18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 11 — The Crete Debacle
The Crete Debacle
Daylight on 24 May showed 18 Battalion just how grim its situation was. The men had toiled through a sleepless night to improve their positions, but couldn't do much in a few hours with hardly any tools (tin hats and bayonets were the chief implements, with the few picks and shovels shared round as fairly as possible). Now that it was light, they found themselves facing an invisible enemy tucked away on the wooded slopes opposite and still throwing mortar bombs round lavishly. This was the battalion's first real taste of mortar fire, and most unpleasant it was. You couldn't hear the bombs coming until they burst with a ‘stinking double crack’ as one man put it, scattering jagged hunks of metal all over the place.
The Germans (100 Mountain Regiment from Maleme) had also got machine guns up on to Ruin Hill during the night, and from there were spraying the forward companies with fire. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray must have bitterly rued his failure to occupy Ruin Hill. It put C and D Companies in a particularly bad spot, under machine-gun fire from both front and flank besides the mortaring. Nobody could do much about it, for the battalion's own supply of mortar bombs was almost down to zero, and Jerry's mortaring prevented the machine-gunners from fighting back as much as they would have liked. Before long the battalion was having casualties, not a great number, but a persistent flow of ones and twos all along the line.
To add a little more unpleasantness, the planes began to appear again quite early in the day, and right through till dark there was at least one on the prowl nearly all the time. Fighters were operating from Maleme now, only a few miles away, so it was easy for Jerry to keep up a constant patrol over the New Zealand lines. The battalion's orders were to stay hidden and not to shoot at the planes—an order that nobody felt like contravening.page 144
The atmosphere throughout 4 Brigade that day was tense, but nowhere more so than in 18 Battalion, which expected to be attacked at any moment. Small bodies of men were continually moving up along the coast road and disappearing into the thick country forward of the battalion, an unmistakable sign of impending attack. So the companies, though largely confined to their pits, kept very alert, not only on their own fronts but to the flanks as well. They had no telephones, and no means of passing on news except by runner, a risky method in such a situation. The battalion's only telephone was connected with 4 Brigade Headquarters, but it didn't help much, as the line was cut several times by mortaring. Anyway, Battalion Headquarters couldn't guarantee up-to-date news from the front line.
Never had the battalion felt so much out on its own. It had very little artillery support. Though there were six Vickers guns on the front (two with A Company, two with C and two behind D), their fire could not be controlled or co-ordinated— they just had to shoot at what appeared on their own fronts, and some of them had no tripods. Nevertheless they were to prove the greatest comfort to 18 Battalion in the action that followed.
The first test came early in the afternoon. An enemy party tried to push its way into A Company's position, and the battalion had to expend some of its priceless mortar bombs to get rid of them. Two hours later they tried again at Red Hill, a more determined effort this time—artillery, mortars and the machine guns on Ruin Hill all pounded the ridge, and things got so bad that some of the C Company men left their pits and went back over the brow of the hill. Runners went racing back to Battalion Headquarters for help. Colonel Gray came forward and set about organising a counter-attack, but soon discovered that there was no need for it. The Vickers and Brens had made the pace so hot that Jerry couldn't take advantage of his success, and had been forced to retire from Red Hill again.
C Company had won the first round, but the second wasn't long in beginning. As dusk was falling a crescendo of fire again blinded the company, and before they realised it the enemy had closed in and was right through behind the forward posts on Red Hill. The platoons, under fire from all directions, page 145 were forced back off the hill; the Germans followed, but were halted on the crest by determined fire from the next ridge (Murray Hill), where the whole company was now clustered round Company Headquarters. The company wasn't getting off lightly this time—the fire was still heavy, and men were being hit.
Help was on the way, however. The transport platoon of HQ Company, under Second-Lieutenant Copeland,1 came up to C Company, climbed Red Hill, and chased the enemy off the crest after a brisk little fight. Here, again, was Colonel Gray in the forward line, directing and encouraging. Red Hill was in our hands again, and the line was safe for a little longer.
But Red Hill was a most unhealthy spot, swept by fire from front and flank, and it was plain that there wouldn't be much of the transport platoon left if it had to stay there long. So Gray decided to abandon the hill. This was a hard decision, as it would leave D Company's left flank open—Gray had proposed to withdraw D Company too, but had been met with a blunt refusal from Brigadier Inglis. All he could do now was to put as many men as possible on Murray Hill, and make Red Hill so red-hot that Jerry couldn't have it either. C Company was ordered to stay in its compact position on Murray Hill, and B Company (now under Captain N. B. Smith) was summoned forward to help. C Company was also to patrol Red Hill and keep it clear of the enemy. There was a danger spot on D Company's left flank, where a jumble of spurs and gullies offered a way in for Jerry, so Gray posted one extra Bren gun (all he could spare) to overlook this part.
B Company had been having a bad time in reserve. The fire on it had been nearly as solid as on the front line, and the company had had a bitter blow earlier in the evening when Major Evans was killed by a mortar bomb. In his twenty months as B Company's commander Bill Evans had won very high regard—a friendly, humane man, and as a company commander aggressive, reliable and imperturbable. There were few jokes or cheerful remarks as B Company went forward. The men were silent and savage, itching to ‘get stuck into the bastards’, a desire that was not to be satisfactorily page 146 fulfilled. As the company moved up it was mortared, and 5 Platoon lost one killed and two wounded.
B Company had to be split up in the front line—never an ideal arrangement, but better than shifting C Company now that it was more or less settled again. There were gaps to be filled on both sides. No. 10 Platoon went south of C Company, and the other two platoons north of it; 5 Platoon, on the right flank, was to patrol out to the right to contact D Company. The line was still thin, but the whole front had some sort of coverage. The move up took nearly all night; after the platoons were in position they could do no more than scratch themselves shallow holes before daylight.
In the very early hours of the morning a welcome reinforcement arrived in answer to an appeal by Gray for more troops. The 100 men who came up (two platoons of artillerymen under Captain Bliss2 and one of Divisional Supply drivers under Lieutenant Rawle3) had already had several days of fighting with the Composite Battalion, but they were in good heart, and 18 Battalion was delighted to see them. One of the artillery platoons went to Murray Hill on B Company's right, the other stayed back in reserve, and the ASC men joined C Company and 11 Platoon. Captain Bliss became for the time second-in-command of B Company. These newcomers, like B Company, had very little time to make any sort of positions for themselves. The whole force on Murray Hill, in fact, was very ill protected, and daybreak on 25 May caught them in a bad situation, many of them still above ground with no decent holes to get into.
C and B Companies had had a fairly full night; but they found time for a little fighting as well. In the small hours of the morning three patrols (two from C Company and one from B) went out to Red Hill to make sure that Jerry didn't establish himself on the crest. The patrols ran into machine guns, lots of them, and put several out of action, at least one with hand grenades. B Company's party ran into a real hornet's nest of machine guns, and all its four men were page 147 wounded. One of C Company's got back undamaged, but the other was badly shot up by the company's own forward sections as it returned, looming up unrecognisable in the dark.
It need hardly be said that nobody in 18 Battalion got any sleep that night, with all these comings and goings, with Jerry's machine guns pouring tracer into the defences, with mortar bombs and explosive bullets ceaselessly cracking in the trees. Back at Battalion Headquarters, too, everyone was alert for any sudden calls from the front. During the early part of the night the RAP had been working at top speed dealing with C Company's casualties. Later on this eased up. A truckload of wounded went back from the battalion to a dressing station near Suda Bay, and the truck came back loaded up with rations and a little ammunition, including the last twenty-five mortar bombs that could be scrounged.
Then to these harried, sleepless men dawned 25 May, the blackest day of the whole war for 18 Battalion.
25 May 1941
There was no doubt that a full-scale attack was due that day. Jerry had brought artillery up during the night, and as soon as it grew light away went everything, small arms, mortars, guns and planes, in a hail of fire on 18 Battalion, increasing in violence as the hours wore on. All morning the men grimly faced this fire, from minute to minute expecting the attack. The Vickers and Bren guns kept up a return fire, especially on Red Hill and along the coast road, where D Company had lots of targets too good to let slip. The forward companies would have swapped all they owned for more 3-inch mortars and bombs.
Very soon wounded men began to come back, first a trickle, then a continuous stream, too many for the ‘Doc’ and his staff to cope with. Even with the RAP divided, one section at Battalion Headquarters and one near HQ Company, the position quickly became chaotic. As a desperate gamble two trucks full of wounded were sent back to the dressing station, and by some miracle the trucks returned unscathed, having run the gauntlet of the Luftwaffe both ways.
The hardest hit was D Company, to whom Jerry seemed to have taken a particular dislike; during the morning it had nineteen casualties, more than a quarter of its whole strength. The Germans opposing it were remnants of the Assault Regiment, the cream of the airborne troops, violent and aggressive fighters.
Shortly after 1 p.m. the mortaring rose to a savage climax, and at the same time German infantry made their first appearance, not in great numbers, but stabbing at the line here and there, testing for weak spots. By two o'clock they were coming forward in strength all along the front. The dangerous thrust seemed to be against A Company on Wheat Hill, where both the Vickers guns had been knocked out, but the company clung on and fought the enemy off, and a handful of ASC men, all there were to spare, was sent off to Wheat Hill in a hurry.
Things were shaky on the right flank too. D Company was now so low in numbers that its hold on the ridge was extremely precarious. Its CSM, Leo Bulford,4 was dead. So was Lieutenant Foot, who had been at Company Headquarters page 149 with the 3-inch mortar. The mortar itself was damaged and useless. The company was being machine-gunned from front and flank. The reserve platoon of ‘infantillery’ was ordered up to D Company, but couldn't get through the mortar barrage, and finished up holding a vacant stretch of ground on D Company's left rear.
In the centre the position seemed a fraction easier. The Vickers guns here were still in the fight, and B and C Companies' Brens were doing well, sweeping the crest of Red Hill and keeping Jerry at bay for the time being. One party of Germans got in close to C Company, but was fought off by 15 Platoon. A few men from Battalion Headquarters and HQ Company came up to thicken the line.
By 3 p.m. the whole line was patched up in the meantime, and no more could be done until the next assault came in. When that happened it could only be a question of digging your toes in, as there were no more reserves except the ‘ack-ack’ platoon of HQ Company, which was fully occupied backing up D Company. There wasn't long to wait.
The knockout punch fell just where it could least be withstood, on D Company, pitifully weak in numbers and lacking cohesion and directions. A paratroop party, moving up one of the gullies on the company's left, got in between the platoons and Company Headquarters, and almost simultaneously there was a heavy frontal attack. The story of how the company went down has been told by Corporal Ernie Howard,5 a Bren-gunner in 16 Platoon:
Fire from the enemy had become more intense and the ground shook to the blasts of mortar bombs and shells. I saw some enemy activity behind a knoll, they were not quite hidden. I opened fire but could observe no results. Suddenly one of the NCOs yelled out to cease fire as D Coy was surrendering. As this was uttered the whole enemy ground became alive with advancing troops. The beach too. They advanced in fairly close order along the open beach towards the wire. I opened fire and got several. Again the order came to cease fire and on looking along the brow of the hill I saw one of the boys climbing out with his hands up…. I ceased fire. Then followed a short period of doubt and indecision for which we were all to blame. Were we entirely surrounded? page 150 Could I have got away had I made a break? These are questions for which I shall never have an answer. Two men did make a break but were shot as they got over the hill so if we were not entirely surrounded Jerry certainly commanded the whole field of fire in our rear. The advancing Jerries were now on the road and signalling us to come down. We climbed out and with our hands in the air walked down towards them.
From a runner who made the perilous trip back, Battalion Headquarters heard of the infiltration. At once Colonel Gray collected a few men from near at hand and led them forward through HQ Company, yelling to others to join them in a bayonet charge. By the time they reached D Company headquarters the party had snowballed to about three dozen. But there Gray had to leave them and hurry back to Battalion Headquarters, and the incipient counter-attack fizzled out. ‘A few,’ said Eric Sworn,6 the D Company CQMS, ‘came up to Coy HQ, and a few reached Cpl. Leith's7 platoon on the right flank, but no bayonet charge was made and they all drifted away again….’ Company Headquarters was now on its own, and for a while didn't know what had happened to the platoons.
Crete survivors—8 Platoon, A Company
18 Battalion convoy being shelled
German prisoners at Belhamed
18 Battalion Signal truck after hitting a mine
D Company's surrender, of course, brought bitter reproach down on 18 Battalion after the campaign. But they had had to endure the unendurable—a man in HQ Company, who saw most of what went on, said of the surrender that he ‘didn't blame the poor beggars as they had had a terrible time’.
But the position was not yet lost beyond repair. Colonel Kippenberger (now acting as a sort of unofficial forward commander of 4 Brigade) urgently called forward two companies of 20 Battalion to reinforce the right flank; Lieutenant-Colonel Gray charged madly round gathering up odd groups of stragglers, and in a little while the line was intact again, a patchwork line, but fairly solid, running north-east from Galatas to the sea. Then Gray went forward again to his hard-pressed battalion.
While this was going on the Germans had struck again farther south. Back they surged towards Wheat Hill, covered by a torrent of fire from Ruin Hill that kept A Company's heads very low. Captain Lyon, knowing the inevitable end, sent runners back asking permission to withdraw, but was refused. Wheat Hill was now a key point. Its evacuation would expose the flank of ‘Russell Force’ (Divisional Cavalry and some ASC men) fighting on 18 Battalion's left, and would leave a hole for Jerry to push through to Galatas and smash the whole New Zealand line. So for A Company it was—hang on, cling to the hill at all costs.
But that was asking the impossible. The company was being battered to pieces, and the enemy was coming in close and would beyond a doubt overrun the position before long. Captain Lyon, rather than see his company wiped out, gave the order to retire, and the men fell back through Galatas, with Jerry following up close behind.
This was the blow that broke the Galatas line. Forward from Wheat Hill swarmed the Germans, pushing through in pursuit of A Company right to the outskirts of Galatas. Others set up machine guns in the gap and took Russell Force in the page 152 flank, forcing it back out of its line, and there too the enemy followed up hard after the retreating Kiwis. The tide swept over the hills into Galatas, where the Germans halted, while the New Zealanders struggled to make a stand.
Only one centre of resistance now remained to disturb the German advance, and that was B and C Companies on Murray Hill, with their attached Vickers guns, ASC and ‘infantillery’, and a few remaining stalwarts of HQ Company on their right. With both flanks gone they were in a desperate and dangerous situation. The net was tightening round three sides of Murray Hill, but the companies held their ground and refused to be crowded out, keeping up so sturdy a front against Red Hill that Jerry couldn't break the stalemate there. A lot of Germans died on Red Hill that afternoon, and a lot more in attacks on Murray Hill. Lieutenant Batty9 of C Company describes the scene:
The Germans came fwd in great waves, walking stupidly fwd through the olive trees. They were shot in great numbers but they still came on through Bn HQ and B Coy.
B Company was the first to crack. The Germans, when they made their assault on D Company, had worked their way in between D and B, and from here they pushed south on to B Company's flank, at the same time making a frontal attack from the west. The full force of this double thrust hit 11 Platoon. Under cover of the mortar fire the Germans closed in to hand-grenade range. ‘The fighting that ensued,’ says Corporal Voss, ‘was some of the most vicious in which B Company were involved throughout the war. There was no quarter given.’ Only three men from 11 Platoon got away. Battalion Headquarters, just behind 11 Platoon, had to make a quick exit with the enemy right on top of it. No. 10 Platoon with the bayonet disposed of some Germans in its rear, then extricated itself without too much damage, though in the mêlée CSM McCormack was killed.
C Company was still suffering casualties who could not be evacuated, and the Germans on both flanks were now coming in closer and threatening to cut the line of withdrawal page 153 altogether. About an hour before dusk Major Lynch (who had already been refused permission to withdraw) reluctantly sent word to Lieutenant-Colonel Gray that he couldn't hold any longer, that the pressure was too hot, and that he was pulling out in another quarter of an hour. Even at that he nearly left it too late. His covering party (a section of 15 Platoon under Sergeant Archie Fletcher10) made a final stand at close range for the little time it took the main body to clear Murray Hill, then back it came too. At the same time the last of HQ Company and of the Composite Battalion men were forced back. For a few minutes all order was lost, the men streaming back with Jerry right on their heels firing everything he had. They dumped everything except rifles and ammunition. They ran as they had never believed they could. Back down Murray Hill and up to the next ridge, where Colonel Gray was shouting, swearing, rallying all comers to make a stand. The most resolute stopped there, lined a stone wall with rifles and Tommy guns, and held Jerry off for a few more minutes. ‘The Huns,’ said Gray later, ‘were caught at 50 yds range and shot down in scores.’ Then once more streams of fire came in from the flank as Jerry poured into Galatas, and back again the line had to go, every man for himself, through the outskirts of Galatas, where Colonel Kippenberger was rallying stragglers from every unit and sending them back to man another patchwork line on the Karatsos ridge. Here also, until he was wounded, was George Andrews, the 18 Battalion RSM, working quietly, tirelessly and without fuss, helping to divide the men up into groups under whatever officers and NCOs were handy. On the Karatsos ridge the depleted 18 Battalion companies turned and faced Galatas.
This moment was the lowest ebb in 18 Battalion's fortunes. For the time being it didn't exist as a unit, only as a number of mixed groups scattered among the heterogeneous collection on the ridge, tired to death, filthy with sweat, dirt and blood, shaken nearly out of their senses by continual bombardment, destitute of all possessions save their weapons and the clothes they wore. Nearly a hundred of their friends lay dead on the hills round Galatas. Many more were wounded, and some of page 154 these had had to be left behind in the final scramble. Seventy were on their way to German prison camps. Some (not many) had lost heart and were not there at Karatsos, but scattered through the country farther east, nobody knew where. The future was grim. Everyone knew that Crete was lost, and the knowledge was bitter.
And then out of the dull ashes of defeat there rose a flame, only a brief flash, but one that will be vivid in the memory of those who were there until their dying day. And that was the counter-attack on Galatas.
This mad, defiant, reckless charge has become one of the New Zealand Division's epics. In the ditch at Karatsos a brief message arrived from Colonel Kippenberger: ‘Left and right are still holding and I'm trying to build up a line in centre…. Move your people forward into Galatos and build up a line covering Russell's (i.e. Div Cav's) left.’ Lieutenant-Colonel Gray wasn't the man to baulk at such a request. He hastily whipped together a scratch force, sixty or so of 18 Battalion plus a few odds and ends from other units who happened to be there, and led the way into the east side of Galatas just as the main attack by 23 Battalion burst into the village from the north-east. Forward from house to house went the 18 Battalion men with bayonet and grenade. In those few minutes caution and reason went to the winds. Men did crazy, desperately heroic deeds that they couldn't remember later. Some died in the streets and houses and were left behind unnoticed in the onrush. Friend and enemy tangled together in the dark, and more than one New Zealander took a wound from a Kiwi rifle or bayonet. German fire was fierce at first, but by the time the 18 and 23 Battalion parties met near the town square there wasn't much coherent opposition left— here they paused for a breather, and sanity began to return. The town was a shell-smashed ruin, dead and wounded lying everywhere, men roaming round with no clear idea what they should do next; scattered, random shooting was still going on, one persistent German machine gun firing from beyond the square. Two 18 Battalion parties, led by Lieutenant Macdonald11 and Second-Lieutenant Lambie, set out after this gun; page 155 Macdonald's patrol got round behind it and attacked from the rear at almost the same moment as a 23 Battalion party closed in from the front. The gun was destroyed, and the 18 Battalion men pulled back to the square, leaving 23 Battalion to patrol the western part of the village.
Galatas was pretty quiet now, and the Kiwis set about making a line in the town to prepare for the fresh attack that must surely come. But none came—Jerry, it seemed, was so jolted by this unexpected kick from a prostrate enemy that he had no immediate answer ready. For the time being the Kiwis were undisputed owners of Galatas.
Gray now for the first time had leisure to think of Colonel Kippenberger's order to build up a line on Divisional Cavalry's left; but where was the Div Cav? Gray set out with a patrol through the town to find it, but ran instead into an unexpected machine-gun post, and Lieutenant Macdonald was wounded. The incident is described by Corporal Baker12:
We proceeded up the street to the crossroads on the outskirts and were discussing plans… when machine guns opened up, narrowly missing the whole party. We retreated down the street for cover and had no sooner started to discuss the position and what we could do when a machine gun… swept the street we were standing in, wounding the other officer…. Acting on Colonel Gray's orders and with him assisting we carried the wounded man and retired.
The Divisional Cavalry wasn't to be found, which was not surprising, as it had withdrawn to Karatsos before the counter-attack went in.
Then came orders to evacuate Galatas and move back eastwards.
This was intensely disappointing to the men in the town, who now held their hard-won prize firmly and were confident that they could hang on to it. But the divisional and brigade commanders thought otherwise. Not only was Galatas an obvious bombing target, but there was nothing on the flanks to stop Jerry getting right round behind it, and there were no fresh units available to straighten the line. So a withdrawal it had to be. The new orders were: 5 Brigade to man a line page 156 running south from 7 General Hospital's old position, 4 Brigade to pull back behind this line to reorganise its battered units.
Eighteenth Battalion was first ordered to concentrate one and a half miles east of Galatas, just behind 5 Brigade's new line; but this area was so congested with troops that about 4 a.m. it was sent on another couple of miles to the transit camp which had been its first halting place on Crete. Here the battalion (or such of it as was present) settled down to wait for daylight, well hidden from the air among trees and scrub beside a stream. Most of the men were so dog-tired that they fell asleep there and then, but they didn't sleep for long, for there were continual comings and goings as the officers checked their absentees, and groups of stragglers arrived from goodness knew where. By morning most of the wanderers had found their way home, though some had tagged on to other units and didn't see 18 Battalion again until it was back in Egypt, while the battalion itself harboured others who had lost their own units. But though most of the survivors were now accounted for, 18 Battalion's ranks were depressingly thin.
With the dawn came the planes again, buzzing back and forth over the olive groves like flies round a corpse, coming down low to strafe whenever they saw a target, and sometimes when they didn't, just for luck. Fortunately 18 Battalion wasn't spotted.
At 11 a.m. came further orders, orders that dealt the final death blow to any hope anyone might still have of making a stand on Crete. The battalion was to pull out and make its way east through Suda, assembling again farther along the shore of Suda Bay for a withdrawal over the mountains to Sfakia on the south coast. This could mean only one thing— they were to get out of Crete, and pretty soon too. Other battalions and brigades were to hold the enemy in check and make a fighting withdrawal, but 4 Brigade was to head south at once.
The battalion moved off about midday, but not before it had loaded up with tinned food—beans, milk, pineapple— from an abandoned dump nearby. This was the first time for a week that the men had seen food in any quantity. The wise page 157 ones carried away as much as they could; but, as CSM Harry Lapwood13 of HQ Company says:
It was quite obvious that a number were more interested in travelling light than catering for their food requirements, and accordingly these boys were the hungry ones when Sphakia was reached.
From the camp they set off for Suda, moving across country in small groups, keeping well under the trees. The word was passed round that any groups losing the battalion were to head for Sfakia under their own steam.
But you can't move 300 men through several miles of straggly olive groves without occasionally coming into view. And overhead cruised the Luftwaffe, watching its opportunity.
Suddenly two big Messerschmitt 110s whisked low over the treetops. Most of the men hit the ground among the vines, burying themselves deep in the foliage; but some, losing their heads, ran across open ground towards the shelter of some bigger trees. Down came the planes. Again and again they circled and dived, machine guns hammering away, peppering the whole area. A Company caught most of it before it could take cover. Captain Lyon and five others were killed, another half dozen wounded—a bad knock for A Company, already very short of men. The battalion could not afford to lose many like Captain Lyon, one of its few senior officers still on their feet. Though physically worn out by the Greek campaign, he had kept going on Crete and refused to give in, setting an example to many men younger than himself—he had dropped several years off his age to come overseas. He was the first New Zealand MP to lose his life in the Second World War.
When the planes finally left, it was a disjointed battalion that got up out of the dust and went on its way. Groups of men, scattered over a wide area, headed east with no apparent cohesion. Every little while they had to hit the ground again as more planes came roaring over, and once down among the vines some were reluctant to get up again. It took all the rest of the day to cover eight miles. It was a grim tramp, everyone silent and downcast, nerves frayed to snapping point. Once more everything was wrong end up. Once more the British had had to abandon the field to Jerry, not because they were page 158 inferior man to man, but because they had been set to fight a hopeless battle, with next to nothing, against a well-prepared, well-armed, well-equipped force.
As dusk was falling the remnants of the battalion assembled near the Sfakia road turnoff—but not all of them. Some were missing, presumably somewhere ahead on their way to Sfakia. B Company, with the remains of D Company attached, had missed the turnoff and gone nearly three miles on the wrong route (it rejoined the battalion two days later). Those who were there headed a little way up the mountainside and stopped for the night under some trees beside a stream. The murderous heights they were yet to surmount were still mercifully hidden from them.
Before it was fully light next day the battalion was on the road again. Most of the men had had the luxury of a wash and a shave in the stream, for many the first shave for a week and the last on Crete. This stretch of the road was good, tarsealed at first, and not unduly steep. Southwards went 18 Battalion, away from Suda Bay, marching steadily in threes—except when the planes came over, and then everyone disappeared by magic, melting into the tawny grass and rocks by the roadside.
The day's trek, though quite long enough for tired men on a steaming hot day, was fairly short, only about five miles, up and over the hill and down the other side to Stilos, where 4 Brigade was to lie up till dark. Its hiding place was a large olive grove well off the road, already congested with all sorts and conditions of troops. As the men arrived a little food was handed out to them, the last proper meal they were to have for four days.
Prayers for a quiet restful afternoon were not answered. The Luftwaffe found the retreat in the olive grove—with thousands of men crammed into it, it was probably inevitable— and for nearly an hour and a half relays of planes went for it, lashing the area with bullets and almost shaving the treetops as they passed over. Cornfields, tall grass and even a few trees were set ablaze by incendiary bullets. There was nothing to do but crouch behind what shelter the trees could give; there were some casualties, but only three in 18 Battalion.
The Germans had been held up that day by a rearguard of Aussies and 5 Brigade west of Suda; but this force was to pull page 159 back that night and make its next stand at Stilos, while 4 Brigade and the rest of the New Zealanders got as far back towards Sfakia as they could. It was a matter of life and death now to keep the Sfakia road open. Fourth Brigade was to head that night for the Askifou plain a mountain amphitheatre 17 miles south of Stilos), guard it against paratroop landings, and also watch a road coming in from Georgeoupolis, away on the north coast towards Retimo. Both these jobs, it was decided, would be 18 Battalion's responsibility.
At dusk the battalion moved off again with the rest of 4 Brigade, marching behind 20 Battalion, with four light British tanks bringing up the rear.
It is easy to say, ‘4 Brigade will move from Stilos to Askifou’; but the horror of that night's tramp just can't be put into words. To men in the last stages of fatigue those 17 miles were endless. From Vrises (eight miles from Stilos) it was uphill, uphill all the way, steep and winding. The road had now degenerated into a rough stony track, strewn with packs and equipment abandoned by those who had gone before, and with trucks which had carried men as far as they could, then ‘conked out’ and been heaved off the road. The men were stiff and sore, fighting their weariness all the way, their feet blistered and bleeding. Worse still was the torment of thirst; the night was hot and water scarce. And most dreadful of all were the stragglers, a panicky, undisciplined mob cluttering up the road, heedless of anyone but themselves, impeding everyone. Nerves were near enough to the surface without having this rabble to contend with.
The men would, they were told, be able to get water at a well just before the steep stretch of the pass began. But when they got there, in the small hours of 28 May, what did they find? One 18 Battalion man describes it:
Around this well were Greeks, Aussies, Tommies and N.Zeders all mad with thirst and I have never seen such a terrible and raving crazy mob. Rifle pullthroughs and anything in the shape of string were joined together to make a rope upon which tins, tin hats or anything that would hold water was tied and used to drag water from the well. As these were pulled up a hat would tip over only a foot from a reaching hand or a string would break.
Eighteenth Battalion, as an organised unit, was given water here, but only a pittance.page 160
There were those who did not make the distance, flung themselves down to rest on the roadside, and couldn't or wouldn't get up again. A few, whose feet gave out entirely, managed to find clinging room on the few trucks still going south. For the rest, nothing but sheer guts kept them pushing one aching foot in front of the other all the way up that mountain. They lost all count of time or distance—some were literally walking in their sleep, not even conscious that they were still moving, senses dead to all about them.
It was at a time like this, in the last extreme of adversity, that Lieutenant-Colonel Gray rose to his greatest heights. His worst enemy would willingly pay him warm tribute for his work that night. He was, according to one man, ‘a real tower of strength, at one stage leading the unit and next bringing up the rear. He seemed to be everywhere and endeavoured to raise the morale by singing in which we all joined.’ The singing could better be described as a hoarse croaking, and soon died altogether; but 18 Battalion was spurred by Gray's encouragement and bullying to march on as a unit, in a compact group, losing nothing by comparison with any other unit on the road.
At Vrises (or what had been Vrises before the Luftwaffe visited it) HQ Company split off from the battalion and stayed behind to guard the Georgeoupolis road. It was lucky. The rest trudged onwards and upwards, with ever another height in front of them and no sign of the top of the pass. At last, at 4.30 a.m., they halted, pulled off the road, and collapsed. Dawn was beginning to redden, and still there were more peaks ahead. They had already walked, they were sure, some hundreds of miles.
But actually the worst of the trek was nearly over. At 9 a.m. they were off again; quite a short haul up a rocky gorge, and there spread out below them was the Askifou plain, a patchwork of fields dotted with farms and little villages. It looked delightful.
It didn't belie its looks. When those weary men stumbled down the mountain to the flat below they found wells—lovely wells, scores of them, scattered all over the fields. Water to drink, water to sluice over your face and head, water to bathe your feet. The men practically wallowed in it. German planes page 161 were miraculously absent, and for a while the anti-paratroop role had to wait on the good pleasure of the water.
Some small groups who had fallen behind during that nightmare march came in to the battalion during the day, and B Company (which had been plugging along several miles behind) caught up again. There was a continual trickle of troops, odds and ends, appearing over the northern heights and disappearing again over the lower mountain range at the south end of the plain; only 18 and 20 Battalions were there in position on the plain ready for action, with the four British tanks and three Aussie guns (antique Italian 75-millimetre pieces) that had by some miracle got as far as Askifou. There was no work to do yet, and a day of inaction was doubly welcome after the fearful march of the night before.
Naturally under the circumstances, Rumour had a hard day's work. The Germans, she said, were not far behind, and coming up fast in full strength. In this, as often, Rumour wasn't speaking the strict truth. The Germans were coming up, true, but many miles behind, delayed by New Zealand and British rearguards north of Vrises; and not in full strength, for their commander had providentially misjudged the direction of the withdrawal and sent a comparatively small force along the Sfakia road, while his main spearhead struck east along the north coast on a wild-goose chase towards Retimo.
Our plan of action was simple. Fifth Brigade and the British troops at present fighting rearguard actions away up north were to withdraw through 4 Brigade on 29 May; 4 Brigade was to hold the plain until that evening, then pull out in its turn and go back to the coast, while other British troops took up the rearguard farther south.
Plans for evacuation from Crete weren't so simple, for nobody knew exactly how many men the Navy could accommodate. There were at least 17,000 to get off from Sfakia alone. An evacuation programme was drawn up which, God willing, would have everybody off by the night of 31 May, but the arrangements couldn't be anything but tentative. Fourth Brigade's night was 30-31 May.
Early on the 29th 18 Battalion once more split up. Its main body moved a couple of miles farther on, from the north to the page 162 south end of the plain, joined 20 Battalion in position there, and settled down for another day of comparative ease. A Company, under Major Lynch's temporary command, went back up the mountain to the north (where some of the men had sworn they would never go again) to help 5 Brigade block the entry. With the company was one of the four tanks, a few Vickers gunners who had happened to be tagging along, and a 3-inch mortar manned by the 19 Battalion RSM (who had lost his own unit) and a crew of volunteers.
A Company, jaded as it was, hauled its weary feet up to the top of the first peak north of the plain, and there spread out over a wide front, covering as much of the approach from the north as possible. As it climbed the hill the worn-out men of 5 Brigade were streaming down, the ‘Cook's Tourists’ of the Second Echelon, who had fought Jerry off all the way back from Galatas, and were now on their way to a well-deserved few hours' rest before moving on again. Ahead of A Company was still 23 Battalion and two Aussie battalions; they were to engage Jerry when he arrived, and then withdraw, leaving A Company to hold off the attack till dark. Quite an assignment for fifty dog-tired, hungry, dispirited men.
During the morning the German vanguard of two companies came toiling up the pass. Twenty-third Battalion engaged them vigorously until 4.30 p.m., then, according to its orders, withdrew down into the plain, followed by the Aussies; and A Company was there on its own, outnumbered four to one, with the responsibility for holding the enemy at arm's length for some hours.
As the shadows began to lengthen, the rest of 18 Battalion at the south end of Askifou plain could hear machine-gun, rifle and mortar fire from the north end, and after a while the deeper notes of shellfire. Things were evidently a bit hot up with A Company, but there wasn't a thing the rest could do about it, even if the company was overrun and wiped out.
But A Company was far from being wiped out. On the contrary, it was putting up a skilful defence against the Germans at close range. For three hours the enemy stabbed here and there, trying in vain to smash this stubborn ring of men who disputed their passage. To dispose the company to meet every threat Major Lynch had to keep on the qui vive, and sometimes move a section hastily to counter one of Jerry's page 163 thrusts. Of course, it was only a matter of time. Eventually Jerry swung wide round the flank, dragged a machine gun over the hilltops, got it into position covering A Company's rear and the road down to the plain, and opened fire.
This could have been the end of A Company, but it wasn't. After 23 Battalion's withdrawal, when the situation began to get sticky up on the hilltop, Brigadier Inglis had sent the three Aussie guns up in support, and there they were, without much ammunition, but nicely sited to tackle the troublesome Jerry machine gun. The German fondness for firing tracer gave away its exact location, and the Aussie gunners ‘gave it the works’. Under cover of their fire A Company began to retire downhill.
To Lieutenant-Colonel Gray must go much of the credit for the successful withdrawal. He had been largely responsible for turning the Aussie guns on to their target, and had himself acted as their spotter. He had also produced three trucks from somewhere, and had them waiting ready at the foot of the hill. A Company tumbled into them and set out for the south end of the plain, where the rest of the battalion was getting ready to move on again.
After the two days' rest in the Askifou plain 18 Battalion was reasonably fit to face another night march. There wasn't much food left now that most of the Suda windfall had gone; but, hunger or no hunger, they still had the best part of ten miles to go to the coast. So off they set.
It was an arduous march, the men stumbling over the rough stones of the roadway, literally pushing at times through the mobs of leaderless stragglers that still blocked the track. Up a narrow, dark gorge between towering peaks; down the other side through Imvros (where a makeshift hospital had been set up in a church at the entrance to the village); two miles along a frightening cliff overhanging an abyss that in the dark seemed bottomless; then a series of hairpin bends down a steep face, and then suddenly there wasn't any more road, only a precipice covered with boulders, falling away down into nothing. Here 18 Battalion dispersed off the road, lay down among the stones, and thankfully slept.page 164
I left Lt. Crump15 and four or five men in Vryses to maintain a report centre, so that we should have some sort of contact with the Force as it moved south. It was difficult, in the dark, to find a reasonable defensive position, but after marching some 2½ miles or more I put the Company astride the road…. On the morning of 28th May … S.M. Lapwood and I made a reconnaissance as far as Georgeoupolis. There we found a party of sappers who had just prepared the bridge for demolition. Just north of the bridge were a number of British trucks, abandoned and partially destroyed.
We returned to the Company …, but then decided to go back to the trucks and endeavour to salvage one or two of them, as they would be most useful in our withdrawal…. A quick inspection of the trucks showed that some of them were not beyond repair and with a certain amount of cannibalising we quickly had two of them running, and just managed to get them over the bridge before the sappers fired the charges.
During the afternoon Lt. Crump sent me word that the bridge on the main road at Vryses would be blown at about 2200 hrs., by which time all the Force was expected to be through…. When the bridge went up at 2200 hrs. I had still received no further orders, and as all the rest of the Force seemed to have gone, I put the Company into the two trucks and moved southwards…. Further south we were stopped by a Movement Control Post and ordered to abandon the trucks and bivouac until the following night.
Next day … at 2000 hrs … we joined the general move south. Up to this time it had been impossible to locate the Battalion, but at 0100 hrs., 30th May, we found them going into bivouac on the hills above Spakhia.
The battalion was finished with rearguard actions now. The units of 19 Australian Brigade took up a position covering the mass of weary troops in the dispersal area at the end of the road, and with them a Royal Marine battalion and a Commando force. For the moment Jerry had fallen behind, but that was only temporary.
When dawn broke—18 Battalion's last dawn on Crete—the men could see where they had got to. The hillside was alive with men, and all round them the ground was strewn with gear of all descriptions. Nearby, at the end of the road, were dozens of trucks and ambulances, abandoned and desolate, some of them smashed or burnt out, with bodies still in and page 165 round them. The precipice below fell away sharply for 500 feet to gentler slopes scored with deep watercourses. A mile and a half ahead was their safety, the sea. Their safety— perhaps. They weren't there yet; Jerry wasn't far behind, and there were thousands of men to get away. It wouldn't do to let your hopes soar too high. In the meantime you could only wait.
And what a nerve-racking wait that was! First of all, not very long after dawn, the inevitable plane flew over, up and down the road, having a good look at what was there. A lot more of his pals, thought everyone, were bound to follow, and everyone looked round for a decent cleft or rock for shelter; but miraculously there was no air attack. But there was hunger and there was thirst. And later in the day there were Jerry mortars, first cracking away in the distance up the road, then getting nearer until they were falling uncomfortably close to the dispersed troops. Jerry had followed down from the north and was here on the doorstep, with his shoulder to the door, pushing hard to get it open. Finding the door firmly jammed, he tried to get in the windows by sending forces down the two deep ravines that ran down to the coast on either side of the road. But the defenders had bolted the windows too. Neither outflanking party had any success—the eastern force was stopped by almost vertical hillsides, and the western, after pushing dangerously close to the foot of the Sfakiano ravine, was ambushed by 20 Battalion and mauled so badly that it had to give up.
It was early in the afternoon when this little battle took place on the western flank, and 18 Battalion was there ready to lend a hand if need be. B Company, which had already spent two fruitless hours pushing smashed trucks off the road (must of them had come to rest on the next leg of the zigzag, some 50 yards below), was sent over to the eastern lip of the ravine, half a mile from the dispersal area, to back up the defence. This was, thanks to 20 Battalion, an unnecessary precaution, but it might very well have been necessary. B Company occupied its hillside eyrie for a couple of hours, and then, when the situation cleared, it was ordered back, rejoining 18 Battalion down at the foot of the mountain.
Just about the same time that B Company was setting off for page 166 the Sfakiano ravine, the fate of 18 Battalion was being decided. About 7000 men had already been evacuated to Egypt on the two previous nights. Now tonight four destroyers were to come to Sfakia and take off another load, and it was to be 4 Brigade that went. The previous evacuations had run along anything but smoothly—crowds of stragglers had tried to push their way aboard, some had succeeded, and there had been ugly scenes. This time, said Major-General Freyberg, the beach was to be kept under strict control; every man going down to embark was to be identified, and nobody except those in the authorised units was to get on to the beach.
Brigadier Inglis summoned Lieutenant-Colonel Gray and passed these orders on to him. Eighteenth Battalion was to be the police unit with the unpleasant task of enforcing the orders. At 8.30 p.m. it was to go to the beach and form a solid, impassable human chain. Not one gate-crasher was to be allowed through, and the battalion was to use force if necessary to keep them out.
About 4 p.m. 18 Battalion was ordered downhill. To the bored men lying listlessly in the dispersal area this order had an electric effect—hopes which had dwindled to a low ebb now rose sky-high again. The men slung their rifles, put on their web (most of them had nothing else to carry), and stumbled off down the slippery, rock-strewn slopes, past the shambles of trucks, corpses and gear. At the foot they were still a mile from the coast and nearly two from Sfakia, but one more obstacle was behind them. They lay down again to wait for dark, some in a little gully incongruously bright with rhododendrons, some in caves in the mountainside, others just on the stones in the open. Here a little later B Company joined them.
It seemed to the men as if darkness was never coming, but at last it was 8.30 p.m., and time to move on. Along a narrow zigzag track, past a check post where every man was identified before passing, through the bare stone houses of Sfakia, and out on to the beach just beyond. Only a little beach it was, a piece of sand 150 yards long and 20 yards wide—had it been any bigger, the small remnant of 18 Battalion wouldn't have been sufficient to hold it securely. The men fixed bayonets, formed up shoulder to shoulder, and their evening's work began page 167 as the other 4 Brigade units filed through on to the beach. Here again everyone had to pass muster before getting through the cordon. This didn't deter some stragglers from trying it, but after its experience on the withdrawal 18 Battalion had no patience with stragglers. The officers had to present their pistols at some persistent ones before they would go away, and the men took summary measures too, throwing some unfortunates bodily off the beach, stonily deaf to their pleading.
Second-Lieutenant Lambie recounts one incident:
One of my men reported that a party … had appeared and were demanding admission to the beach and that one had got past the men. We hurried to the spot and each grabbed an arm of the intruder and literally tossed him off the beach. He picked himself up and spat stones and informed us that he was Col…. in charge of the beach and responsible for making contact with the Navy to get us taken off. The writer moved to the other end of the beach and kept very quiet.
Despite this misunderstanding the contact with the Navy was made all right. Towards midnight lights came flashing across the water, and then the silence was broken by the growl of engines as landing craft slipped in to the beach. Only two destroyers were there—the others had been forced to turn back to Alexandria—but on to those two (HMS Napier and HMAS Nizam) were crammed as many men as they could possibly hold: 19 and 20 Battalions, 28 Battalion, 4 Brigade Headquarters, all went, and somehow space was found for 400 extra men of various units. Last of all, 18 Battalion filed on to the landing craft and from them climbed thankfully up on to the destroyers. The Navy, as always, had everything a tired hungry man could desire—hot food, a wash, a sympathetic word, a corner to lie down in and sleep. By 2.40 a.m. the ships were under way, heading south at full speed, with Crete, that island of ill omen, fading rapidly below the horizon.
It would have been a miracle had they reached Africa unhindered, as the Luftwaffe was concentrating a lot of energy on the traffic to and from Crete. But they could have fared much worse than they did. In the middle of the morning eight bombers appeared out of the blue—a brain-shattering din broke out on the ships as every gun and rifle went into action, and in came the planes to the attack. Nobody could accuse the page 168 pilots of cowardice. Down they dived through the ack-ack, and the soldiers packed tight on the ships, unable to take cover, caught their breath as the bombs crashed all round. One slid between Napier's rail and deck and drenched the men on board as it exploded in the water alongside. But there were no more planes, thank God. The destroyers steamed on their way watchful but undisturbed, much slower now, as Napier's engines had taken some damage from that near miss. At last, after a long, long day, Alexandria rose out of the sea, and the jaded Kiwis bade the Navy a grateful farewell and stepped, a weary ragged mob, on to the Egyptian soil which they had left in such high fettle not three months before.
‘But not, not the six hundred.’ Eighteenth Battalion had left for Greece 750 strong; it returned with 257. Of those who reached Crete, 105 were dead or missing, 110 were prisoners, and of those who got away many were wounded and all destitute. But the battalion was still a unit, and every man able to walk had carried his rifle or Bren or Tommy gun off Crete with him—of that at least the battalion could boast.
Some of 18 Battalion's wounded were caught when the Germans overran the Suda hospital, and the battalion saw them no more. But others (mainly the less serious cases) got away. Some were lucky enough to be evacuated from Suda Bay on HMS Hero on 27 May—others made the trip to Sfakia, some in trucks and some perforce on foot, were evacuated before the main body of the battalion, and came back to it later. Of the unwounded, a few who had lost the battalion during the march to Suda Bay managed to make their way to Sfakia ahead of it and to get aboard the ships on 29 May. A resolute few who missed out at Sfakia escaped over the next few months, some of them in small boats, and eventually turned up in Egypt, to the joy of those who had mourned them as lost. But the bulk of the old 18 Battalion was gone. In its place a new battalion was to arise, made up largely of men who were never to know the bitterness of Crete, but worthy successors, in campaigns to come, of those who had faced its dangers and hardships and whose names were now only legends in 18 Battalion.
4 WO II L. V. Bulford; born NZ 21 Oct 1908; dairy-factory hand; killed in action 25 May 1941.