19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 10 — Airborne Invasion
Without danger, danger cannot be surmounted
By 16 May enemy preparations for the invasion of Crete were known to be so far advanced that landings were expected almost hourly. General Freyberg, calling together his officers and NCOs, set the facts frankly before them. An attack was imminent; parachute landings, airborne landings, and an attempt from the sea could be expected. An aerial blitz even greater than that experienced in Greece would be used against us. Equipment and defensive supplies of all sorts were short and there was little hope of improving the position before the invasion took place. It would need an all-out effort by each individual if the enemy was to be beaten off.
Preparations in our defended areas were as far forward as limitations in supplies and equipment would permit. Now began a waiting game. Forecasts, official and unofficial, fixed the zero hour many times over the next four days, and COs of units were supplied with a translated copy of a captured German order covering the Corinth landing. This gave useful information on enemy methods. Meanwhile the air raids continued on the ports and dive-bombers harassed transport or troops caught in the open. All movement was made with increased vigilance, and a rumour that enemy fifth columnists wearing Allied uniforms had already been landed on the island added to the tension.
With Headquarters Company abandoning its specialist role, 19 Battalion could now muster four fighting companies. Supporting arms had moved into operational areas and the battalion had in support F Troop of 5 NZ Field Regiment. The gunners, whose weapons were of ancient Italian vintage, set up in the battalion area. A platoon from 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion was added to the battalion strength but was page 127 later withdrawn, leaving the 19th shortly before the attack took place.
Equipment was down to a fraction of full war scale. Transport for tactical and administrative use totalled two trucks and three Bren carriers. The unit had but two 3-inch mortars and bombs for them were strictly rationed. There were no tools except a small pool of picks and shovels which had to be shared by the whole battalion. Small-arms ammunition was plentiful; armour-piercing and incendiary rounds, however, were unobtainable. Some 120 Greek troops attached just before the battle were armed with Steier pattern rifles, dated 1898, and had but three rounds apiece.
This was a picture repeated in all the New Zealand units on the island. Morale was high but supplies of war equipment were precariously low. Every man knew that when the attack came his marksmanship would be a factor in deciding the fate of the battle. Section leaders set about the preparation of range cards upon which almost every object within rifle and LMG range was accurately taped. There was some anxiety about the ability of our defences, dug in soft ground, to withstand the preliminary air bombing, but the arrival of airborne troops was awaited with confidence. The defenders had every faith in their ability to deal with them.
The New Zealand sector in Crete comprised two main areas: 5 Brigade was responsible for the defence of Maleme airfield, while 4 Brigade was concentrated between Suda and Galatas. Brigadier Inglis1 assumed command of the latter brigade on 17 May, its former commander, Brigadier Puttick, being appointed commander of the New Zealand Division in Crete. Colonel Kippenberger commanded 10 Brigade, a composite formation comprising 20 Battalion, two Greek battalions, and a composite battalion consisting of ASC and Artillery personnel who, owing to lack of equip- page 128 ment, could not function in their normal roles. A detachment of the Divisional Cavalry operating as infantry completed the establishment of this brigade, which was responsible for the defence of the Galatas area. Fourth Brigade had a reserve role.
The 19th Battalion, as a reserve battalion to 4 Brigade, had its headquarters sited in the olive groves about 300 yards south of Karatsos. The 18th Battalion, within whose area Brigade Headquarters was set up, occupied a position astride the Canea-Maleme road about a mile to the north-east, while the Composite Battalion from 10 Brigade lay in an arc north-west to south of Galatas, about a mile and a quarter away. In and around the village were Greek units and the Divisional Cavalry detachment was north of Alikianou.
Communications between and within units was difficult, for visibility was limited, the whole area being thickly covered with olive trees, vineyards, stone walls and houses. While not unduly difficult, the country was hilly and in some spots steep. Roads and tracks intersecting and criss-crossing patterned the whole place. A phone line to 4 Brigade Headquarters, with another to the gun site of a Royal Artillery troop of 3.7 howitzers (under command) sited just outside the battalion area, were the only line communications the slender resources of Divisional Signals could allow the 19th. Message traffic all had to be handled by runner or liaison officer—a factor which limited effective control and which weighed heavily once the attack commenced.
The battalion area sloped generally towards the south and west, covering the high ground overlooking the valley road to Suda. Karatsos in the north and Galatas in the north-west were each on an eminence, and in the valley between them Taranaki Company provided a link with the defended area on the right. Headquarters Company positions were closest to those of 20 Battalion, whose FDLS were 500 yards from the 19th’s at their nearest point on the left flank.
Food supply was a problem, 600 to 700 tons a day being necessary to supplement the island’s slender resources. Warships of thirty knots and over were the only ships which stood a reasonable chance of survival against the marauding Luftwaffe. The total cargo one of these ships could land in any one night was 80 tons.
The lot of the small RAF garrison on Crete, always unenviable, had by now become clearly untenable. Our small force of Hurricanes and Gladiators, despite heroic performances, was gradually being eliminated.
However, in the face of all these difficulties, General Freyberg, in obedience to higher authority, organised the defence of Crete in a manner which, if limited by material and the time available, was to present a serious and costly problem for the attacking German forces.
The days passed, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th, but still the promised attack failed to materialise. The 20th dawned with the usual bombing of airfields and ports, but by now these were routine occurrences and in the battalion position an early morning air-raid alarm acted merely as a reveille call. In platoon areas breakfast began to the noise of continuous bombing from the direction of 5 Brigade’s sector and more than usual air activity in all quarters.
Hawke’s Bay Company was the first in the battalion to see the arrival of the air armada, for after a short period of ground strafing across Galatas, a large flight of Ju52s and gliders flew low over its front travelling east. Breakfast forgotten, there was a mad scramble for action positions. Simultaneously parachutists began to drop. The attack had come.
Gliders of monstrous proportions swooped low, silent and uncanny. The escorting fighters held their fire as the first parachutists floated down, then the sharp crackle of rifle fire from the ground announced the opening of the battle.
The first enemy began to drop into the battalion area at ten minutes past eight. From the open hatches of the page 131 Junkers troop-carriers they jumped at the rate of about one per plane per second, plummeted down for perhaps fifty feet, then puppet-like hung suspended beneath huge green umbrellas. For sheer uncanny horror those first few minutes rivalled the worst Wellsian fantasy. Bombing and machine-gunning had ceased and comparative quiet reigned. The air was full of planes and floating figures. Gliders and troop-carriers flew so low and so slowly that they looked like monstrous sharks swimming lazily among a school of jellyfish. Those first few seconds in the Battle for Crete must remain seared deeply into the memories of those who survived.
The first rifle fire galvanised every man into action; the awe-inspiring spectacle above was now reduced to terms of targets and the shooting was good. The paratroops jumped at heights varying between 200 and 500 feet; a few parachutes did not open, but the rest in their downward journey looked almost leisurely. Silhouetted against the sky, their leg and arm movements could be clearly seen. They stopped abruptly when a man was struck, and it is safe to say that a large percentage of those who landed in the unit’s area were dead when they reached the ground. One falling close to Battalion Headquarters had been hit no fewer than nineteen times. Clearly the 19th’s presence had been unsuspected, and the casualties the enemy suffered by dropping troops in this area must have been a serious check to his plans.
The excitement and confusion of the first few minutes gave place to exhilaration as the realisation dawned that we were having the best of the battle. Then, as the enemy in their immediate vicinity were disposed of, a spontaneous move by all sections to go out after those dropping out of range had to be firmly checked. General forays were discouraged, for should the Germans have gained possession of the dug-in positions we would have been left on the outside looking in. The high ground on which the 19th was situated was vital to the defence of the sector. Companies disposed of all enemy in sight, then organised patrols were sent out to deal with dead ground and areas out of range.page 132
By 10 a.m. reports to Battalion indicated that the unit lines were clear of enemy. Dead paratroops lay dotted all over the position: some, still in their harness, hung grotesquely from the olive trees; others had fallen right on top of section posts. Between a hundred and a hundred and fifty had dropped into Headquarters Company’s area; the balance landed in front of Wellington and Hawke’s Bay Companies, behind Wellington and Taranaki Companies, and in and about Karatsos. The great majority, however, had been dropped out of range on the other side of the Canea-Prison road; these were known to be forming up unmolested ready to attack. In the battalion area, however, there was much to do. Our own casualties were attended to; these included the genial and popular commander of Headquarters Company, Captain Chas Webster, who was killed while leading a patrol against parachutists established on the ground in front of his company position. The enemy prisoners and wounded were collected, the dead searched, and containers of equipment—indicated by their white parachutes—were salvaged and the contents added to the war stores of the unit.
Snipers now began to harass troops moving in the area but our boys, too, were still busy picking off unwary paratroops. Major Williamson, the battalion second-in-command, accounted for one particularly troublesome sharpshooter who had established himself in an olive tree, and whose automatic rifle had already been responsible for the death of more than one of our men. The tactical position was obscure. Communications were out, the phone lines to Brigade and to the 3.7 howitzer troop had been cut during the strafing before the attack, and from outside the area there was no news of what had taken place or how the troops on the flanks were faring. The 19th had taken some prisoners and captured a number of important enemy documents. All ranks were busy testing enemy equipment before putting it into use, and the capture of his weapons had added considerably to the unit’s fire power. Particularly useful were the large number of light and medium machine guns and the mortars, and for both these weapons an ample page 133 supply of ammunition had been dropped. Wireless sets, medical equipment, machine pistols, sniper’s rifles, and even a motor-cycle and sidechair were gathered in. In the midst of all this excitement Jimmy Meller,2 the imperturbable corporal cook at Battalion Headquarters, announced and served a hot breakfast.
By now enemy elements out in front towards the prison were engaging the battalion with mortar and machine-gun fire. The 3-inch mortars under Lt Thodey3 did grand work and located and destroyed many of the enemy weapons. Sergeant Clark,4 with the detachment sited close to Battalion Headquarters, did an excellent job the whole time the unit was at Karatsos. Our men also used the Hun’s own mortars against him, but though these proved to have a greater range than our own, they were not nearly as accurate and required resetting after every round.
The artillery, F Troop of 28 Battery under Major Duigan,5 had done well. Their gun position was in the thick of the first parachute landing. The gunners made good use of the single rifle they had and quickly supplemented their small arms with enemy equipment. After the landing they became ‘infantillery’ and soon cleared their own and neighbouring territory of lurking paratroops. Armed only with a large knife one of their number, Lance-Bombardier Johnston,6 stalked, slightly wounded, and captured a paratrooper single-handed. The guns went into action over open sights against enemy concentrations across the valley and, despite all difficulties, gave valuable support to the battalion and other units in the Galatas area until the night of the 25th, when the position was evacuated.
Captured documents showed that two enemy battalions had been landed on the ground towards the prison and it page 134 was little wonder that that area proved troublesome. Throughout the day resistance steadily increased. It was clear that the enemy was well established out in front.
All troop-carrying gliders had so far passed overhead towards the coast, but it was feared that landings might later take place on the flat ground in the prison area, and a close watch was kept. About 11 a.m. a further small detachment of paratroops was landed and many containers intended for them fell in and close to the battalion positions. For the rest of the day Wellington and Hawke’s Bay Companies, keeping the containers under observation, took a steady toll of Germans as they tried to extract equipment from them.
An enemy threat developing towards Karatsos was quickly dealt with by a fighting patrol from Wellington and Taranaki Companies, which went out about midday and accounted for some twenty Germans. During the afternoon air and ground activity was considerably reduced; the enemy was getting his second wind and preparing for an attack.
News began to trickle through from the other areas, and from the twenty survivors who came back into our lines it was learned that the 3.7 howitzer troop, sited on the flat ground half a mile south of the battalion FDLs across the valley road, had been overwhelmed. One gun had been captured intact. The section from 8 Platoon Wellington Company which had been detailed for protective duties had suffered heavy casualties. The attack had started while the men were still in the mess queue drawing their breakfast rations. A troop-carrier flying low overhead, spilling its paratroops as it came, was their first indication that the invasion had started. Dropping their mess gear, every man went into action immediately. Before long enemy on the ground began returning their fire and, with one of its members killed, the section was forced off the open ground round the gun position and continued the fight from a ditch which ran along the margin of the clearing.
As the weight of enemy numbers increased the position became untenable, and Corporal George Cooke was mortally wounded while withdrawing his men. They attempted to rejoin the artillery personnel who had taken cover on the page 135 opposite side of the clearing, and two men were lost on the way. It soon became evident that the enemy were closing in and the survivors decided to try to get back inside the battalion positions. Before they withdrew, however, two men went out in an attempt to locate the two who had been missed when they left the position in the ditch. One of these failed to return, and the other, the section’s Bren-gunner, finding no sign of his missing comrades, returned when his shouts had brought him under heavy enemy fire. Four survivors got back to the battalion by way of a stream, crawling in the water and crouching beneath the banks until familiar landmarks were sighted just in front of Headquarters Company’s lines. Their report disclosed a serious position, for the howitzer now in enemy hands could be used effectively against the whole sector. Given another hour before the attack began, the rest of 8 Platoon would have been in position covering the artillery area. However, the request for protection from the troop commander had come too late and the delay had proved costly.
On receipt of this information 4 Brigade Headquarters ordered an attack by 18 Battalion westwards along the line of the road Canea-Aghya, with the object of recapturing the guns. This attack, carried out by one company with two Bren carriers in support, ran into heavy opposition, which later proved to be an enemy attack on the point of being staged against the 19th positions. The 18th Battalion’s action, though unsuccessful in its primary object, prevented the enemy operation against the 19th developing.
Some 300 survivors from 6 NZ Field Ambulance and 7 British General Hospital were released by a patrol from Taranaki Company, and fed up, yet famished, came into the battalion area about 5 p.m. They had been captured shortly after the attack started. Some 19 Battalion men who were patients gave the following account of what happened:
The air blitz started just as the 6 Field Ambulance patients were finishing breakfast. Slit-trench accommodation was inadequate and staff and patients were forced to seek the slender protection of the olive trees. The foliage hid page 136 them from the strafing planes, but the bullets tore through the leaves and whipped up spurts of dust all over the ambulance area. Corporal Dick Burge7 of Wellington Company, who had been under treatment for three days, was packed up and ready to go back to the battalion when the attack came. He was one of those who found no room in the ‘slitties’ and his impressions of the now legendary episode are well worth recording. Held a prisoner from the time the ambulance was captured, he eventually returned to the 19th lines when their captors were killed or had cleared out and left their prisoners.
Two paratroop patrols, who must have landed well out of the hospital area, constituted the attacking party. They approached from opposite sides of the clearing, and as they rounded up the patients they were panting with exertion as if after a long run. Tommy guns effectively deterred those who harboured any hopes of making a break for it while the rounding up was in progress. The Germans knew enough English to make themselves understood and soon had both patients and staff herded together into a compact group. No movement was permitted, and their readiness to aim their weapons at any man who tried to change position convinced everyone that it would be unwise to take liberties.
Shortly after the capture of 6 Field Ambulance was complete, the patients from 7 General Hospital were shepherded into the same area. Many were barefoot, some wore pyjamas only; few were fully dressed for many were lying cases. The attackers in their anxiety to get the prisoners away had allowed them no time to dress, but herded every man capable of standing on his feet into a column, which was marched away under guard. A now-armed German airman, who had himself been a patient in the hospital since his plane was shot down a few days before, proved the most objectionable of the whole enemy party.
Once all the prisoners had been gathered into a single group, a paratroop officer addressed them in English. He told them that they were now ‘prisoners of the German page 137 Army’ which was master of Crete, that they must obey orders, and provided they did this would be well treated. He told them to take off their steel helmets, as by wearing these the prisoners might be taken for British fighting troops and the Luftwaffe, which was cleaning up the remnants of the defending army, would be liable to fire on them. He said that they would shortly be moved to the prison area where the headquarters of his particular group was being set up. The harangue concluded, he hurried off, taking some of his men with him.
The group of prisoners had swelled to about three hundred. There were perhaps twenty guards, and it was natural that there should be some talk of sneaking off. Two machine guns were now set up to cover the area, so plans for escaping were abandoned and all settled down to wait, wondering what the next move would be. Firing could be heard on all sides, and overhead planes could be seen flying back towards the sea. The morning wore on and it became obvious that enemy plans were not working out. The guards were getting anxious and some shooting was taking place quite close to the clearing. New Zealand patrols seemed to be working towards the area.
About midday, after a conference, the guards got busy, rounded up their prisoners into column, and set off south through the olive groves. As the column crossed the road a British tank appeared. The commander, sticking his head out of the turret to talk to the party, was potted at by the guards and popped back smartly. The tank rumbled off, and the straggling column, with hopes dashed, plodded protestingly on, urged by the threatening weapons of the now somewhat shaken guards. More trouble was in store for the Germans, however, for a hidden Bren-gunner firing parallel with the line of march caused confusion to friend and foe alike. The guards, now thoroughly rattled, turned the party eastwards. Unfortunately the head of the column crossed the line of fire and the next burst wounded several of our men, including Private Malcolm Highet,8 who was marching side by side with Corporal Burge.page 138
In another clearing, set on a south slope, the party were compactly grouped and instructed to sit down. The sick men were exhausted and everyone was hot and thirsty. Each man wondered what had happened to his own unit area and how his comrades had fared in the attack. It was obvious that the Germans had not had everything their own way. There was still some sporadic firing, but from the slope nothing but olive groves could be seen. The guards, now reduced to half a dozen, were uneasy but kept alert against any signs of a break. Placing themselves in handy positions, they showed plainly that they still meant business.
The day wore wearily on, then in the late afternoon a patrol from 18 Platoon Taranaki Company passed close to the area, and two men managed to creep up unobserved and get into a fire position covering the group with a Bren gun. Their presence caused consternation amongst the guards but the prisoners were naturally elated. For a long time the position was stalemate. The Germans, careful to keep under cover, tried to shift them by fire, and the Bren-gunner, though urged to do so by our men, was loath to reply because of the possibility of hitting some of the prisoners. The prisoners themselves dared not move, for they were still covered by the guards.
At last, leaving the Bren-gunner in position, the second man went off for assistance. While he was away one of the Germans shifted position and the Bren immediately opened up. Unfortunately the burst lifted and caught a group of our medical orderlies, killing some and wounding others. In the confusion which followed, the Germans tried to make off. Arriving on the scene, a patrol from 18 and 16 Platoons Taranaki Company killed several guards then guided the erstwhile prisoners to the battalion area. It was now 5 p.m.; they had been in enemy hands for over eight hours.
News from other sectors was almost nil, but it was evident that 5 Brigade was having a tough time. Aircraft activity and the sound of firing from the direction of Maleme was continuous, and it was obvious that the attackers were making an all-out effort to capture the airfield.page 139
The Aghya area from which 6 Greek Regiment evaporated soon after the attack opened was also causing Headquarters some concern, for it was feared that a landing strip was being made on the flat land to the west of the prison. At 6.30 p.m. the Brigade Major, Major G. P. Sanders,9 arrived at Battalion Headquarters with orders for an attack from the west of Galatas to upset the supposed work of the enemy. While arrangements were being discussed, dive-bombers appeared and blitzed the battalion area, but by now the enemy air-to-ground technique was obvious and our troops confused the aircraft by firing Very light signals. Observation during the day had shown that a white light fired from the ground indicated to the plane the locations of German troops, while a red light fired obliquely showed the direction of our positions and called for offensive action. Later the paratroops used other signals, but by firing many Very lights simultaneously with theirs it was found that the blitzing lost its intensity owing to the pilots’ uncertainty.
Of that first day there have been many impressions recorded. Those of Corporal Jeff Spence,10 of No. 1 Platoon Headquarters Company, though written many years after, are still vivid. His experiences were similar to those of many other men of the unit, for though the 19th hit hard it lost heavily, and for many good soldiers the fighting ended that first fateful day of the airborne attack on Crete.
I can never think of Crete with any degree of clarity or cohesion. Things moved too fast for nicely marshalled impressions to form. I can remember standing with my section on the valley road from Suda just before 8 o’clock that bright, sunny morning of May 20. I can remember how the ground and the air shook under the terrific bombardment that Suda Bay and Canea were taking.
I can remember Scotty Walker muttering, ‘It’s all according to Hoyle, brother—they said the invasion would come after an all-in pasting of strategic points.’ Then they WERE going to try page 140 it on. We scaled up the hill towards our sketchy platoon positions. Quite clearly I can remember stepping over a huge, unflurried ant trail. I had spent hours watching it. But not this morning.
I can remember Rolly Bosworth’s raucous shout, ‘Look up the valley!’ I can remember the thrill of fear that tingled right down to my boots as I saw for the first time that black swarm of 52’s in neat arrowheads of three, thundering towards us 300ft above.
I think we all felt it; we all struggled and sweated up the steep grade spurred on by the fear of men who are left to meet something overwhelming by themselves, without the odd comfort and strength of others.
I can remember our section cook, Phil Padbury, his blue eyes glued up the valley, mumbling something about burgoo and sausages. I can remember fixing my bayonet and then unfixing it again; I can remember firing wildly at the calm, roaring shadow of a 52 right overhead—and cursing Scotty for doing the same thing and wasting ammunition.
I can remember a poor Jerry floating down right above us, his body kicking and writhing in its harness under the impact of a hundred bullets; I can remember the thud as he hit the deck and the soft swoosh as his parachute settled over him; I can remember our sergeant, Denny Lindsey—‘Denny the Dreamer’—his face white and eyes very wide and staring as he crawled towards us to see if we were all right; I can remember shouting at him over the din that we were not—that we should retire a hundred yards to the cover of the trees; he nodded and crawled away.
I can remember Whit Porter, suddenly, incongruously called by nature at this of all times; even then we laughed at his modesty as he crawled under the dead German’s parachute. I can remember crawling down to another dead Hun nearby to get his Luger and hand grenades. I got them—and a Leica camera as well. I can remember debating with the others whether you pulled or pushed the little coloured knobs on the grenades to make them go off. I still don’t know.
About one we ate Padbury’s cold porridge and sausages; I can remember lighting a pipe—my first smoke of the day; I can remember the first wonderful draught of smoke.
It gave me away. I felt the bullet explode in my leg, but there was no pain. Tom Foley dragged me up the open ground to the R.A.P., wished me luck, and skeetered back.
In five minutes he was back at the R.A.P. with a shattered shoulder. Butch was dead, Gordon was dying with a bullet in his stomach. Four others were wounded—all from our platoon. page 141 We were signallers, incidentally, but we hadn’t seen a field telephone since evacuated from Greece.
After that there is only a morphia-dimmed picture of stretcher bearers and interminable olive groves and whistling Heinkels; of a bombed-out, gutted hospital; of caves and smells and death and Germans and capture.11
On the evening of 20 May the battalion received the following orders from 4 Brigade Headquarters for the attack on the prison area:
Enemy are preparing what appears to be a landing ground 1000 yards to the west of the Prison 0553.
19 Bn will counter attack this area forthwith, with
Time of signature 6.20 p.m.
There were many difficulties and objections to be surmounted before this attack could be staged. It was already evening and there were a bare two hours of light left. Enemy aircraft were still troublesome and all our movements during daylight would be watched. There was a long move to make before the objective could be approached squarely. As the return of the attacking force was not envisaged, arrangements for water, rations, and ammunition would have to be made. At daylight the force would no doubt find themselves in an exposed position subjected to severe air attack, and they had no tools to dig in with. The thinning out of the battalion positions would leave a very vulnerable flank in the Galatas dispositions.
Taking all the above factors into consideration it was decided to attack with two companies only, and Wellington Company (Captain Clive Pleasants) and Taranaki Company (Captain Doug McLauchlan12) made ready and moved out page 142 from a start line in front of Hawke’s Bay Company’s position at 7.30 p.m. The three tanks under Captain Roy Farran proceeded along the road and picked up the infantry at Galatas, having been twice mortared on the way. The attacking force now continued together for 1000 yards beyond the village and wheeled south at a point approximately one and a half miles from the battalion area.
Taranaki Company, on the left, passed through 4 Field Regiment’s lines and ran into opposition right away. After a troublesome engagement in which the company sustained some casualties, including Lieutenant Swinburn,13 who was wounded, two enemy mortars and crews and three LMG positions were destroyed. In swinging in to join the fight Wellington Company lost contact with one of its platoons—No. 9. When at last the firing died down it was dark, and at 10 p.m. Captain Pleasants, who was in command of the force, ordered a halt and the three tanks and the two companies laagered for the night. Arrangements were made to continue the attack at first light next morning. The force posted sentries and lay up in the olive groves approximately 1400 yards from the prison. Of No. 9 Platoon there was no sign, and all efforts to locate it failed.
Back in the battalion area the two remaining companies thinned out and with some Greeks manned the positions vacated by Wellington and Taranaki Companies. While this reorganisation of forces was in progress word came from Divisional Headquarters that the 19th would come under command of 10 Brigade forthwith. About 9 p.m. Colonel Kippenberger, the Brigade Commander, called at Battalion Headquarters to discuss the attack then in progress.
It was unfortunate that the orders for the change of command had not arrived earlier, for 10 Brigade, through whose area the two companies had advanced, could have given much assistance. Now, however, night had fallen, the attackers had passed out of the defended area, and the forward commander had no means of keeping in touch with the situation. Kippenberger then decided to cancel the page 143 operation and patrols were sent out to try to locate the force, but it was not until first light next morning that contact was made. The companies were then already moving forward towards their objective, but on receipt of orders from 10 Brigade the attack was called off and they moved back to the battalion area without encountering any further opposition. At 9 a.m. their original positions were reoccupied, but 9 Platoon was still ‘out in the blue’ and no report had been received of its whereabouts.
It was some time before Lieutenant Jim Weston14 and the men of 9 Platoon realised that they had lost contact with Company Headquarters, for during the first half hour of darkness the platoon had been kept fairly busy. One casualty had been caused by fire from our own tanks, then a burst of machine-gun fire and a challenge from the front halted their advance. A well-aimed grenade dealt with the opposition and a section charging the spot found the enemy post deserted. It was pitch dark, and every few minutes the platoon halted and sent out runners to try to link up with the rest of the company. Each time they returned beaten by the black night. However, there was a constant crackle of rifle fire all round, so they continued to advance steadily, confident that the rest of the force was not far away. After crossing the road leading to the prison a halt was called and a patrol sent out to try to locate the advancing force and the prison. They reported that neither the enemy nor our own troops were to be found.
A conference was held and the platoon NCOs were anxious that, despite having lost contact, dawn would find them in a position to materially assist our forces in the attack which would no doubt develop at first light. As they were now so far forward, it was decided to keep going in the hope that the platoon would be able to create a diversion in the enemy’s rear.
Carefully probing their way forward the platoon kept going until 4 a.m., when the hills were reached. All was now silent. Dawn came and still there was no firing from page 144 the direction of the prison. Slowly the realisation came that they were alone in enemy territory. The attack had been called off.
Now only faith and fieldcraft could get them back to our own lines undiscovered. The platoon was prepared to fight, but the objective was a bit big for so small a force. Moving circumspectly, the men wormed their way further into the re-entrant, got well under cover, posted sentries and waited for darkness.
Weston made a reconnaissance, satisfied himself that there were no enemy in the immediate vicinity and returned to the platoon, confident that if they kept quiet they had every chance of remaining unmolested. Sergeant Greig,15 going in the opposite direction, found two paratroops who had been injured while landing in the rough country. They were disarmed and their wounds dressed. The platoon shared its water with them, while they in return shared the food they had; the New Zealanders had their emergency rations only. Both the Germans were ardent young Nazis and spoke English. Hess’s descent into Scotland was news that had them hard put to supply a satisfactory explanation.
While this argument was in progress, the platoon commander and the sergeant were busy with binoculars plotting the enemy positions visible from the southern slopes and working out a route back. There appeared to be a post on ‘patchwork hill’, some 2000 yards away, watching the area in which the platoon was hidden, and in the village below there was considerable movement. Heavy firing was coming from the direction of Karatsos, artillery fire and much mortaring indicating an intense engagement there.
On the mountains behind, Greek snipers seemed to be annoying the enemy, while from the left there was light rifle and machine-gun fire all day. Enemy planes were active as usual and about midday a large force of troop-carriers parachuted supplies into the enemy area. The platoon observers were having a grandstand view. All went well till 5 p.m. The men had rested and slept, and though there was little to eat, all felt fit for the night move ahead.page 145
Suddenly machine-gun fire from a ridge higher up the valley shattered the silence. Crawling up to investigate, the platoon saw that a duel between two parties of troops was in progress. It was hard to decide who was who, for some of the Greek forces wore a uniform similar in colour to that of the Germans, so the platoon held its fire. Then, as the party being pursued up the ridge came into view, they were seen to be wearing khaki. No. 9 Platoon immediately went into action against the other party. The result was devastating. The platoon position was immediately pasted by the party they were trying to help. A heavy machine-gun was posted well above the area in which No. 9 Platoon was hiding and its first burst caused one casualty in the platoon and sent the rest to cover. The position was now untenable; cursing their luck, the men sought a more healthy spot. As the platoon moved the machine-gunner kept up his harassing fire, and at the same time the German party which had first been engaged also became interested. They sent out a scout to investigate. He was shot as the withdrawal began.
One section, under Lance-Corporal ‘Buzz’ Nathan, got into position on the high ground to cover the movement of the rest. No sooner had they set up than they were found by the ‘friendly’ force, whom it is now supposed were Greeks, and raked with machine-gun fire. Nathan was killed and several of his section wounded. The enemy, too, now joined in, but the rest of the platoon ran the gauntlet of fire without mishap.
Germans now began to appear from all quarters and a patrol was seen racing from the village on ‘patchwork hill’. One of the Bren-gunners dealt with this new menace while Lieutenant Weston gave orders for the other two sections, under Sergeant Greig, to withdraw by what seemed to be a safer route. They were told to keep going and the Bren-gunner was sent with them. Weston now set about getting Nathan’s section off the ridge. The supposed Greek machine-gun was still firing. One of the unwounded men in the section could be seen assisting others down towards a ditch towards where Weston had found cover. All seemed to be going well when suddenly two enemy riflemen appeared page 146 about fifteen yards away. Weston ducked and rolled into cover, followed by their bullets. Both missed.
It was now almost dark and the rest of the platoon seemed to have got clear. The platoon commander, lying doggo, decided to risk staying in the vicinity so that he could return to the wounded when things grew quieter. The enemy were by this time closing in, firing Very lights and calling to each other as they searched the area; however, he was not discovered. By 9 p.m., after a series of stealthy advances, he had gained the ridge, but the wounded had gone—it was learned later that the enemy had picked them up and that they were well treated. Their own treatment of the two injured German paratroops no doubt had a bearing on this.
Weston decided to follow the platoon, now under Sergeant Greig, who knew the route chosen earlier in the day and should have been well on their way back to the battalion. Weston found out afterwards, however, that the sergeant, with six men, was captured while attempting to cover the withdrawal of the platoon earlier in the evening. The rest were forced to try and make it via ‘patchwork hill’ They clashed several times en route with enemy posts, losing a few men each time, and finally arrived back at the battalion two days later, having circled round and come in from the Canea flank.
Weston himself, though fatigued almost beyond endurance, reached the proximity of our own lines by 4 a.m. on 22 May. Not knowing the password, or even being sure who was in possession, he decided to wait till dawn before making an appearance. He fell asleep and it was broad daylight before he woke. Gathering his equipment together, he had hardly moved forward when he saw a paratrooper duck for cover behind an olive tree just in front. Though not daring to fire, he kept the German covered and brought him out with his hands up. Keeping his prisoner close, he approached Hawke’s Bay Company area and, calling out, was relieved to get a reply in English.
The platoon’s survivors totalled eleven men, nine others under Corporal Roy McLean16 coming in through the page 147 Australian lines two days later. Their sojourn in enemy territory, though costly, had been costly for the Hun also. The return of so many was a tribute to those they had left behind, for the support they had given each other during the difficult withdrawal had alone made possible their return to the battalion. The platoon remained on the fighting strength of the battalion for the rest of the campaign.
There was little sleep for the garrison of Crete on the night of 20–21 May. On the first day of the battle the enemy had landed, despite stout opposition, about 10,500 well-armed and well-equipped troops. The intense air blitz, plus the close cover, had enabled his paratroops to organise and consolidate in many key positions. It was physically impossible for the defenders to patrol all areas under suspicion, and when night fell there were still minor engagements and much sniping taking place around Galatas. Casualties on both sides had been heavy, and now with the darkness defender and attacker alike became busy with plans for a renewed offensive.
Lack of adequate communications hampered the actions of commanders of defended areas, and as the battle wore on this proved to be the most serious and embarrassing factor in our organisation. The few phone lines valiantly maintained by detachments from Divisional Signals had been cut early in the engagement, and though by nightfall most links in the Galatas hook-up had been restored, all were vulnerable to enemy interference and overhearing. Caution was necessary. Movement of messengers was difficult. Control and co-ordination suffered.
After the forlorn attempt made to exploit the unit’s counter-attack role, the battalion’s lines were left dangerously thinly manned. The positions of the two absent companies were held by a skeleton force from Battalion Headquarters and from Hawke’s Bay Company, plus the few Greeks who had remained with the unit, and a strong and varied section made up from men formerly under detention in the Field Punishment Centre linked up the Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki sectors. Energetic patrolling page 148 over the whole battalion area now became a necessary precaution for infiltration by enemy elements would be a simple matter once night fell.
Much administrative work had to be done. As soon as it was dark the wounded, under the care of Captain Bill Carswell,17 Regimental Medical Officer, and his team of stretcher-bearers, were evacuated to an improvised dressing station manned by survivors of 6 NZ Field Ambulance and 7 British General Hospital, and established in some caves on the beach west of Canea. The capture of the whole medical area early in the day had disrupted all normal evacuation procedure, and the unit stretcher-bearers, who had spent a busy day succouring the battle casualties, were now forced to undertake the hazardous and difficult task of moving each lying case out of the area. The unit’s only remaining truck—a 15-cwt supplied by 2 Welch Battalion—was employed each night on this work.
Rations and ammunition, up to now supplied by the DID (Detail Issue Depot) outside Canea, had to be collected. Though the fate of that town was unknown and conditions along the route were bound to be dangerous, the RSM, WO I Parker, and RQMS, WO II Colin Baynes,18 made the journey and returned safely loaded with supplies. This was the last normal issue made to the battalion during the campaign. Before these many tasks could be completed dawn had broken and the first dive-bombing attack on the battalion had begun. Camouflage could no longer conceal the unit’s presence, for the enemy’s ground-to-air communication was good and it was soon clear that the Luftwaffe had the position pinpointed. While the blitz lasted each section post waited alert and tense for the ground attack which was expected with the dawn. It failed to materialise and by 7 a.m. all was quiet once more. At 8 a.m. Wellington Company (less 9 Platoon) and Taranaki Company returned and reoccupied their original areas, and page 149 as at this stage the enemy on the ground were giving little trouble, rations were distributed to platoons and all men made a good meal.
Between daylight and midday some 300 containers and a few troops were observed dropping to the west of the battalion area along the Canea road. By now the colour code of these containers was known to us: green indicated mortars and ammunition; red, machine guns, pistols and ammunition; white, anti-tank weapons and ammunition; yellow, medical stores. Selective stalking was now possible and the possession of green containers was always keenly contested.
In response to an order from 10 Brigade, a squadron of Divisional Cavalry and Taranaki Company during the morning successfully staged a counter-attack on enemy elements just outside Galatas, and at 9 a.m. Taranaki Company moved out from its original position to occupy a more forward area astride the road prior to making a further attack. The new objective was Cemetery Hill. This feature dominated part of the battalion’s area, and from it heavy mortar and machine-gun fire was causing casualties. Hawke’s Bay Company’s positions especially were receiving much unwelcome attention from that quarter.
The fighting at this stage was following no ordered pattern, but there was plenty of scope for, and many examples of, individual initiative. Some exciting one-man battles were staged. One outstanding duel was that between Corporal Bert Ellis19 of 14 Platoon Hawke’s Bay Company and an enemy heavy mortar. The platoon position was on a forward slope of a promontory which jutted out towards the strongly occupied area on Cemetery Hill. With all the section posts evidently clearly visible to the enemy on the high ground, 14 Platoon was having a hot time. One mortar in particular was causing a lot of worry, and around the platoon headquarters’s slit trench there were thirteen bomb craters. Deciding to try a desperate measure, Ellis crawled out to a flank, taking with him a captured spandau and a page 150 good supply of ammunition. He located the mortar and took it on single-handed. The duel went on at least a dozen rounds without apparent score on either side, but by drawing the fire away from his platoon position Ellis undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades.
The first burst from his spandau drew the mortar fire on to his area, but by the time the bomb had landed the corporal had got away another burst and rolled downhill into the cover of a small slit trench. Between each bomb he went back to his gun, got in several seconds of solid firing, then tumbled swiftly back into cover just ahead of the next bomb. The end came when a splinter exploded two home-made milk-tin bombs which Ellis had placed in a handy position at the base of a nearby olive tree. The olive, cut off at its foot, did a neat somersault into the trench. It took four men to get the corporal free from its enveloping branches, and shortly afterwards the platoon withdrew to a less-exposed position.
After several delays Taranaki Company, supported by fire from the battalion mortars and from Hawke’s Bay Company, began its attack on Cemetery Hill. Three light tanks were also expected to co-operate, but owing to communication difficulties co-ordination could not be achieved and at midday the company moved in without them. Going forward as far as the foot of the hill, 18 Platoon was pinned by heavy machine-gun fire. Nos. 16 and 17 Platoons went on against stiff opposition to the cemetery itself but, after cleaning up the enemy encountered en route, were forced to withdraw owing to heavy mortaring. The enemy, however, was forced off the feature and lost some 15 men, 5 mortars and 10 light machine guns. Our casualties were 5 killed and 3 wounded. That night and the following night patrols sent to the cemetery found no signs of the enemy.
The original officers of 19 Battalion
Entraining at Trentham, 5 January 1940
Welcome in Athens
The first German prisoners at Servia being searched by Ptes J. J. Doyle and N. R. Ford
Reforming after this attack, Taranaki Company took up a position on the left of the Divisional Cavalry astride the cemetery road from Galatas. Enemy dive-bombers singled them out for special attention during the rest of the day and a direct hit on Company Headquarters that afternoon caused several casualties.
As the day drew on there was a distinct lull in the fighting. ‘Reckon we’ve got him beat’ was the general comment all round, and this belief gained even more adherents when, at 11 p.m., gunfire and boats in flames were reported out to sea. Though the rumour that the Navy had intercepted and destroyed part of the German invasion fleet was later proved to be true, jubilation was premature. The Galatas sector was for the time being quiet, but at Maleme a bitter battle was in progress and the fate of the all-important airfield hung in the balance. When on Thursday the 22nd the enemy landed from the air a further 1800 fresh troops, the scale began to swing definitely in his favour.
The 22nd May dawned quietly in the battalion’s positions. The early morning blitz which all had now come to expect did not eventuate. The few aircraft flying over the area took no offensive action though some containers were dropped to the south of Headquarters Company’s lines. In the direction of Maleme, however, the air was thick with planes and the sound of bombing was continuous.
About 11 a.m. a series of heavy explosions signalled the fact that the enemy was now using against us the 3.7 howitzer which he had captured on the 20th. Twelve fighters also added to the general discomfort by systematically strafing the whole of the battalion area. The unit’s casualties were mounting but spirits were still high, and the regular shuttle service of troop-carrying planes observed in the western sky was for a time believed to be an attempt by the enemy to evacuate his troops. All were keen to get another smack at the Hun before he could get away.page 152
To regain ground lost by the Greeks during the first day’s fighting and to find out if later rumours of the paratroops’ withdrawal were correct, 19 Battalion on the afternoon of the 22nd staged a two-company attack on an 800-yard front. Wellington Company (Captain Pleasants) and Headquarters Company (now commanded by the Quartermaster, Captain Jack Danderson) began to move towards the high ground, some 3000 yards south of the battalion area, across the valley road towards the feature known as the Pyramids and the Turkish Fort which was a prominent landmark in that area.
If the enemy was still in possession of the feature, the two companies were to locate his positions, test their strength, and inflict as much damage as possible before withdrawing to the battalion area. Simultaneously with this attack 18 Battalion sent a platoon to Galaria. Both the 19th companies ran into opposition and, as usual, German aircraft took a hand in the proceedings, making low-level attacks and harassing the companies from the time they left these positions. Wellington Company, in particular, encountered strongly held machine-gun posts and in an unsuccessful attempt to outflank them had four men killed, including Private ‘Fat’ Simpson,21 whose fearless and aggressive work during the past three days had earned him the admiration of all his comrades. Three were wounded. At 5 p.m. the company withdrew, having accomplished its mission and accounted for some ten Germans.
On their way back Sergeant Bill Oliver22 of 8 Platoon had some remarkable good fortune. Two days previously, when the attack was at its height, he had lost his paybook (carrying a substantial credit) plus a carefully hoarded packet of cigarettes. Covering the same ground again, he regained his prized possessions when diving for cover during an aircraft attack.
No. 7 Platoon, too, were lucky, for during their absence on this operation their position was heavily mortared by the page 153 enemy, who was attempting to silence the guns of F Troop, sited about 100 yards in the rear.
Headquarters Company got within 200 yards of its objective, destroyed three enemy mortars and several machine guns, then, as it would have had little chance of success had an attack been ventured on the strongly held high ground without support, withdrew at 7 p.m. After dark a patrol from that company returned and brought in a considerable quantity of enemy stores which they had located during the afternoon. Included in this booty was an anti-tank gun of approximately 1-inch calibre.
Friday the 23rd began uneventfully, but by now the effects of fatigue were making themselves felt and the area was growing foul from unburied corpses. Rations were scanty and water scarce, and though the troops were beginning to show signs of wear, the unit was still in good heart and patrols went out willingly and full of offensive spirit. The morning was quiet, but during the afternoon the artillery troop had an exciting half hour. Enemy mortars got on to the gun position and an unlucky shot set fire to a dump of shells and charges. The blaze was spectacular and drew a further rain of mortar bombs on the position while the gunners were fighting to extinguish the flames and move their equipment out of danger. The yeomen service rendered by F Troop, both in support of the battalion and as ‘infantillery’ working alongside our patrols, won for the gunners the enduring admiration of all ranks in the 19th. Their No. 1 gun was only about 100 yards west of Battalion Headquarters, and liaison and co-operation between the two units was at all times excellent.
Battalion Headquarters, however, was no sheltered spot, and Major Duigan, the battery commander, records that once when offered hospitality there in the shape of a dish of hot stew, he was very glad when the meal was finished and he could leave. The CO, Major Blackburn, was at the time coolly sniping the enemy with a captured machine gun, the Germans retaliating vigorously with unpleasantly accurate mortar fire. Our own 3-inch mortar replied and luckily silenced the enemy with its first shot. This episode page 154 was typical of the aggressiveness of the officers at Battalion Headquarters, and any enemy parties they spotted were engaged from their vantage point on the high ground. Their efforts resulted in a certain amount of discomfort to our own staff but there was much satisfaction in harrying the enemy with his own weapons.
Fifth Brigade were withdrawn during the 23rd towards Galatas from their position along the Platanias River, where they had been subjected to ferocious air attack and stiff opposition on the ground. During the day it was deemed advisable to lessen the gap between that brigade’s area and the Galatas sector, and strong patrols from 10 Brigade were sent out to link up with them before the next stage of their hazardous withdrawal began. Despite opposition from the ground and air this was accomplished, and as a result the enemy was still denied the routes to the east and south for which he was making so bold a bid. A re-arrangement of units during the day altered the general defence line and Canea-Galatas-Pirgos became the main defended area. This line was held by 4 Brigade and 19 Australian Infantry Brigade, and 5 Brigade gradually withdrew behind Galatas. The 19th Battalion remained in its original positions throughout, and with other badly depleted New Zealand units was responsible for the sector between the township and the coast.
Saturday the 24th was marked by intense air activity, and the battalion positions received their full share of the strafing directed against the Galatas sector. It was clear that the enemy would try to link up from the west with his forces in the prison area and make every effort to dislodge the Galatas garrison. As the day drew on pressure increased, and in anticipation of enemy AFV action on the battalion front a supply of improvised anti-tank mines was distributed to companies. These were laid out in readiness but were not required. It was hoped that the six sticks of gelignite which each contained would have been effective against a lightly armed tank, for it had been reported that armoured vehicles were being landed.page 155
Fighting patrols working in across the front throughout the day took toll of isolated German parties as they ventured close to the positions. However, resistance from the enemy on the ground was increasing and he was now able to bring fire to bear on many parts of the battalion’s area. There were several heavy bombing attacks during daylight and the unit was on the alert against an enemy infantry offensive which was expected at any time.
The 2/7 Australian Battalion took up a position on the left flank. On the night of 23–24 May 19 Battalion patrols linked up with them. Enemy movements observed and checked throughout the day indicated that he was still building up his forces out in front, and at nightfall 15 Platoon Hawke’s Bay Company was sent to take up a position facing the prison on the right flank of the Divisional Cavalry. The night passed without further offensive action by either side.
On the 24th enemy ground forces began an advance and gained some ground initially in a heavy attack against 18 Battalion, which held an elongated front-line position forward of Galatas and up to the coast road. A plucky counter-attack by the Auckland Battalion forced them back again at the point of the bayonet, but by now the whole of the line was being subjected to continuous fire. The enemy mortars were reinforced by pack artillery, but despite the increase in heavy weapons used against them our own troops were still making effective reply.
But enemy reinforcements were now arriving by air unhindered and in increasing numbers. Maleme airfield, despite a hard-fought action by 22 Battalion and a counter-attack by 20 Battalion and the Maoris, was in German hands and was being used already by the Luftwaffe. It was evident that the days of the defenders of Crete were numbered. Contact with the Retimo sector was lost. Force Headquarters had been withdrawn from the Akrotiri Peninsula to Suda Bay and it was obvious that the Galatas sector would be the enemy’s next objective. He did not press home an attack that night.page 156
The 25th May was a bad day. The unit was shelled, strafed, bombed and machine-gunned from daylight onwards. The already depleted companies suffered further casualties, Taranaki in particular being severely mauled. The full-scale attack had begun. No. 15 Platoon Hawke’s Bay Company, which had covered the route several times previously, were sent out once more at 3 p.m., together with 7 Platoon Wellington Company, to assist the Divisional Cavalry whose position lay close to the enemy’s thrust line.
No. 7 Platoon (Lieutenant Ron Scales and Sergeant Dave Rench) and 15 Platoon (Lieutenant John Carryer and Sergeant Allan Kennedy23) moved out of the battalion area at 3 p.m. to rendezvous at the Galatas church. Together the two platoons took cover among the olive trees which lined the sunken road close by, while the platoon commanders went off to report to Major John Russell,24 who was commanding the Divisional Cavalry responsible for the defence of this sector of the Galatas line. The men had just settled down to rest when two smoke shells fell among them. A pinkish-coloured cloud went up, and immediately eight Stukas which had been patrolling overhead turned and peeled off one by one to attack.
The air attack followed the now all too familiar pattern; each plane dived in turn, roared down with guns blazing, and released its bomb just as it flattened out. Both platoons suffered, No. 7 having five and No. 15 three casualties. Private Sullivan25 was killed outright and that stalwart soldier, Private Ted Newman26 was severely wounded in the thigh; he died later in enemy hands. His fortitude and cheerfulness during this incident were a fine example to his shaken comrades. The platoon commanders returned while the wounded were being moved to the shelter of a stone wall page 157 some hundred yards away, where they were left under the care of Private Nicholls,27 a regimental stretcher-bearer with the party.
The task which had been allotted to the small force was to occupy a ridge (Pink Hill) extending towards the prison on the right flank of the Divisional Cavalry’s positions. This ridge dominated their flank and it was feared that the enemy were about to move on to it. After a brief conference, it was decided to approach the objective by different routes, 7 Platoon going through Galatas and 15 Platoon moving in from the right flank of the Divisional Cavalry positions.
No. 15 Platoon ran into trouble immediately, surprising an enemy patrol working close in to the squadron positions on the right. This patrol was quickly dealt with by grenades and small-arms fire and forced to withdraw, Corporal Robertson28 and his section doing good work during the hot few minutes while the encounter lasted. The platoon was preparing to move on again when word was brought out by runner that they were to withdraw back to the battalion. This they did without further incident.
Meanwhile, 7 Platoon had reached the objective and, dividing into halves, proceeded along each side of the ridge. Their progress was followed by machine-gun fire from the enemy in the valley towards the prison, but the houses lining the high ground gave a certain amount of cover and the parties went forward steadily. Those working along the west slope—the party commanded by Sergeant Rench—came under mortar fire just as the sergeant, who with one other man was some distance ahead of the rest, had reached the last house. The enemy’s attack on Galatas had started and Pink Hill was obviously one of his objectives.
Rench entered the house just as an enemy machine gun opened up on the platoon’s line of advance. He found several artillerymen sheltering from the fire, quite unaware of what was happening. From the balcony, which gave a good view along the ridge, he was unable to see any signs page 158 of enemy activity on the high ground, so he moved across to the eastern side of the ridge and linked up with Lieutenant Scales, who with his party was awaiting the arrival of the others. Sustained machine-gun fire was now being directed against the Divisional Cavalry positions which lay to the left rear of 7 Platoon, who were sheltering under the cover of some agave plants on a terrace to the eastern side of the toe of the ridge. Suddenly it was noticed that fire was coming from somewhere overhead. On climbing up to the next terrace, the platoon could see an enemy spandau crew in action on the brow of the ridge. The platoon immediately took up a defensive position.
Private Bert McKay stalked and disposed of the spandau party with a grenade. It was now obvious that the enemy attack was developing from the direction of the prison and a sharp engagement between their forward elements and 7 Platoon took place. McKay, caught out in the open, was wounded in the groin. Undeterred by the heavy fire, Privates Merv Smylie29 and Jack Wildermouth30 went out and carried him back to cover under the terrace. Smylie then went out again and got in some good shooting with a captured spandau. By this time a fierce duel was in progress and the platoon was replying vigorously and effectively. The artillery sergeant who had come from the house to join the party was killed while doing a good job with a Bren gun. Scales was himself wounded, but the enemy had suffered heavily and there was a brief lull.
At this stage it was noticed that the Divisional Cavalry had evacuated its forward posts, and as his party was entirely out on its own and liable to be cut off, Scales decided to withdraw also. The position was evacuated one by one, Wildermouth and Smylie carrying out the wounded McKay on a wooden door they had wrenched off the nearest house. On the way back the remainder of Rench’s party, who had been pinned by fire during the advance along the ridge, was contacted. They, too, had had casualties, and the survivors page 159 under Sergeant Dave Horn31 now joined the rest of the platoon.
Unable to locate Divisional Cavalry headquarters, which had apparently moved during the time the engagement on the ridge was in progress, 7 Platoon made its way back to the battalion position. It came in through Taranaki Company’s lines and rejoined Wellington Company just as the general withdrawal from Galatas began.
By 5 p.m. that evening the enemy had penetrated the Galatas line and elements from our forward units began retiring through 19 Battalion’s position. Taranaki Company was hurriedly moved back to its old line on the battalion’s right flank, and two platoons from Headquarters Company were sent out to assist it to stave off a threatened enemy infiltration at that point. By 8.30 p.m. more of the forward troops began coming back and despite falling darkness the enemy air attacks continued. The situation was desperate, but at Galatas a thrilling and savage counter-attack by two companies of 23 Battalion, the Bren carrier platoon of the 20th, a party from the 18th and a few gunners, plus two light tanks, recaptured the town, relieved the pressure and allowed the retirement, which was finally ordered at 11 p.m., to take place unhindered.
Tenth Brigade having ceased to exist, 19 Battalion now came under command of 5 Brigade, which was now in command of the Galatas area. The position the unit had held at Karatsos since the beginning of the attack was evacuated. It was a pitch black night, and the men moved out in single file approximately a mile to the south-east. A halt was called and, with its right flank at the village of Evthymi, the battalion took up a new line covering the coast road to Canea. There was no opportunity for previous reconnaissance, but before dawn the whole unit was in the new area. Company positions from the left flank were Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay, then Headquarters Company, the last covering a road cutting just in front of the forward positions; Wellington Company was in reserve. To the north, towards page 160 the sea, were the Divisional Cavalry and 21 Battalion, very weak in numbers but with A Company of 20 Battalion and some sappers attached to form 21 Battalion Group.
All company positions were on forward slopes, in the open and on rocky ground where a few olive trees gave sparse cover. In the short time available before daylight little digging could be done, and some sections were still entirely out in the open when the first attacks began.
Casualties in the battalion on 26 May were heavy. At 7 a.m. the whole of the unit area came under heavy fire from the ground while strafing from the air was almost continuous. The enemy was trying to force a breach through the road cutting and was throwing in everything he had to obtain his objective. It was a bad morning. Viewing it in retrospect, a member of the unit who afterwards saw service in every theatre in which the Division was employed said: ‘It was my worst day in the whole war.’ Headquarters Company had thirty men killed and wounded in about as many minutes, and by 2 p.m. enemy patrols had pushed up close enough to our forward platoons to use stick bombs which they hurled from under cover of an embankment. Nos. 5 and 6 Platoons, who had borne the brunt of the attack, used their single remaining grenade effectively before they were forced to retire approximately 150 yards. The enemy quickly moved in to occupy the ground just vacated, but a forward section from a Taranaki Company platoon hotly engaged them and, assisted by several effective bombs from our 3-inch mortar, forced the enemy to withdraw once more.
Taking advantage of this diversion Lieutenant Keith Cockerill32 and Corporal Bert Ellis did a quick reconnaissance. They had the unenviable experience of being singled out by two low-flying Me110s and chased over the ridge and back again. At 2.15 p.m., however, 14 Platoon reoccupied the position. A platoon from 21 Battalion, supported by a light tank, eased the pressure on the 19th when they moved on to a feature across the road and gave page 161 covering fire to our right flank. During the rest of the afternoon the enemy made several attacks but failed to penetrate further.
Our numbers were being steadily depleted. At 4.30 p.m. Captain Danderson was severely wounded by a mortar bomb and died some hours later; this mortar also caused nine other casualties. Headquarters Company had now lost its second commander, but at 4.45 p.m. under Lieutenant Weston it pushed forward once more, relieved 14 Platoon, and reoccupied the position from which 5 and 6 Platoons had been forced to retire some three hours previously. While this move was in progress an enemy aircraft discovered the light tank which had taken up a covering position on the right flank. It was attacked repeatedly and was last seen disappearing down the road hotly pursued by an Me110. Down the same road a little later roared an enemy motorcyclist. He rode straight into the unit area, and man and machine almost disintegrated with the weight of small-arms fire which met them.
The late evening was full of incident and the attackers received many nasty shocks. On one occasion a donkey observed among the olive trees below gave away an enemy troop concentration, and a particularly good shot by the 3-inch mortar apparently caused chaos, judging by the screams and shouting which followed the burst.
When darkness fell it was expected that the attack would be renewed. But the enemy had no stomach for night work, and at 11.30 p.m. the brigade withdrew to a position approximately two miles north-west of Suda Bay. Patrols from Wellington Company went out and cleared the south flank before the move began.
On reaching 42nd Street companies were moved out to their areas, but were told that as there were troops in front of them positions need not be dug other than those necessary for protection against air strafing. Events proved that the troops in front were a myth; however, the enemy was still wary and gave the defenders of the new line a short respite. The spell was welcome, and until daylight almost everyone slept; then as there was water in the vicinity, the troops enjoyed the luxuries of an unlimited drinking ration and a good wash. In the early morning the unit reorganised, ammunition was redistributed and, mixing together for the first time since the battle had started, the men swapped stories and experiences.
At 9.30 a.m. the Luftwaffe discovered the position and a dive-bombing attack sent each man to cover. During this attack a large ammunition dump out in front of the line blew up with a roar which drowned even the bursting of the bombs. The area was occupied by the enemy at the time, and later some seventy to eighty dead were counted close to the crater.33 A parachute landing was feared, and while the defensive positions were being hurriedly manned a company from 28 (Maori) Battalion was drawn up in readiness to deal with this sudden menace.
During this period enemy ground forces managed to get up close without being seen. A sudden burst of spandau fire from some 300 yards out in front indicated the start of the attack. This fire was also the signal for the Maori company detailed for the counter-attack to start their traditional war haka. Here was a task to their liking; led by their company commander, waving a very dirty towel, they moved through 19 Battalion’s area and unhesitatingly crossed the sunken road just in front of Taranaki Company. No. 13 Platoon Hawke’s Bay Company, over whose positions they passed, held their fire for a moment then, inspired by the Maoris’ example, joined in also. Soon the whole force in the vicinity were fixing bayonets and following up.
This bayonet attack on the 27th will remain not only as a highlight in the bitter and hard-fought campaign in Crete, page 164 but as an outstanding example of the spirit of New Zealand and Australian infantry. Tired after days of hard fighting, weakened through lack of food, ill armed by comparison with the enemy, our troops attacked spontaneously and moved steadily and grimly onwards through heavy fire. The paratroops fired frantically from their ditches, but here was a test which left no doubt as to the qualities of the opposing forces. The Hun, despite his vaunted superiority, was no match for this miscellaneous group of New Zealanders and Australians who confronted him with bayonets. There were no prisoners taken; this was mortal combat. In front of the determined advance the enemy broke and fled, leaving behind him many dead and abandoning his arms and equipment as he went. He was driven back about half a mile and lost probably 300 men, and though the left flank was wide open he made no attempt to check the advance or to regain the ground he had lost.
Casualties have been estimated at twenty to one in favour of the attackers who, finally reforming, walked slowly back to their positions collecting food, cigarettes, and equipment abandoned by their opponents. The irony of finding ‘Players Weights’ in the enemy’s packs did not spoil the victors’ enjoyment of their smoke. Cigarettes were short and these had been our issue in Greece. The enemy had obviously cashed in on the stores we had left there. The food, too, was a godsend, and a store (abandoned by Creforce) which previously lay well in front of our position yielded further welcome items. The extra weapons and ammunition also were sorely needed. Best of all, however, was the exhilaration experienced by each weary soldier in the whole jaded group who had taken part in, or witnessed, the episode.
The afternoon was quiet, though with some misgivings large parties of mules and men were seen crossing the hills on the left flank. They were well out of range and opinion was divided as to whether they were enemy or refugees. All knew that should we be outflanked the route across the island would be cut and further withdrawal made impossible. At half past eight that night battalions were advised by page 165 runner that the ‘withdrawal to Stylos would begin with darkness and that order of march would be 19 Australian Bde at 2200 hrs, then followed by HQs 5 Bde, 28 Bn, 22 Bn, 19 Bn, 21 Bn and lastly 23 Bn in that order.’
The move was not without its hazards and alarms, for immediately the Australian brigade began to withdraw the enemy followed up quickly. The last New Zealand battalions had some difficulty in disengaging and the enemy speeded them on their way with harassing fire of all descriptions. The withdrawal was completed under cover given by two companies of Maoris, plus a detachment of commando troops which had arrived in Crete as reinforcements on the nights of 24 and 26 May. Orders had by this time been issued for the withdrawal of the whole of the Crete garrison to the south coast.
The night march of 14 miles over the high range of hills to Stilos further taxed the already tired troops, but by 3 a.m. on the 28th the 5 Brigade units were disposed round the village. Defence positions were taken up by each battalion as it got in and all ranks fervently hoped for a few hours’ sleep. But the enemy was early off the mark, and two officers of 23 Battalion who, before settling down, had decided to reconnoitre the area, were startled to see a large enemy party approaching up a wadi close to their unit’s position. The alarm was quickly given and there was a mad scramble by both sides to gain the heights. Elements from 23, 21, and 19 Battalions were all quickly involved. As our men reached the top of the ridge they were engaged by heavy mortar fire and suffered a number of casualties.
From behind a stone wall which ran along the ridge, riflemen picked off those of the enemy within range, but he still pressed his attack and a section from 19 Battalion was sent out to deal with a party which had crept up on the left and was lobbing grenades over the wall. The section arrived in time to despatch a German officer and approximately six men who had set up a machine gun, and the situation was then well in hand.
At 9.40 a.m. sudden orders were received to break off the battle; a greater threat to the brigade had developed and page 166 Brigadier Hargest34 had decided to defy the enemy’s aircraft and make a further move to the south during daylight. At this stage the enemy was not pressing, but the steep, broken country made it most difficult to get out our companies as complete bodies and some disorganisation resulted. Fortunately the enemy had had enough and did not hinder the withdrawal except for sniping from the heights.
Headquarters 5 Brigade cleared Stilos at 10 a.m. and at eleven 19 Battalion followed on the first stage of a heart-breaking march along the steep, tortuous route which was to end at the evacuation point on the Sfakia Beach. In single file on each side of the road the unit moved out, passing on the way a large number of Italian ex-prisoners of war now going back jubilantly to rejoin the enemy.
Weary, footsore and always thirsty, the long, dusty columns of troops trudged dully forward in the hot sun. Occasionally an aircraft appeared and the columns quickly took cover, but fortunately the Luftwaffe did not come over in strength. After each alarm the march went on again. At Vrises water bottles were filled from the deep wells of the village, but there was no time to dawdle or to enjoy refreshments; in any case, there was no food.
The wells along the mountain roadway were to prove the greatest boon to the dog-tired troops; without water few would have lasted the distance. The one pleasant memory held by many who took part in that grim journey is of a cool stream rippling beneath a bridge, where in the shade a pause was made to bathe burning, blistered feet and to wash the sweat from sunburned faces.
As the day wore on the only measure of the progress made became the hourly ten-minute halts, but after each all too short relief it was increasingly harder to get up and get going again. The withdrawal went steadily on, until in midafternoon a short stop was made and the 5 Brigade units were sorted out. Then the onward grind began once more.
Mail day at Palionellini
Evacuation beach of Porto Rafti
Pte K. R. Rieper, a runner, loaded with German pistols and ammunition, 20 May 1941
The march now became a dogged fight against an overwhelming desire to sleep, with every man almost at the end of his tether with fatigue. March casualties increased. The sick and slightly wounded fell out first, then in ones and twos went those who collapsed at last from sheer exhaustion. Once beyond rousing, these men were reluctantly left by the roadside, but first their water bottles were topped up from the precious stores of their comrades. Those too far gone to look after themselves were propped up where they could be seen by the drivers of the few battle-scarred vehicles running a ferry service along the route. The one Bren carrier still in operation played a prominent part in picking up those who could go no further. Its crew were Lieutenant Yorke Fleming, Lance-Corporal Jack Check35 and Private ‘Aussie’ Aylett,36 all 19 Battalion men.
The tortuous road still wound upward in a seemingly endless spiral, always steep, with always another crest looming ahead a little higher than the last. The limits of endurance had been plumbed and during the night the column began to break up. Everybody’s pace was different. Out in front the CO and second-in-command set a pace which became more and more difficult for those behind to maintain. Frequent halts now became necessary, and with each one the length of the column increased, until finally contact was lost with these two officers and the battalion split up into two main groups. Still, the majority of the troops kept steadily on—there had been no orders about stopping. All through the night they trudged, up and over the pass. Down now, through Sin Kares and still onwards, until at dawn in the southern outlet of the Askifou Plain, two groups, each of ninety-odd men, straggled into 4 Brigade lying-up area. The first to arrive was Battalion Headquarters under the Adjutant, Lieutenant Blundell; with them were some Headquarters Company men and the majority of Taranaki Company. They were got off the road page 168 and under cover, and shortly afterwards the other group under Captain Pleasants arrived.
By superhuman efforts the bulk of the battalion had made it. After three hours’ sleep—the dead sleep of exhaustion—the business of reorganising companies and stragglers began. Captain Pleasants, the senior officer present, was now in command, for of the CO and second-in-command there was no news and the battalion did not catch up with them again until it got back to Helwan. Brigadier Inglis took the 19th back into 4 Brigade, and under brigade arrangements a welcome distribution of one tin of M and V (meat and vegetables) to each eight men was made. This, with a few biscuits, was the first food issue the battalion had had for several days.
An extract from a letter home written by one of the unit’s officers gives a graphic description of the last stages of the march over the mountains and reflects the resolute spirit of the men:
Never was a haul so long or so heart-breaking. I think there were at least ten places at every one of which I expected to be at the summit only to see long weary miles of winding road yet to be covered. It was hard to keep the fellows together and some who just couldn’t keep up had at last to fall out and make their own way in their own time. Fortunately few failed to do so. I can remember the lad trudging behind me; a grand lad and as brave as a lion as I had seen with my own eyes, feet gone, utterly exhausted, he kept going though literally, and I think quite unconsciously—whimpering with fatigue. One lad I saw in hospital yesterday had made it with two bullets in his leg. Jove, these fellows of ours have guts. Worn to a frazzle with nothing but a bit of hard biscuit for food they stuck it out, carried all their gear and were always soldiers.
The 29th was spent lying up and recovering. But the men were ready to fight again if required. Though some had made the final few miles literally on their hands and knees, every one of them had clung to his weapons. The mortar men, with their heavy loads, unable to keep up with the rest of the unit, got the only active job before embarkation. Under the RSM, they remained with 18 Battalion and gave support during the rearguard action when a gallant page 169 stand was made by that unit and 23 Battalion, who held off the enemy while the rest withdrew to the embarkation beaches.
The field guns of C Troop ⅔ Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, and three light tanks of the Hussars continued to do valiant work until the last, and with 19 Australian Brigade manned a final rearguard line, through which 4 NZ Brigade passed on its way to the Sfakia plateau.
The withdrawal arrangements were now almost complete and 4 and 5 NZ Brigades lay up to await evacuation. Once again the Royal Navy was to snatch them away from the enemy. The spent units knew only too well the danger with which the operation was attended, yet none doubted the ‘Silent Service’. The Navy would be here as it was in Greece.
Further effective fighting was impossible, for the defenders had exhausted their physical strength and their supplies. A check made of Hawke’s Bay Company showed that, while each man still had his weapons, 64 rounds was the total ammunition muster. Before dispersing to sleep 4 Brigade laid out its final defensive line, determined that, if necessary, the Hun should have their last round.
Throughout the day the sorting out of units went on and the weary men slept, confident that the night would see them safely on the decks of a British destroyer. On the two previous nights large batches of troops had been lifted successfully from the beach below. Tonight (30–31 May) it would be their turn. But while waiting for darkness the battalion had its two final misfortunes, the first when the commander of Hawke’s Bay Company, Captain ‘Brick’ Budd, was sent by Force Headquarters to a neighbouring beach on a fruitless search for rations and was unable to get back to the unit because he was held at the point of a gun by a sentry keeping stragglers away from the beach. The second happened when orders came to move to the embarkation point and several of our troops could not be found. These men had safely made the full distance with the battalion, only to be left behind when within an ace of evacuation. The explanation was learned later from Privates page 170 Harry Toho37 and ‘Gandhi’ Adams38 of Headquarters Company, who, after spending some months dodging the enemy, were among those who finally got away from Crete and rejoined the battalion at Helwan. Their sleep had been so deep and their cover so good that shouts had failed to waken them and searchers to find them. Fourteen men from the 19th remained at large in Crete. Some, taken off by submarine almost a year later, rejoined the battalion in Syria.
On the night of 30–31 May the survivors of the battalion under Captain Pleasants left Crete. The evacuation was going to schedule, and in batches of fifty the troops were ferried out to waiting destroyers, HMAS Nizam and HMS Napier. As they moved down the steep goat track to the beach, the GOC Creforce, Major-General Freyberg, stood at a portal formed by two huge rocks, counting the survivors of his own decimated division. The two campaigns of the last few weeks had been costly. All units had suffered, some of them much more severely than did the 19th, which cleared Crete with a strength of 17 officers and 221 other ranks. The Hun, however, would not forget his meeting with New Zealand troops, and now that the first two rounds had been fought, he too would need a spell to make good his losses before the next battle took place.
The Nizam and Napier sailed at 3 a.m. on the 31st. To each weary man crowded on the steel decks, these ships epitomised strength and security. They were the tangible symbols of the tradition and might of an Empire united in arms. Soup, cigarettes, and the cheery naval ratings who served them revived the tired troops, and one irrepressible soul was seen to thumb his nose at the dim outline of the island. We had been pushed out of Crete; yes—but so long as the British Navy sailed the seas, confidence in the ultimate outcome of the war remained unshaken. The destroyers raced on through the calm, inky sea into darkness towards the safety beyond.page 171
The battalion’s casualties in Crete were as follows:
|Died of wounds||–||7|
|Wounded and prisoners of war||–||40|
|Prisoners of war||2||78|
|Missing, later contacted Allied forces||–||14|
1 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC*, m.i.d., MC (Greek); Palmerston North; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn Jan-Aug 1940; comd 4 Bde 1941–42 and 4 Armd Bde 1942–44; 2 NZ Div 27 Jun-16 Aug 1942 and 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50.
9 Lt-Col G. P. Sanders, DSO, m.i.d.; Linton MC; born England, 2 Sep 1908; Regular soldier; CO 26 Bn 14 Jun-3 Jul 1944; 27 (MG) Bn Nov 1944–45; 27 Bn (Japan) 1946; Director of Training, Army HQ, 1949–54; GSO 1 NZ Division, Linton Camp, 1954-.
33 Some were probably killed in the subsequent counter-attack.
34 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO* and bar, MC*, m.i.d., Legion of Honour (France)*; born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; Member of Parliament 1931–44; Otago Mounted Rifles, 1914–20 (CO 2 Bn Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde Jan 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. Sidi Azeiz 27 Nov 1941; escaped Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.