of General Freyberg himself, Group Captain Beamish, Brigadier Stewart, and key men from the various headquarters. In due course the Sunderlands landed on the water, the party went down and passed through the entry to Brigadier Inglis’ cordon. As it did so Freyberg ordered Inglis to join the party. Inglis demurred and was in his turn ‘sharply overruled’. About eleven o’clock all were aboard the flying boats, which then set off.
My feelings can be imagined better than described (says General Freyberg). I was handing over a difficult situation with the enemy through in one place almost to the beaches from which we were to make our last attempt to get away the remnants of the fighting force that still held out, tired, hungry, and thirsty on the heights above.81
Thoughts for the fate of the garrison at Retimo made this departure all the more bitter for General Freyberg. And indeed this was the last day of the battle for Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell
and his men. At daylight they saw enemy trucks moving east through Perivolia and drew the only conclusion possible. The main force round Canea must have been driven south or overrun.
But Campbell’s orders were still, so far as he knew, to hold the airfield. He decided that he and his men must fight on. It could not be for long. The enemy was well equipped with heavy machine guns, mortars, guns, and light tanks. The defence had enough rations for a day only, were short of ammunition, and were outnumbered by troops who, compared with themselves, were fresh.
C Company of 2/11 Battalion from its positions near Perivolia tried to contain the enemy but was soon overrun. The enemy’s next move was to advance along the main road with guns and a tank until they reached the airfield. Other columns, also with armour, worked their way into Pigi. The defence was virtually surrounded and the ridge which it held was being steadily shelled.
Campbell saw that he could offer no further effective resistance. The choice lay between surrender and escape to the hills and the south coast. The latter course would be impossible as an organised movement. The only clue to the evacuation port was Lieutenant Haig’s orders to take his MLC to Sfakia. There was no guarantee that evacuation would still be going on. In such uncertainty Campbell could hardly commit his battalions to the hills and expect the Cretans, however loyal, to provide them with food and shelter. Nor could he expect to break contact in daylight, even if it had been possible with defective communications to organise such a withdrawal.
The same objections applied to withdrawal by battalions, with the added disadvantage that the force would be even easier for the enemy to dispose of piecemeal.
The alternative, then, was surrender. Before he decided to take that bitter course, Campbell concurred when the CO 2/11 Battalion (Major R. L. Sandover) informed him that he was giving his men the choice of surrendering or dispersing. So Campbell’s 2/1 Battalion surrendered more or less intact, while most of Sandover’s dispersed, some of its officers and men to be captured at last by the Germans, others by one means or another to reach Egypt, and all of them to incur a lasting debt to the generous courage of the Cretans who shared meagre supplies with them and risked burnt homes and slaughtered menfolk. So ended one of the most gallant episodes in the defence of Crete.
On 30 May the Navy had two forces at sea. Returning from Sfakia and the previous night’s embarkation was Force D – Glengyle, Phoebe, Perth, Calcutta, Coventry, Jervis, Janus and Hasty – with
The additional escort of the destroyers Stuart, Jaguar and Defender, which had joined at 6.45 a.m. On the way to Sfakia for the next embarkation was Force C – Napier, Nizam, Kelvin and Kandahar.
Force D suffered three attacks. The first was at 9.30 a.m. and put Perth’s foremost boiler room out of action. The other two attacks got no closer than near misses, probably because the RAF fighter protection system was now working. Two enemy bombers were shot down.
Force C was less fortunate. Kandahar developed a mechanical defect at 12.45 p.m. and had to return to Alexandria. In a sudden bomber attack at half past three Kelvin was damaged and also had to turn back. No replacements could be got from Force D because of fuel shortage and the remaining two ships had to go on alone. They arrived off Sfakia about midnight and proceeded with the evacuation as we have seen, taking about 1400 men in all.
The Twelfth Day: 31 May
By the end of 30 May, except for the Sfakia rearguard, all organised resistance on Crete had ended. For news of operations against that rearguard General Ringel depended on liaison officers from Colonel Utz, wireless communication having been outrun. And when a liaison officer finally got through, late in the afternoon of 30 May, his news was not particularly stimulating: 100 Mountain Regiment was held up about five kilometres from the coast and heavily engaged. Outflanking movements were being tried.
Utz considered his position difficult. Deciding that day against frontal attack – for in this he showed himself throughout a Ringel disciple and here had good occasion – he had sent two companies through Lakkoi to attack Point 798 on the west of the road and another company east of the road to seize Point 892. The western thrust ‘could not be completed on 30 May because of the unusually difficult going and the steep hills to be negotiated.’82 the encounter with Australian and New Zealand troops already described amplifies the explanation.
The eastern thrust approached Point 892 but progress was not spectacular, and so Utz decided that on 31 May he must try much wider flanking movements. For these he would use II Battalion while I Battalion contained the central front. At 4.30 a.m. next day, therefore, 7 Company of II Battalion left the Askifou Plain with orders to make for Sfakia by way of Point 1186, Point 1173,
and Point 979 on the west of the road; and 8 Company set off with orders to travel via Asfendhon to Ay Andonios (Point 246). In this way it was hoped to hem in the defence from two sides.
Meanwhile the company of I Battalion sent east on 30 May had reached Point 892. It was joined there by a regimental observation post. From this point the whole coast could be observed and Utz was informed that there were strong forces in Komitadhes and Sfakia. Prudence counselled him to postpone his attack until he could get artillery and dive-bomber support and, because he could not get his plea for these to Ringel in time for an assault that day, he decided he would wait until 1 June. But in the evening he found that he would not be able to get artillery until the afternoon of 1 June, though air support was promised for next morning. Prudence once more intervened, therefore, and he decided he would spend 1 June completing the encirclement of the rearguard and attack only on 2 June.
Apart from the advance of 7 and 8 Companies – neither of which reached their objective – his only exploit for the day was to get a light infantry gun up on to Point 892, a difficult enough feat for those who had to manhandle it.
The defence line which was giving Colonel Utz’s talents for caution such exercise consisted still of Layforce on the right guarding the Imvrotiko Ravine, 2/7 Battalion in the centre with the main road as its axis, and the Marine Battalion in reserve; and 2/8 Battalion on the left guarding the Sfakiano Ravine. The last two guns of C Troop 2/3 RAA were on the central ridge, behind the reserve.
The position was naturally a strong one, even though defended by troops who were almost exhausted and whose arms and equipment were less adequate than they had ever been at any point in a campaign distinguished for inadequacy in these respects. Since the enemy was not prepared to try a frontal attack and was waiting for his flank thrusts to mature, there was no direct engagement between the opposing forces. The enemy was content to harass the defending battalions with his machine guns and mortars.
Time was on the side of Utz. For Brigadier Vasey’s men its promise was more difficult to read. Time might bring ships and safety. But there was little time left; and if the ships did not come tonight there might not be another chance. The enemy’s movement round the flanks had been observed; patrols had reported enemy parties between Sfakia and Frangokasterion; and the Navy had reported other enemy patrols advancing on Porto Loutro from
The west. There was nothing to be done, however, to counteract these moves, and the main task was obviously to go on protecting the beaches for as long as there was still prospect of evacuation.
Conferring on these matters in the afternoon with General Weston, Vasey suggested that he could best hold the enemy clear of the beach until the night of 1 June – the last when evacuation would be possible, Weston said – by remaining in his present position while Weston made arrangements for beach protection on the east and west. And to this General Weston agreed.83 Vasey then returned to his own HQ and passed on the news of this plan to the commander of 2/7 Battalion.
Orders the night before for 5 Brigade had been that the units should begin coming down from the escarpment about dawn. The battalions were astir before first light and by 5 a.m. were on their
way down. It was a depressing journey. ‘Past burned trucks, piles of documents, dead men – all the litter of an escaping army was there – everything but food,’ says Brigadier Hargest; and his words are echoed by a warrant officer of 21 Battalion: ‘... immobilised vehicles ... a few ambulances ... shot up by hostile aircraft. The smell of the dead in these vehicles was almost overpowering.’ Down on the flat, however, there was at least a well. ‘the men went over and filled themselves and their bottles. Some food was found and spirits rose with the sun.’84
Weston asked Hargest to establish his HQ in the caves where his own HQ was, and Hargest then preoccupied himself with the arrangements for the hoped-for embarkation of his brigade that night and the organisation of an inner perimeter in the meantime. He also had to deal with the continual requests for a place in the evacuation that came to him from the unattached troops in the neighbourhood. The problem was a difficult one. He had 1100 troops of his own, counting those of 20 Battalion who had been left behind the night before. He was determined that these men who had fought together so long and well would go aboard that night. But he was also moved by the plight of these others.
All day I answered pleas to be allowed to come. I pointed out that I was a passenger with my men and that if I took others I must drop some of mine. That I would not do. When men came with rifles and proved their worth I sent them to one or other unit. If they came without rifles I turned them down cold – they were stragglers. Never had I such a day.85
When Hargest and Weston first met that morning the latter explained his hopes for the night’s evacuation, and at 7.30 a.m. The orders were drawn up:
Although the Navy is doing its best, probably only 2000 will be embarked tonight 31 May. Allocation will be made for fighting tps and is:
NZ – 950
Aust – 2/8 Bn (200)
British – 850
Comds 5 NZ [and] 8 Aust IB [presumably 2/8 Battalion] will however be prepared to increase numbers allocated in para 1 at short notice but too many tps must not be sent to the beaches so as to avoid disappointment.
There were to be modifications to these arrangements as the day went on. But meanwhile the units were busy carrying out plans for an inner perimeter of defence. At 10 a.m. 21 Battalion got
orders to cover the western exits from Sfakiano Ravine. The battalion therefore sent two detachments, one 100 strong under Captain Ferguson of 7 Field Company and another 50 strong under Lieutenant Roach, to guard the spurs which overlooked the ravine. On the left of these a post from the rear party of 20 Battalion had been established. Farther again to the left was a detachment of about fifty men from 23 Battalion under Lieutenant Cunningham. The 22nd Battalion covered the tracks leading west out of Sfakia, 28 Battalion relieved Layforce and took over the covering of the Imvrotiko Ravine, while Layforce itself took up fresh positions in the hills immediately north of Sfakia. The net result was that the line had been extended south-west from 2/8 Battalion to the sea.
These movements were the result of a change of plan from that entailed by the orders of the night before. With the enemy attempting as we have seen to circle round the flanks, there is no doubt of the prudence of fresh measures. But they were not carried out without further effort on the part of the troops:
The perimeter had to be held and I put it to the men in consideration of the priority of Embarkation that they would go back up the heights and hold – the strongest at the top, the next strongest on the inner hill features, the weaker in the hollows – noble fellows, they went back up the hillside like ‘redshanks’ and when the GOC asked me how it was going – I was able to point far up on the skyline the troops going to their appointed positions.86
General Weston began the day on the assumption that evacuation would take place that night and the night of 1 June also. He expected about 2000 to be taken off on the next lift and as many as possible the night after, when he proposed to leave himself also. Thus we have seen him discussing with Brigadier Vasey the scheme by which Vasey’s brigade was to hold the central heights while the other troops behind prevented enemy infiltration into the flanks. And the alterations in the dispositions of 5 Brigade from those prescribed the evening before were concerted with Hargest to the same purpose.
A similar reading of the evacuation prospects is offered by the signals exchanged between General Weston and Middle East during the earlier part of the day. These signals, it should be added, were sent and received over a single wireless set, the batteries of which were fast running down, and so Weston had not only the anxiety of depending on decisions taken far away but had always
to reckon with precarious communications which at any time might cease altogether.
The first message from Weston of which we have a copy was sent at 10.55 a.m. and dealt with rations. He explained that the supply situation was critical and asked for 10,000 rations to be sent that night: a course too difficult for Middle East, for the ships for the night’s task had already left, transport aircraft scarcely existed, and the message was not received until 12.55 p.m. on the day the supplies were to be sent.87
This message evidently presupposed that all troops were not to be evacuated that night and that evacuation would continue. The next makes this assumption even plainer. Weston indicated that he had three alternative plans for further evacuation. By the first, the troops would be taken off from Frangokasterion on the night of 1 June and from Plaka Bay on the night of 2 June. By the second, evacuation would take place from Porto Loutro and would be complete on the night of 1 June. By the third, Sfakia beach would be used as before and the operation would be for one night only. Which course he proposed to follow General Weston said he would report later; and no doubt it would depend on how the military situation developed.88
Meanwhile a message evidently reached Weston from Middle East. For at 11.51 a.m. he replies to a signal sent at 6.50 that morning which must have been a request for a report on the numbers still left.89 the reply states that there are still 4000 troops organised for fighting, 3500 organised into formed groups, and 1500 unorganised stragglers – a total of 9000.
At 4 p.m. Weston still believed that two nights remained for evacuation. The lack of definite news worried him, however, and at that time he sent another signal. He repeated the number 9000. Because of the difficulty of getting troops forward at the last minute over hard terrain, he doubted whether the full capacity of the ships had been used the night before – evidently hinting that if they were to be loaded to the full timely warning would be appreciated. And he said that he had every hope that Sfakia could be used again on the night of 1 June.90
But, for reasons to be discussed,91 General Wavell had by this time decided that this would be the last night. Some time after 4 p.m. Weston received a signal: 3600 men would be taken that night and there would be no further evacuation thereafter. This
must have been received before 6 p.m.; for in a signal sent at that time Weston explains that the new arrangements meant leaving 5500 men behind, exhausted and short of food. Without some regular supply of rations resistance would be impossible and their only hope would lie in capitulation. What action was he to take?92
While waiting for an answer to this appeal, Weston had to go ahead on the basis of what he knew.93 He called a conference at which Brigadier Hargest was present:
‘A big ship would take off 3500 tonight, after that nothing.’
We sat stunned by it. We had expected two or three more nights of it but this was to be the end.
We kept it secret and at once arranged to increase quotas. I forced ours up to 1400 inclusive of wounded – we got off 1500 actually, and the staff arranged increases all round.
The situation of the remaining ones was desperate – far more so than they knew, poor fellows. But I could do no more.94
General Weston’s next move was to climb the hill and see Brigadier Vasey. They met at 7.40 p.m. Weston explained what had happened and said that he was allotting 500 extra places to Vasey and his men and 300 to the Royal Marines. This would make the distribution between British, Australian, and New Zealand troops proportionately fair. Fair, but tragically so. But for Vasey the news was not overwhelmingly bad. He would be able to get most of his two battalions off that night instead of having to hold a weakened line for a further day. He allotted the extra places to 2/7 Battalion and his own staff.
Weston had still one unenviable task. Layforce had been the last troops to arrive. There would be no room for all who had fought. Some would have to stay. The only criterion was the crude one of seniority in the battle. Weston therefore sent for Colonel Laycock. The latter was to nominate an officer to handle the capitulation. He decided it would be Lieutenant-Colonel Colvin, the commander of A Battalion. To him was given General Weston’s order:
The position must be considered in the light of the following facts:
1. there are no more rations available and men have had no food for three days.
2. the wireless set can only last a few hours and the risk of waiting for further instructions from HQ ME cannot be accepted.
3. the decision to give priority in withdrawal to fighting troops has reduced numbers below the minimum necessary for resistance.
4. No more evacuation is possible.
5. You will collect as many senior officers as possible and make known to them the contents of this order.
6. You are ordered to make contact with the enemy and arrange capitulation.95
The various commanders now began their preparations. Brigadier Vasey sent his Brigade Major to warn 2/7 Battalion and the Royal Marines that they must be ready to leave at 9.15 and 9 p.m. respectively. The Royal Marines from this point must have ceased to come under his command; for he goes on to say that 2/7 Battalion was ordered to go straight to the beach and embark that night.96
Fifth Brigade was to supply the beach cordon. Brigadier Hargest allotted the job to 22 Battalion and the remainder of 28 Battalion. The following orders were sent out at 4.5 p.m.:
The 28 Bn will withdraw from komitades on receipt of this order and will RV in donga [ravine] where main road crosses donga.
You will come under command of 22 Bn and with it form a cordon around the disembarkation beach at sparkion [Sfakia]. Lieut Chinchen will lead you from donga to sparkion.
I desire to remind you that this job will be hard – you must be ruthless and determined. It will be necessary to be on the beach somewhere about 2115 hrs when you will report to Col Andrews [Andrew].
A similar order was sent at 4.10 p.m. to 22 Battalion, together with the information that the only New Zealand units authorised to embark were HQ 5 Brigade, 21, 22, 23, 28 and 20 Battalions in that order, except for the two cordon units which would come last. All New Zealand units were to reach the barrier not later than 10 p.m.
There were still many wounded whose fate had to be considered. The MDS at Imvros had been cleared on the night of 29 May, except for 40 seriously wounded who were unable to march. With these had stayed behind an Australian medical officer and New Zealand and Australian orderlies. The rest of the medical staff went with the walking wounded. Only slow and painful progress could be made, and daylight of 30 May found the party still some miles from the beach. All that day therefore the men lay up in caves and at dark they set off once more. This time they reached
The bottom of the escarpment before dawn.97 An RAP was set up and again the wounded hid in caves while the enemy air force machine-gunned their hiding places.
At Force HQ it was decided that patients and medical staff must be given priority that night, and at 4 p.m. a party of about eighty walking wounded and medical staff again began to creep towards the beach. Another party of 50 men, chosen by ballot from 5 and 6 Field Ambulances and from 1 General Hospital, were supposed to be taken off but lost their places to 5 Brigade HQ. Other small parties did not reach the beach.
Fortunate on this final day was the man who was with his unit and that unit infantry. For others the prospect was bleak. Thus there was no place among those authorised to embark for the artillerymen. Early in the day, at Force HQ, Brigadier Hargest had told Major Bull that his men would have to wait. Hargest was still confident that there would be another night’s evacuation and assured Bull that there would then be enough shipping to take everyone. He did, however, suggest that six ‘specialists’ be selected for evacuation that night. ‘In view of its possible effect on the weak morale being shown in some quarters and Brig Hargest’s certainty about the 1–2 June evacuation, this offer was declined on the spot.’98
General Weston had learnt during the afternoon of the decision taken in the Middle East to make this night the last. It is now time to consider how it came about that this decision had to be taken.
On 30 May it had been decided that, while no further cruisers or Glen ships could be risked in further evacuation, four destroyers should be sent on the night of 31 May. When Mr. Fraser learnt of this at Alexandria on 30 May and understood that this was to be the last night, he urged on Admiral Cunningham and General Evetts (General Wavell’s liaison officer with Admiral Cunningham) that at least one additional ship should be sent. The only ship that Cunningham had suitable for the purpose was the cruiser Phoebe. And Phoebe was even then on her way back from the evacuation of the night before. Cunningham decided that when
she arrived and disembarked her troops the ship’s company would be replaced and the ship herself sent back.99
The result of these arrangements was that on the morning of 31 May the Navy had two forces at sea in connection with the Cretan operations. The destroyers Napier and Nizam were on their way back from Sfakia, while Phoebe, Abdiel,100 Kimberley, Hotspur, and Jackal were on their way to Sfakia, having left Alexandria at 6 a.m. The first force, in spite of cover from RAF aircraft during the day, was attacked by bombers about nine o’clock and Napier was damaged by near misses which reduced her speed to 23 knots.
The news of this attack and the probability that the second force would have similar attacks to endure before it could be back in Alexandria must have been much in the minds of General Wavell and Admiral Cunningham at this time. And during the morning the latter learnt from Captain S. H. T. Arliss, who had commanded the destroyers in the previous night’s operation, that there were still about 6500 men at Sfakia. Cunningham therefore ordered Rear-Admiral King in the Phoebe to increase the maximum number of troops to be embarked to 3500.
Shortly after this message had been sent Mr. Fraser, General Wavell, General Freyberg – who had arrived back safely at 3 a.m. – and General Evetts came to Cunningham’s HQ in Alexandria. Cunningham describes what passed:
As the result of our deliberations it seemed that Rear-Admiral King’s five ships would be able to bring off most of the troops assembled at Sphakia, so a message was sent telling him to fill up to capacity. At the same time I informed the Admiralty that I had called a halt after the evacuation that night, and that even if Rear-Admiral King’s ships were to suffer no damage in the operation in which they were then engaged, the Mediterranean Fleet would be reduced to two battleships, one cruiser, two anti-aircraft cruisers, one minelayer and nine destroyers fit for service.101
The arguments for a halt in the evacuation are set out in a message from Cunningham to the Admiralty sent on 1 June. Apart from the existing losses to the Fleet, it would be impossible to go on providing the air support which had been so useful in the latter stages. For Tobruk badly needed all the air cover available. Again, the moon was now full and would permit the enemy to bomb ships and beaches by night. And the troops left on the
morning of 1 June would probably have had to capitulate in any case.102
Back in London Admiral Cunningham’s report that the evacuation was to end that night caused dismay. It reached the Prime Minister and, shortly after getting it, at 10.20 p.m., he rang the Vice-Chief of Naval Staff. In the subsequent conversation he made it clear that 4000–5000 men could not possibly be left behind without further attempt to save them. The Vice-Chief was of similar mind; and he pointed out that in the preceding two days heavy naval losses had been absent, a fact which he attributed to air support. The telephone conversation ended with a request from Mr. Churchill that proposals be put to the First Sea Lord for a further effort.
At 10.33 p.m. Therefore the Vice-Chief rang the First Sea Lord, who agreed that if the relative immunity of the last two days were due to air support, if this could be continued, and if no new factor arose to change the situation, a further attempt should be made. Accordingly, at 10.47 p.m., the Vice-Chief rang Mr. Churchill and read to him over the telephone a draft message to Admiral Cunningham. This draft Mr. Churchill approved.103
At half past eleven the message was sent. In effect it said that, if there was a reasonable chance of an organised and substantial body of men being able to embark on the night of 1 June, then the Government thought that the attempt to evacuate them should be made. This view assumed that aircraft had contributed to the success of the evacuation so far and would be available on the next occasion also. The message ended by suggesting that if what happened during the day of 1 June indicated a different course as prudent, then the question could be reconsidered.104
To this message Cunningham replied next day, repeating and reinforcing the arguments he had already put forward the day before and reporting that the 5500 men left in Sfakia had been given orders to capitulate.105
But this account of the background of the decisions taken in the Middle East has already carried us ahead of events in Crete itself. It is now time to turn back and give an account of the last night of evacuation.
As the evening of 31 May came on, the battalions of 5 Brigade called in their outlying pickets and then, when it was dark, closed in on one another and prepared to march. At about nine o’clock they were all on the move towards Sfakia ‘in a solid block and at a slow pace so that none could break in from the Donga to Sphakia.’106 By 10 p.m. The head of the column had reached the beach. A quarter of an hour later three motor landing craft that had hidden up all day along the coast appeared and the first lift of men shuffled thankfully aboard. At twenty minutes past eleven the ships themselves – they had survived three attacks by enemy bombers on the way – drew in. For half an hour they landed stores. And then 5 Brigade began to embark.
For Brigadier Hargest it had been a hard day. Since 7 p.m. he had been supervising in Sfakia and on the beach.
I was exhausted and the continual importuning was terribly hard to resist – I felt it would be easier to stay. ... I met others whom I sent to join their units, others who had straggled I turned away. We came to the village where an air raid was in progress so we sheltered, then went in to see the arrangements. They were right so as the shadows fell we sat and waited. Later in the moonlight three small shapes appeared, the MLCs. They came slowly up to the beach and put their prows down. We sat on in perfect peace. Then a dark shape appeared low in the sky. A Hun – no – a Sunderland Flying Boat. It dipped and landed somewhere out of sight.
It was nearly midnight when low shapes slid into view; one, two, three, four, five. The Navy, God bless them. The flash of a signal, an order from the beach master and the men silently pushed aboard the MLCs.
Indeed, so far as things could go well on such a night – when every man capable of thinking of others besides himself was torn between relief at his own departure and regret for those who must be left behind – they went well for 5 Brigade. One by one the battalions passed through the cordon.
For the Australian and British units things went less well. At 9 p.m. 19 Brigade HQ, its two battalions, and the Royal Marine battalion had begun to move from their defence area. The 2/8 Battalion came in the wake of 5 Brigade; but 2/7 Battalion and the Marines appear to have come down the main track from the escarpment While they were still some considerable distance from the beach they found this track, a narrow one, blocked with waiting men and officers claiming to be cordon officials and active in challenging identities.
Brigadier Vasey and two of his staff went forward to investigate while the troops waited in the rear. At first all seemed to be going smoothly with the embarkation in front. Then there were delays
before the boats were filled, though the 250 men of 2/8 Battalion got through without difficulty, no doubt because they had arrived early with 5 Brigade.
Fearful that his men might be held up in getting forward to the beach Vasey now sent back his two staff officers to hurry them on. While these two were away the pace began to quicken and by 2.15 a.m. most of 2/7 Battalion seems to have been near the beach in spite of having been continually hampered.
By this time Vasey was in great anxiety. For the Navy had told him that the last boats would be leaving at half past two. Two large MLCs, each capable of holding 180 men, were to carry out this lift. One of his staff now told the Brigadier that the commander of 2/7 Battalion was on the beach. Vasey therefore concluded that all was well. The two boats were loaded and set off, Brigadier Vasey apparently travelling with them.
It was not till he reached Alexandria that he discovered the true situation. The officials controlling movement to the beach seem not to have been told that 2/7 Battalion was to embark or that this was the last night. Because the Navy on previous occasions had been able to embark more than its quota, many extra troops had been allowed on or near the beach so that if this should happen again advantage could be taken of it. In consequence of these two things 2/7 Battalion had not been able to get forward in time, and no doubt its commander had come forward to see if he could expedite matters. His presence then misled Vasey into thinking the whole battalion was there.
Thus an occasion tragic enough in itself – for whatever happened many fine soldiers would have to be left behind – was made more so by the loss of a battalion which had fought well all the time that it was engaged and which in these last days had held out nobly in a position where on its endurance rested the security of the whole force.107
The Royal Marine battalion and some of Layforce were a little more fortunate. The last boats were in fact held back till 2.45 a.m. By then 100 Marines were aboard, two officers and 25 men of Layforce, and the two officers and 14 men of 2/7 Battalion. The remaining space was taken by those awaiting places, among them Major Bliss and a party of New Zealand gunners who had come down on the chance that there might be places to spare. All in all and counting about eighty walking wounded, about 4000 men were taken off.
While the embarkation was still going on General Weston had appeared and invited Brigadier Hargest to leave with him in the
Sunderland flying boat. Hargest declined unless he could see his men embarked first. Weston ordered him to come. ‘You can do no more here; you may be urgently needed in Cairo. I must order you and your staff to come with me. That settled it. We went.’108
The Capitulation: 1 June
The troops who were embarked in this last evacuation had an uneventful passage and reached Alexandria at 5 p.m. on 1 June. But the Navy’s trials endured to the last. To give the convoy additional protection the AA cruisers Calcutta and Coventry had been sent to meet it early in the morning. Shortly after nine o’clock they were attacked by two bombers and Calcutta was sunk. Coventry picked up 255 survivors and returned to Alexandria.
Meanwhile Brigadier Hargest had arrived in Alexandria about 4 a.m. and gone on by train to Cairo. Here he joined General Freyberg in consultations with General Wavell, Admiral Cunningham and Air Marshal Tedder, and presumably General Weston. Their prime concern was for those left behind. Already the previous day arrangements had been made for the dropping of rations by aircraft this night and the arrangements were now confirmed. There was nothing more that could be done. Weston had explained that he had left orders behind for capitulation; and in any case, as Cunningham had already told the Admiralty and now repeated in a further message, the shipping situation did not permit another attempt.
All that there was left for Freyberg and his senior officers to do was to return to their battered Division and begin the painful task of building it up once more for the many hard battles which were still to come, and in which they could hope that with a reconstituted force they would deal the enemy blows as severe as those given him in Crete but with a better outcome.
Colonel Utz had been promised support from the German Air Force on 1 June but only eight aircraft appeared – four Stukas and four twin-engined fighters – and these attacked Sfakia. As this attack ended the infantry gun on Point 892 began to fire with notable effect, and 7 and 8 Companies, on their own initiative, began to move forward.
But Lieutenant-Colonel Colvin had his orders from General Weston to capitulate. Early in the morning he had called the officers in command of the various groups and announced his intention, producing the written order as proof that he had been so commanded. Then Lieutenant-Colonel Walker of 2/7 Australian Battalion appeared and, finding he was the senior, Colvin handed him the orders. Deciding that resistance was hopeless, Walker told his men to destroy their equipment and escape if they could. Then, at Komitadhes, he found an Austrian officer and surrendered to him.109 To many the news came as a severe shock. Major Bull, who was not present at the conference, sent a representative before he could be finally convinced that it was true. The reaction of the rank and file can be gauged from the following representative samples:
We were ordered to pile arms (after having got rid of the bolts of course) and remove headgear. This caused the best argument I’ve ever been in – who were we to be ordered to surrender – let those who wanted to do so, do so, we’d go our own way. The only reasoning that clearly showed us how impossible the position was, was the crash of mortar bombs immediately below us, a horde of Messerschmitts and a lot of Germans, tommy-gunners, blocking our escape.110
God Almighty! what a blow. A Prisoner of War. Me, I had had visions of wounds, death from various causes, including a fight to the finish in the event of a hand to hand go, but a prisoner, never. It was something that I had never reckoned on. The realisation was stupefying, dumbfounding. In all my previous existence and I had then had nearly 35 years of it, [never] had I received news that had knocked me all of a heap as this had.
Well, the next thing was what was to do now. Stay and take the consequences or bugger off into the hills. One could not go straight back into the hills as the Germans were coming down towards us from there. The only safe exit was along the coast towards the East. But then there was the problem of food. The majority of us by this time were thoroughly undernourished and now we had to depend on our captors to supply us with food. There was nothing left in the food dump and what little I had collected was not going to carry me far.111
It was not only the New Zealanders who were bewildered and surprised and confronted with this sudden necessity to choose between surrendering according to orders or taking to the hills. Not a few now and still more later, after they had tasted the life of the prison camp, thought like an Australian whom Driver Farley mentions:
‘The bastards are not laying hands on me. I’m for the hills,’ said one Aussie, and away he went along with a few followers.
Others busied themselves while there was still time with the two disabled MLCs off the beach and these were got going and set off
to the south, finally managing to reach the coast of North Africa after much hardship and danger.112
But the majority, weary and hungry as they were, surrounded and with the definite command to capitulate in front of them, decided that there was nothing for it but to obey. Destroying their weapons they made their way to Sfakia and surrendered to the enemy’s advance patrols. Their captors, still at the honeymoon stage of victory and with that generosity towards a defeated enemy that is more often found among front-line soldiers than anywhere behind the line, shared rations with them and, fantastically enough, played tunes for them on accordions; an idyll interrupted by the arrival of further enemy aircraft bombing and strafing in ignorance of the surrender.
As the afternoon went on the enemy arrived in greater force. I Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment was sent on towards Loutro in pursuit of stragglers, while the rest of the force set to work rounding up the prisoners. How many these were it is difficult now to ascertain. Estimates by those on the spot say about 5000; enemy claims for 1 June were 3000, but by 2 June 5 Mountain Division was claiming 6500 and this figure seems not unlikely.
As the prisoners were rounded up they were directed back up the escarpment and along the road towards Canea, even more weary, hungry, and footsore than they had been when they came down it only a few days before; and this time cheered by no hope of reaching the ships and escaping to Egypt to fight another day.