CHAPTER 5 — Battle of Crete
Battle of Crete
IN April 1941 the rugged and mountainous Greek island of Crete was strategically important to both British and Germans. Situated close enough in the Eastern Mediterranean to Greece, Turkey and North Africa to make its three airfields of Maleme, Retimo and Heraklion of considerable value for offensive and defensive purposes, Crete also possessed in Suda Bay a large and useful harbour. Unfortunately, from the British viewpoint, the ports and airfields of Crete were all in the north and consequently within very easy reach of German aircraft based in southern Greece.
From 1 November 1940 the British had occupied the ports and other strategic points in Crete but, even by April 1941, little had been done to prepare for invasion. Although a small British garrison had been established on the island, Middle East Headquarters had too few men and supplies available to cope with simultaneous demands in the Western Desert, Abyssinia, Greece and Iraq, and thus no effective provision could be made for the defence of Crete prior to the German victory in Greece. Thereafter, it was almost certainly too late to complete adequate Cretan defences, but this did not lessen the strategic importance of the island. At the highest level, therefore, the decision was taken to defend Crete with the aid of troops evacuated from Greece. Crete was not to be given up without a stubborn defence.
In the afternoon of 25 April the 5 New Zealand Brigade units disembarked at Suda Bay. With a view, no doubt, to making an equitable distribution later, British officers and NCOs on the quays ordered the dumping of weapons and tools. Men who had carried their rifles and Brens from Mount Olympus refused to part with them on arrival in Crete. The 23rd, still an organised and complete unit (less the two platoons of B Company left with 6 Brigade), marched five or six miles to a bivouac camp on the Prison road to the west of Suda. Hot tea, cigarettes and chocolate, handed to the troops at a halting place, helped to tide them over a tiring conclusion to their move from Greece.page 56
Relieved to find themselves safe on dry land and temporarily free from bombing and machine-gunning from the air, the men of the 23rd spent the first night in Crete in ‘B’ transit camp. Conditions were primitive: cooking had to be done in cut-down petrol tins; many men had no messing gear and fewer had blankets. To keep warm at night, men had to sleep fully dressed. Drinking vessels and eating implements were manufactured out of tins and pieces of wire. Supplies in this and other more important respects remained short during the period the battalion spent in Crete.
As General Freyberg did not reach the island till 29 April, Brigadier Hargest, as the senior New Zealand officer present, took command of the New Zealand troops in Crete. Colonel Falconer took temporary charge of 5 Brigade, leaving Major Leckie again in command of the 23rd. The first day was spent in reorganisation and in resting. Stragglers were collected and efforts made to secure new equipment, especially tools. Later, when the weapons brought out of Greece were fully checked, it was found that the battalion still had intact some 31 Brens, 2 Boys anti-tank rifles, 26 Thompson sub-machine guns, 2 two-inch mortars and 499 rifles—a total reached only because men had preferred to sacrifice personal belongings to their weapons and the stronger had carried more than their share. In his diary Major Leckie praised the man who brought from Greece to Crete ‘500 rounds, 6 Bren magazines, a Bren gun, his rifle and a shovel.’
On 27 April the battalion marched 11 miles west to take over a position in and around Platanias from 1 Battalion, The Welch Regiment. On the following evening Brigadier Hargest and Colonel Falconer returned to their normal commands. Two days later, General Wavell arrived from Cairo to put the defences of Crete in order for the airborne attack which was now definitely expected. Much to his surprise, since he had expected to leave that day for Egypt, where he hoped to re-equip and reorganise his whole Division, General Freyberg was appointed to command ‘Creforce’, as the combined British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek forces in Crete were now called. There were now approximately 15,000 British, 7750 New Zealand and 6500 Australian troops in Crete. Many of these were unarmed or were specialists who had been forced to leave their guns, heavy equipment or trucks in Greece. The 10,000 Greek soldiers were mostly untrained and ill-equipped. On 1 May General Freyberg notified the Commander-in-Chief, Middle page 57 East, that the forces at his disposal were totally inadequate to meet the attack envisaged. ‘Unless the number of fighter aircraft is greatly increased and naval forces are made available to deal with a seaborne attack I cannot hope to hold out with land forces alone, which, as a result of the campaign in Greece, are now devoid of any artillery, have insufficient tools for digging, very little transport, and inadequate war reserves of equipment and ammunition.’ He urged that, unless the full support of the Navy and Air Force could be assured, the question of holding Crete should be reconsidered.
Nevertheless, although the problem of supplying Creforce though the increasingly heavily bombed ports on the north coast grew more acute, General Freyberg disposed his troops to cover the sectors of Heraklion, Retimo, Suda Bay and Maleme. While British, Australian and Greek troops covered the first three of these sectors, the New Zealanders and some Greeks were made responsible for the last-named. This sector stretched west for some ten miles from the outskirts of Canea and had two main centres of defence—that of 4 Brigade between Canea and Galatas and that of 5 Brigade covering the important Maleme airfield. As 6 Brigade had been evacuated to Egypt from Greece, a new brigade, the 10th, was formed on 12 May from 20 Battalion, 6 and 8 Greek Battalions, a composite battalion of men from various New Zealand non-infantry units and a detachment of three squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry temporarily converted to infantry. Brigadier Puttick1 had command of the New Zealand Division for the battle. Conferences on the various levels followed the giving of orders by Generals Wavell and Freyberg. After a 5 Brigade conference on 1 May and a personal reconnaissance of the Maleme sector by Brigadier Puttick, 21, 22, 23 and 28 Battalions altered their positions slightly and took over the ground they were to hold in face of invasion from air or sea.
Whereas the four 5 Brigade units had at first been centred on Platanias and facing west, they were on 3 May moved to cover the Maleme landing field. Twenty-second Battalion was given the post of danger and of honour covering the actual landing field; 21 Battalion was moved to the higher ground south-east of Maleme while the 23rd moved into the 21st's page 58 page 59 former bivouac area east-south-east of Maleme; 28 Battalion was dispersed in and around Platanias, with 5 Brigade Headquarters remaining south of that village and on the east flank of the brigade position. The 23rd's area was mainly among olive trees about two to three thousand yards from the edge of the Maleme airstrip and on the slopes above the Sfakoriako stream south of Pirgos. The small village of Dhaskaliana was in the battalion's northern sector. Brigadier Puttick had written that ‘a good solid battalion’ was required for the counter-attack role and this was the task given to the 23rd, which was under orders to be prepared to counter-attack the enemy should he land on the airfield or on the beach to the east of it.
Once they had recovered from the Greek campaign, the men enjoyed immensely their first week or two in Crete. During the first ten days the weather was perfect and most men suffered no hardship from sleeping under the olive trees with practically no bedding. Lieutenant Bassett, the IO, recorded in the unit diary on 2 May: ‘Conditions very pleasant in this peaceful waiting existence—parties bathe in the Mediterranean and bask in the sunshine; the area is fertile with vineyards, cornfields and vegetable patches, and orange vendors ply a steady trade.’ That this official statement was quite in keeping with the experience of individual soldiers may be seen from these extracts from Private Johnston's diary: ‘Weather fine. Am very happy and in the best of health. (26 April) … went down to the sea for a swim. All we do is eat oranges and swim. Having a marvellous time. God! I'm as fit as a fiddle—a real box of birds! (29 Apr) … on fatigues all day, carting wood and water for the cookhouse. We are having a grand time. The grub is rather awful though. (30 Apr) … went for a long march over the hills for the day, and took our grub, with about a dozen oranges each. Boy! I am feeling fit. Never been so well off before. (2 May) … This holiday we are having seems too darned good to last. These swims in the old Mediterranean are great. (7 May)’
Actually, the ‘holiday’ had involved the preparation of company defensive positions: with limited supplies of tools and wire, the new defences did not compare very favourably with those constructed on Olympus. As most of their heavier equipment and all their trucks had been left in Greece, the men of HQ Company were organised into two rifle companies, designated HQ No. 1 and HQ No. 2 Companies. Since 11 Platoon of B Company was included in the former, this com- page 60 pany was commonly called B Company. All platoons had their ‘action stations’ which they were to occupy in the event of an attack. Officers and NCOs reconnoitred routes both to the beaches to the north and to the Maleme airfield in case they had to mount a counter-attack in either direction. Stand-to was observed from 5 to 6 a.m. and from 8.30 to 9.30 p.m. On 9 May, in accordance with a directive from Creforce Headquarters, the CO issued a regular training syllabus and, in order to reduce the activity in the 23rd's area, sent half the unit out on route marches and tactical exercises while the other half engaged in weapon and other training near their posts. ‘Concealment from the air must be practised at all times,’ stated an order from Battalion Headquarters issued in early May. The product of experience in Greece, it was so well obeyed that German reconnaissance planes did not locate the battalion's positions prior to the invasion. The dousing of all cooking fires on the approach of such aircraft was a dreadful trial to the cooks, but this was an important aspect of the concealment plan.
On Sunday 4 May, ‘Bob’ Griffiths, the 23rd's padre, paid tribute to those members of the battalion who had died in Greece. After the church service, General Freyberg spoke to the officers and NCOs on the Greek campaign and on their role in Crete. He praised the withdrawal as a well executed feat of arms and assured his listeners that he had never commanded better troops. He then insisted that the situation in Crete was serious, that invasion was imminent, and that any enemy troops who landed must be met and destroyed.
While the 23rd and other units awaited invasion, the position concerning close-support weapons improved slightly. A party of 3 officers and 75 other ranks from 28 Battery 5 Field Regiment, temporarily under command of the battalion, moved out on 8 May to man some Italian and French 75-millimetre guns. Nevertheless, the almost complete lack of artillery meant that the higher command could not secure a sufficient concentration of guns to be of real advantage. On 3 May Lieutenant MacDonald2 of No. 1 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion arrived with four Vickers guns, which were sited on a commanding slope to fire down upon Maleme. On 8 May Lieutenant Richards and the mortar platoon received two 3-inch mortars of South African manufacture and they were sited behind and below the Vickers guns. Some barbed wire arrived and, since page 61 there were no pickets, it was strung from tree to tree or along the vines on the lower slopes. Signals equipment was particularly short. The 23rd possessed three telephones and a few hundred yards of signal wire. Other telephones had been brought from Greece but had been handed over to Brigade Headquarters for distribution to less fortunate units. One telephone was run by Lieutenant Noel Jones,3 the signals officer, and his men to 22 Battalion, and arrangements were also made for visual communication with that unit in the event of the line being cut. On ‘Lookout Hill’ behind the Vickers guns, provision was made for giving a warning of invasion: two beacon fires, fifty yards apart, were to signify invasion by sea and three, invasion by air. When the time came, no beacon fires were needed.
After seeing very little of the RAF in Greece, the New Zealanders were pleased to see a few friendly aircraft operating from Maleme. But daily the number of fighters was reduced in their fight against great odds and it became apparent that, until fuller support was available from Egypt, to keep the handful of surviving fighters in Crete was merely to sacrifice them in vain. Consequently, on 19 May, the remaining four Hurricanes and three Gladiators were sent back to Egypt. By that time the German bombing which had first been directed almost exclusively at the shipping in Suda Bay and other ports had switched to the ‘softening-up’ of Maleme and other defences. From 13 May onwards, bombing and machine-gunning from the air increased in intensity: it was the prelude to invasion.
On 13 May Colonel Falconer bade farewell to the 23rd and went to command 10 Composite Brigade, and later 4 Brigade, before proceeding to Egypt to take charge of Maadi Camp. All ranks regretted his departure. Colonel Falconer had achieved, however, what he set out to do in accepting the command of the 23rd: he had commanded it through its vitally important training period and then had led it through its first campaign. His influence was felt long after he left the unit: his example and views were quoted again and again by younger men who succeeded him in command of the battalion. The private soldiers shared the general admiration and respect for their first CO. Thus, in writing to his mother on 8 October 1941, Private W. Beynon said: ‘I saw Brigadier Falconer…. He is a fine man. I do not know what would have happened to the page 62 23rd Bn in Greece if it had not been for him.’ Another private, whose spelling detracted in no way from the sincerity of his tribute, recorded in his diary on 7 December 1941: ‘Saw our old Colnol Falkener who is now a Brigadier—The best Colnol we ever had or ever will have!’
Brian Bassett, the IO, accompanied Colonel Falconer and continued as Brigade Major of 10 Brigade when its command was taken over by Colonel Kippenberger. For a junior officer, Bassett exercised a considerable influence on the spirit and the traditions of the 23rd. Later on, after Bassett's death, Brigadier Kippenberger paid tribute to his qualities and to his efforts on Crete: ‘Brian was undefeatable, gay, tireless, dazzlingly gallant, an inspiration to the whole motley collection called 10th Brigade, and to his Commander.’
Major Leckie, who had commanded the 23rd on board ship and in England, resumed command of the battalion. Major Fyfe became second-in-command while Second-Lieutenant Dan Davin became IO. Some NCOs departed at this time for the Middle East OCTU and this necessitated promotions additional to those arising from casualties in Greece. Prominent among those who wanted to stay to see what they termed ‘the fun’ and had to be ordered to go to OCTU was Paul Freyberg,4 who had joined the 23rd in England.
The intensification of the bombing of Maleme and the more obvious defences of Crete lent colour to the higher level intelligence reports that German airborne and seaborne attacks were to be expected within a week. Although the successful German raids on British shipping made the supply problem acute, and there were always too few troops for the many defensive tasks, some progress was made in preparing for invasion in the 5 Brigade sector. On Sunday 11 May, Brigadier Hargest convened a conference at the Court House in Maleme village and issued verbal orders to the nine units and sub-units under his command. On 18 May 5 Brigade Operation Instruction No. 4 confirmed these orders and clarified the roles of the various units. A detachment of the New Zealand Engineers of 7 Field Company and 19 Army Troops Company linked the Maori Battalion at Platanias with 23 Battalion at Dhaskaliana. In addition to the platoon of 1 Company 27 MG Battalion with the 23rd, two platoons of the same company were under command of 22 Battalion and were placed on the outskirts of page 63 the airfield. The 22nd also had two I tanks dug into a position overlooking the aerodrome and ready to ‘roll down’ in a ‘mopping-up’ role in the event of a major landing. The artillery support was limited: 27 Battery had A Troop with two English 3.7-inch howitzers in the 21st's area, B Troop with three Italian 75-millimetre guns in the 23rd's area, and C Troop with four French guns in the area held by the engineers. Two troops of 156 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, one troop of 7 Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and some 3-inch anti-aircraft guns covered Maleme airfield.
So far as the infantry units were concerned, the operation instruction confirmed their roles: 5 Brigade was to ‘defend its position at all costs’ and, in the event of the enemy making an airborne or seaborne attack on any part of the brigade area between Platanias and the Tavronitis River, its units were ‘to counter-attack and destroy him immediately’. The Maori Battalion was to remain in the Platanias area, to patrol the neighbouring beaches and to be ‘available for counter attack’. The engineers were made responsible for their area and the beaches on their front. Similarly, 21 Battalion was to remain in its position but, since Brigadier Hargest and others recognised the very real danger of an enemy landing in the unoccupied and quite undefended area and beaches to the west of the Tavronitis River, it was to be prepared ‘to move and hold line of the river facing West from 22 Bn left flank’, and two platoons with a mortar were to take up a holding position along this west flank immediately. Twenty-second Battalion retained, as its primary task, the static defence of the aerodrome by fire. Its support and reserve companies were to be utilised for ‘immediate counter-attack under cover of mortars and M.G. fire.’ The instruction added: ‘If necessary, support will be called for from 23 Bn and should telephonic means of comn fail here the call will be by “verey” signal (WHITE-GREEN-WHITE)’. Subsequent events make it important that the 23rd's orders be quoted as given: ‘23 Bn will maintain its present position and be prepared to counter-attack if enemy effects a landing (a) on the beach or at Maleme Aerodrome, (b) on area occupied by Det N.Z.E. West of Platanias.’
The 23rd laid some anti-personnel mines as well as some more wire along the north of its sector. The increased enemy air activity gave colour to the message from Mr Churchill which was read to all troops on the night of 19 May. He said: ‘All our thoughts are with you in these fateful days…. Victory page 64 where you are would powerfully affect world situation.’ General Freyberg had reported that morale was high. In the 23rd, the troops were fit and looking forward to action. As one private wrote after the bombing of Maleme and its environs had begun: ‘Boy! The fun has started. All the boys are just waiting on this invasion by parachutists, which is to take place sometime.’
The invasion came on 20 May. For over two hours from shortly after dawn, large forces of bombers and fighters attacked the airfield perimeter and such anti-aircraft guns as were visible. The heavier Dorniers, Heinkels and Junkers bombed and bombed again; the Stukas, many with screamers attached, dived on their targets with an ear-piercing and terrifying whistle; the fighters, with no RAF opposition to counter, fired cannon and machine-gun bullets indiscriminately through the trees and other cover. If the enemy could not annihilate, he could at least attempt to intimidate the defenders of Maleme. Immense clouds of dust stirred up by the bombs rose high into the air and acted as a partial screen for the gliders and troop-carrying planes which came next. The gliders came swishing over but, although Lieutenant MacDonald's Vickers guns got on to the nearest, they landed well outside the 23rd's area. Those which landed on the airfield or to the east of it were shot up, but others landed safely in the dry riverbed of the Tavronitis or on the undefended flats and beaches to the west. Next came the troop-carriers and the sky seemed to fill suddenly with opening black, white, brown and green blossoms. The paratroops were landing. It was a Jules Verne fantasy come to life.
Although some men were more than a little bewildered by the strangeness of the situation, the 23rd quickly went into action. The excitement was intense during the period of the first ‘drop’: one officer described those moments as ‘like the last minute of an even score test match’. Many of the Germans were shot in the air; some were caught in the olive trees or could not get rid of their harness before a bullet ended their struggles; only a few landed safely in or near the battalion's area and managed to bring their sub-machine guns into action. In his diary Private Charles Pankhurst gives a typical account of those first minutes of the fighting in Crete: ‘I thought the end of the world had come as the air seemed full of the parachutes but, once I got something to shoot at, I lost my fear. Duck shooting must be tame compared to parachutist shooting. page 65 As they drifted down … we blazed away with our rifles and there were not many to reach the ground alive. Those who did were nearly all mopped up….’
Before they were mopped up, a few of the Germans in the area inflicted casualties. Thus, Major Tom Fyfe, the battalion second-in-command, was killed by a parachutist just after he had visited the intelligence section observation post on ‘Lookout Hill’, about 100 yards south-east of Battalion Headquarters. But, for the most part, the only enemy to form up successfully were those who dropped in unoccupied territory. To deal with these, parties of the 23rd were quickly organised and sent out. Thus Major Thomason sent Lieutenant W. B. Thomas and his No. 15 Platoon to mop up the Germans who had landed unmolested on high ground overlooking both 22 and 23 Battalions. By careful stalking and determined attacking, this patrol succeeded in killing twenty-nine Germans and taking three prisoners for the loss of two men killed.5 As Thomas has stated, ‘Before long every man in the platoon was wearing a Luger revolver and a pair of Zeiss binoculars, and our morale ran extremely high.’ Lieutenant Rex King and 14 Platoon wiped out a small enemy party which was threatening Battalion Headquarters from the south-east and which probably included the parachutist who had killed Major Fyfe. D Company was also ordered to send its platoons to the north and west of the battalion area. Lieutenant Bond and 16 Platoon worked their way along the irrigation canal and ran into a platoon or more of enemy who were just collecting arms and equipment that had been dropped separately. Fierce fighting ensued and 16 Platoon suffered casualties before all the enemy were killed. Lieutenant Connolly and 17 Platoon mopped up to the north of Dhaskaliana while Lieutenant Cunningham and 18 Platoon linked up with elements of HQ 2 Company and cleared the area round the church. While they were there, another ‘drop’ of paratroops came fluttering down and were dealt with effectively. As the last of the troop-carriers came over and opened its release door, an 18 Platoon Bren-gunner got his Bren firing right into the open doorway: few, if any, paratroopers landed alive.
In the meantime, the greater part of III Battalion Assault Regiment of II Air Corps had been dropped over the 23rd's positions. Two troop-carriers dropped their loads directly over page 66 Battalion Headquarters but the troops there proved equal to the occasion. Colonel Leckie shot five parachutists as they were descending more or less directly on top of him. Lieutenant Dick Orbell, the Adjutant, rose from his packing-case desk to shoot another two. Again a few paratroops landed safely and gave trouble: Lieutenant Dan Davin and others in and around the headquarters area were wounded. Again the danger was effectively removed by Lieutenant King and his men. Twenty-third Battalion estimates of the number of Germans killed in and around its area vary from four to six hundred. The official historian of the Crete campaign, the 23rd's IO up to the time of his being wounded, D. M. Davin, has conservatively estimated ‘as many as 200 killed in the air, in the trees and on the ground’ by his unit on that first day. He mentions, however, that II Air Corps estimated that 400 out of 600 men of III Battalion were killed, but suggests that not all of these would have fallen to the 23rd. Although no careful count was made, all who visited the battalion were impressed by the number of dead paratroopers there. Thus Captain Dawson, Brigade Major of 5 Brigade, who visited the unit to deliver messages and orders, described the scene: ‘23 Bn at this stage was fairly satisfactory. They had cleaned up all the Huns dropped in their area. Even around Bn HQ there were bodies everywhere, every 10 – 12 yards. One stepped over them as one went through the olive groves—and some very good looking fellows there were, too.’ The casualties in the 23rd were, by comparison, surprisingly light on 20 May—only 7 killed and 30 wounded—and morale was high. When Lieutenant Gordon Cunningham passed through three companies en route to Battalion Headquarters that afternoon, he found that every one ‘had the same story that the Huns were easy shooting’.
The difficulty of maintaining communications with 22 Battalion meant that the position on Maleme airfield was not known to Colonel Leckie. After the telephone wires between the two units had been cut by both bombing and by paratroops, Corporal Pettit6 and other signallers attempted to establish contact by ‘visual signalling’ but without success. No flare signals from 22 Battalion were seen, despite the fact that the 23rd intelligence section's OP was manned throughout the day and various officers watched the Maleme environs for signals. page 67 Of course, the more or less continuous activity of the enemy aircraft discouraged both battalions from doing very much that would attract bombs or machine-gun fire from the air.
During the afternoon, under orders from the CO, Lieutenant Connolly and 17 Platoon tried to establish contact with HQ Company of 22 Battalion but, despite raising their British tin hats on their rifles as an aid to recognition, they were kept back by the steady fire of the 22 Battalion men. Connolly later on found the explanation in the widely current stories of the tricks the Germans would play, especially in trying to pass themselves off as New Zealand soldiers. ‘I had a yarn to the HQ Coy Cmdr 22 Bn after Crete and he told me that he remembered us when we tried to contact him on the 20 May. He said he had it drilled into him to trust no one as they might be Huns in disguise. He certainly didn't trust us and in particular a bloke with a 2” mortar simply hated us. 17 Platoon could swear very well and if all ears in the 22 Bn from the CO down didn't burn that day they must have been made of asbestos.’
So far as the 23rd observers who studied the Maleme situation through their glasses could determine, the Germans were unable to move in the open. Twenty-second Battalion appeared to hold the environs of the ‘drome and also had the runways under fire. Colonel Leckie therefore concluded that the situation generally was as satisfactory as it obviously was in the 23rd's own area. This impression was strengthened about mid-afternoon by the arrival of a message from Brigadier Hargest, whom Leckie had advised in the late morning that mopping-up operations were proceeding very well. The Brigadier's message, initiated at 2.25 p.m., said: ‘Glad of your message of 1140 hrs. Will NOT call on you for counter attacking unless position very serious. So far everything is in hand and reports from other units satisfactory.’
Actually, the situation with 22 Battalion was not at all satisfactory and Colonel Andrew,7 the CO, was expecting the 23rd to counter-attack in response to his Very light and other signals, but, on account of the clouds of smoke and dust over the airfield, these were not seen by the 23rd. Practically all his companies suffered from the bombing and machine-gunning which preceded the arrival of the gliders; his communications with his page 68 outlying companies broke down and runners sent out either failed to make contact or failed to return; the enemy, especially those who had landed unopposed in and west of the Tavronitis riverbed, built up their strength and effectively isolated 22 Battalion Headquarters from most of its companies. The 22nd's counter-attack did not succeed, largely because the two I tanks broke down and had to be abandoned. Establishing contact with 5 Brigade Headquarters on his No. 18 wireless set when the batteries were fading, Colonel Andrew asked for reinforcements and eventually secured, at 6 p.m., the assurance that one company each from 23 and 28 Battalions would be coming. That 5 Brigade Headquarters did not regard the situation as particularly serious at the end of this first day of fighting in Crete may be seen from the following report sent to Divisional Headquarters shortly before 10 p.m.: ‘LO reports 23 Bn, 7 Fd Coy tired but in good fettle, hundreds of dead Germans in their areas. All units keeping a sharp watch on beach tonight…. In general the situation quite satisfactory.’
Captain Carl Watson took A Company of the 23rd out about dusk along a previously reconnoitred route to reinforce the 22nd. En route A Company captured two paratroopers. The route followed led via the 21st's area, across the head of the Sfakoriako and the road which led to the south of Point 107. At 22 Battalion Headquarters Watson was told by the second-in-command and adjutant that he and his company were to take over the positions previously occupied by their depleted D Company on the west flank. Lieutenant McAra8 of 22 Battalion led the way as guide to where 7 Platoon under Sergeant Hooper9 was to take up a defensive position. Shortly afterwards, as McAra was leading 8 Platoon into its position, a German machine-gunner opened fire at short range, killing McAra and wounding Lieutenant Baxter,10 Sergeant-Major Wilson,11 and Lance-Corporal Johnson12 of A Company. Without his guide, Captain Watson was uncertain where to place his men and returned to the 22nd's headquarters to secure another guide page 69 or fresh information, only to be told by Colonel Andrew that, since the greater part of his unit had been lost, he was withdrawing the remainder, and that A Company of the 23rd was to provide the rearguard to cover this operation. A Company, which had been joined by the remnant of the 21 Battalion platoon which had manned the bank of the Tavronitis, now occupied the ridge behind Point 107 while Colonel Andrew withdrew that part of his battalion with which he remained in touch. About 2 a.m. Colonel Andrew reported his battalion withdrawal complete—apart from those of whose continuing existence he was not aware—and A Company returned to its own 23rd area, taking with it a number of walking wounded from 22 Battalion's RAP.
By early morning of 21 May, therefore, part of 22 Battalion had withdrawn to the area to the south of the 23rd. Several anti-aircraft gunners and stragglers from various British sub-units were also fitted into the defensive scheme. As Colonel Andrew had reported large numbers of enemy in the Tavronitis riverbed, preparations were made to repel an attack from the west. The first attack on 21 May came from quite a different direction. At dawn an enemy party of little more than platoon strength rushed and captured ‘Lookout Hill’, but a dashing counter-attack by two sections of 14 Platoon, ably led by Lieutenant King, recaptured this vital ground and destroyed the enemy, apart from twelve taken prisoner.
During the morning the enemy began shelling and mortaring the 23rd from the direction of the airfield. A German officer captured by C Company was found to have on his person a large red Nazi flag, which he explained was the ground sign for the dropping of supplies from the air. Major Thomason, now the battalion second-in-command, and Lieutenant Thomas spread out the flag to see what happened. To their delight, containers with a heavy mortar and a supply of bombs for it, snipers' rifles, LMGs, ammunition, hand grenades, entrenching tools and food were dropped from the planes which were coming regularly over the area. The mortar was quickly brought into action by Thomas and the Bofors gun which the enemy had been using near the ‘drome was knocked out. The value of this weapon having been proved, volunteers now went out to secure more enemy equipment which was lying outside the battalion wire. Private Schroder13 of C Company was so fearless page 70 in moving in the open when low-flying aircraft were overhead that they apparently mistook him for a German and he was able to collect or destroy several containers.
On 21 May the Germans strengthened their hold on Maleme airfield and its environs: two and a half companies of parachutists were safely landed on or to the west of the airfield in the morning. Two companies of 2 Parachute Regiment, which landed on the road and beaches between Pirgos and Platanias, were roughly mauled by the 23rd, the engineers and the Maoris. Direct support from the air aided the attacks the Germans launched eastwards from Maleme during the day. The 23rd suffered more casualties than on the previous day through the bombing, machine-gunning from air and land, mortaring and shelling which the Germans directed against its forward positions. This enemy fire covered the advance and later the probing of the Germans on the sectors held by HQ 1, D, A and B Companies. These probing advances were discouraged by aimed fire and nothing came of them. On one occasion, Lieutenant Cunningham and Sergeant Hobbs14 advanced with Brens firing from the hip and turned back or killed the enemy trying to infiltrate through the olives and vines. About 4 p.m. a more definitely organised attack from the north came in on the platoons commanded by Lieutenants F. S. R. Thomson and J. Ensor. These HQ Company men stood their ground and repelled or killed the enemy with their steady fire. Men on the spot estimated, perhaps a little optimistically, that nearly 200 German dead were left in front of the 23rd positions. But, in the main, the day was one of attacks, recurring attacks, from the air rather than of serious attacks from the troops on the ground.
The situation generally in Crete was deteriorating. Although the Germans had failed to take Retimo and Heraklion, where they had landed parachutists, they had sufficient men in those sectors to provide nuisance value and prevent the transfer of forces to the more seriously threatened Canea and Maleme sectors. In the reservoir-prison area of the valley south-west of Canea and south of the 4 Brigade area, a 3 Parachute Regiment force was building up strength. But Maleme, with its airfield, was the most important and most seriously threatened sector. About 5 p.m. on 21 May, the Germans tightened their grip on it by landing II Battalion and Regimental Headquarters of page 71 100 Mountain Regiment from Junkers 52 aircraft. The more heavily armed infantry of the Mountain Regiment strongly reinforced the parachutists and the glider-borne troops who had preceded them.
As the troop-carriers began to land at Maleme or on the beaches, the 23rd MMGs and mortars had excellent targets and concentrated fire was directed at them, despite the distracting counter-fire of German guns and mortars. Lieutenant MacDonald's Vickers poured belt after belt of ammunition into the first plane to land. It managed to take off again but one of its landing wheels fell into the sea, much to the delight of the battalion's observers. Into another plane landing closer, on a beach to the north, the Vickers pumped all the rounds they could, and it remained in the shingle. No German came out. Immediately afterwards, the 3-inch mortars under Lieutenant E. E. Richards and Sergeant A. R. M. Bowie landed a bomb directly on the plane and guaranteed it would remain grounded. Regardless of losses suffered from artillery and other types of fire, the Germans continued to land or crash-land their troop-carriers at or near Maleme, and the new commander of the Assault Regiment, Colonel Ramcke, was able to take over a much-strengthened sector. That night the attempt to land more German forces and equipment by sea was defeated at some cost to themselves by the destroyers and cruisers of the British Navy.
To restore the situation at Maleme, it was decided at Brigade Headquarters and higher levels to counter-attack the ‘drome with 20 and 28 Battalions in the early morning of 22 May. Had this attack gone in, as intended, at 4 a.m., it would almost certainly have succeeded, as the Germans could not call for direct air support while it was still dark. Unfortunately, for various reasons which need not be detailed here, this counter-attack was delayed until it had to proceed in broad daylight. It was a gallant attempt against heavy odds, rendered worse by the nature of the country, which favoured the defenders. After suffering heavy casualties, both units had to withdraw, although their leading companies had killed many Germans and made fair progress.
During this counter-attack, elements of A Company of the 23rd, under Captain Watson, joined in to assist the Maori advance. Apart from 7 Platoon under Sergeant Hooper, these A Company men were unable to proceed farther than Maleme village, where they were held up by mortar and machine-gun fire which caused several casualties. No. 7 Platoon, however, page 72 proceeded across country without meeting more than ‘continuous mg fire’ and got well beyond the village to high ground from which they could see the 20th held up on the beach. Hooper later wrote an account of this incident:
‘From this position we had quite a good view of what was happening and a building almost on the beach some 300 yards from the drome appeared to be the HQ of the force that was holding up the 20 Bn. While we waited there, one section of my platoon under Pte. A. E. H. Stephen15 crawled through the vines etc., across the road and almost on to the beach between this building and the drome. Pte. Stephen told me that he thought the Germans were evacuating the building as while he lay in some scrub several German officers passed within a few yards of him hurrying back to the drome. However it was not long before we realized that the 20 Bn were retiring so we had no option but to make our way back.’
Twentieth and 28th Battalions withdrew in the course of the afternoon of 22 May and took up positions in and around the 23rd's area: most of the Maoris occupied the rough ground between 21 and 23 Battalions, while three companies of the 20th strengthened the northern sectors of the 23rd. Elated with their success in knocking back a threat, the Germans pressed hard on the western flank of the combined positions in the late afternoon. B Company had to repel a thrust on the road junction and Captain Mark Harvey16 with some D Company men drove off another party. The Maoris launched one of their bayonet charges and cleared their front. The mutual regard for one another of the 23rd and 28th was strengthened by this brief association. Of the 23rd officer nearest to him, Major Dyer17 of the Maori Battalion said: ‘Mark Harvey was on my right; a brave officer, collecting his men and encouraging them under fire.’
The German successes both in holding and reinforcing Maleme and in increasing their threat to cut off 5 Brigade resulted in the decision to withdraw that brigade into divisional reserve. Brigadier Hargest received the orders to withdraw about 1 a.m. on 23 May. As Captain Dawson, the Brigade Major, page 73 knew the route up to the forward battalions best, he again went forward, for the second time that night, to advise the units of the plan. The withdrawal to the Platanias River was supposed to be completed by first light but, as the 23rd did not receive its orders till about 4.30 a.m., it could not comply. Although positive from his own appreciation of the local situation that the 23rd and the other units could have held their positions, Colonel Leckie gave his orders for the withdrawal. C Company was to provide the battalion rearguard while the rest of the companies followed Dawson along a route through the foothills and inland some hundreds of yards from the coast road. No. 18 Platoon waited and assisted with the withdrawal of 28 Battalion; HQ 2 Company under Lieutenant Max Coop withdrew with 21 Battalion. The members of the mortar platoon took their own and some Maori Battalion mortars to the road, but as no trucks could get through to lift them, they had to be abandoned.
The walking wounded had been evacuated during the night but some sixty stretcher cases remained in the 23rd RAP, which was situated in a natural air-raid shelter in a dry watercourse with steep banks. Here, the battalion MO, Captain Ron Stewart, and the Padre, Bob Griffiths, had worked strenuously on both New Zealand and German wounded. These officers and their orderlies, Privates Walsh18 and Buchanan,19 felt it their duty to stay with the wounded and see that they got the best of treatment. Giving priority to the interests of others as they did, they were rightly described by Major Thomason as ‘brave and courageous gentlemen’. On the other hand, from the point of view of the battalion's continuing needs and the problem of replacing them, this was an unnecessary sacrifice of officers and men.
By 10 a.m. on 23 May, the withdrawal of the battalion to its new positions was complete. While crossing the flat country near the Platanias River, the battalion had some thirty casualties from both ground and air fire. Just when the men seemed to be clear of the enemy on the ground, a dive-bomber or a fighter would give a sharp reminder of the Germans7apos; unchallenged mastery of the air over Crete. In the absence of a medical officer, Sergeant Henry McGrath20 set up an RAP in the Platanias page 74 village church, the thick walls of which prevented further casualties during the mortaring to which the unit's new positions were subjected. The RQMS, Harry Dalton, who had taken over the duties of Quartermaster when Captain Patterson was evacuated as a casualty from Maleme, also took charge of the wounded at this stage. His St. John's Ambulance training proved invaluable and, ably assisted by Staff-Sergeant Reg Jenkins,21 he attended to the bandaging of the wounded.
As 5 Brigade still appeared in danger of being cut off, orders for a further withdrawal arrived late in the afternoon. On this occasion the 23rd acted as rearguard: the 20th and 28th, accompanied by 5 Brigade Headquarters, withdrew first, and then, after 21 Battalion had passed through, the 23rd withdrew in good order. All units were successful in evacuating their wounded on this occasion, for although two trucks sent up for them were shot up, a third was able to get through safely. Dalton, Jenkins and others, including Private ‘Ginger’ Evans,22 did excellent work as stretcher-bearers despite the mortaring of the area. When it became obvious that the evacuation of the wounded was going to delay the final rearguard beyond the time given in orders, Major Thomason, Lieutenants King and Ensor organised a road block and persuaded two British tanks to support their defence of it. C Company, temporarily commanded by Lieutenant Thomas, again acted as rearguard to the battalion. By 4 a.m. on 24 May all companies were back in the ‘rest area’ at Makri, about a mile and a quarter north-east of Galatas, where 4 Brigade continued to hold a line.
During 24 May 23 Battalion and other 5 Brigade units reorganised in reserve on a north-south line astride the main Galatas-Canea and the Alikianou-Canea roads. Enemy aircraft were again active and caused further casualties. A new medical officer, Captain Wilson,23 arrived and set up his RAP in a house near Battalion Headquarters. Issued rations were short but most men had secured food from the Germans they had shot.
Most of 25 May passed with the 23rd still in reserve. A reconnaissance plane persisted in hovering over its area and, in the early afternoon, a flight of Stukas came over. At this and page 75 other stages the Germans in the air, not those on the ground, made the war in Crete almost unbearable for exhausted men. Six days of fighting, lack of sleep, and a growing uneasiness about the outcome meant that stores of nervous energy were running out for some men. Commenting later on the effect of the Stuka raid in nearly producing panic, Lieutenant Thomas wrote: ‘Tired and frightened men lose their sense of proportion and if one crossed an open space between trees with a Stuka anywhere even within sound, urgent and panic-charged shouts would be hurled from all directions: “Get down, you bloody fool! Do you want us all killed?”’
In the meantime, the enemy had been attacking strongly along the Galatas line and 4 and 10 Brigades had been hard pressed. Orders issued on 24 May had authorised 4 Brigade to call on the 23rd if necessary. Early on 25 May the senior officers of the 23rd—Colonel Leckie, accompanied by Lieutenant Bond, who was now IO, Major Thomason, accompanied by Sergeant Hulme,24 and some of the company commanders—carried out a reconnaissance of the routes up to the forward areas. In the early evening, when the Germans had gained so much ground that they threatened the whole Galatas line, the 23rd was called forward. Shortly after 7 p.m. it moved off towards Galatas.page 76
An hour or two earlier, the Germans had occupied the village and had pushed in behind three squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry under Major John Russell.25 The line between the village and the sea was weakening as major elements of the Composite Battalion and 18 Battalion had been beaten out of their positions. If the enemy made a complete break-through at this juncture, most of the New Zealand Division and some other troops would be placed in an extremely dangerous position. Galatas appeared to be the key to the situation. As the 23rd advanced towards the stone buildings of Galatas, machine-gun fire was coming down the road. Colonel Leckie was wounded in the leg and had to hand over command to Major Thomason. The latter had been coming forward with D Company when he was sent by Brigadier Hargest to attempt to stabilise the line where it appeared to be cracking. During the minutes that elapsed before he could rejoin the 23rd, the attack on Galatas was organised.
Colonel Kippenberger had earlier established his headquarters on the side of the road leading into Galatas and was directing the troops as they came forward. He had just placed a mixed force of 4 Brigade Band, the Kiwi Concert Party, and some of HQ and D Companies of the 20th on a ridge running north from Galatas. He now ordered the leading 23rd company, A Company under Captain Carl Watson, into position extending the re-formed line to the north. B Company, under Lieutenant Gray,26 entered the line between the band and A Company. The line was being stabilised, but the essential requirement to ensure stability was the recapture of Galatas.
At this stage, Colonel Kippenberger sent the two light tanks of 3 Hussars under Lieutenant Roy Farran into Galatas to discover the strength and position of the enemy. Their advance was the signal for renewed fire all along the line. Guided by Sergeant Sullivan27 of 20 Battalion, C and D Companies of the 23rd under Captains Harvey and Manson now arrived and their commanders received their orders from Colonel Kippenberger. There was no time for further reconnaissance, they were simply to follow the tanks, one company on either side of the road, and recapture Galatas. On arrival, Major Thomason page 77 agreed with the arrangements already made. Farran returned with his two tanks, reported ‘The place is stiff with Jerries’ and announced that he had a tank commander and a gunner wounded. When Colonel Kippenberger and Major Thomason called for volunteers, Lieutenant Noel Jones, the 23rd's signals officer, promptly volunteered but was just as quickly turned down by Major Thomason as his services were needed in his normal capacity. Headquarters Company of the 23rd under Lieutenant McGregor was moving out to the left flank which appeared, in Thomason's words, ‘to be in the air’. Two men with this company but not of it, Private Lewis,28 a machine-gunner attached to the 23rd, and Private Ferry,29 from 4 Brigade Headquarters, said they ‘would give the job of manning the tank a go’. Farran gave them some instruction and then the two tanks were ready to lead the way. Lieutenant Connolly of D Company took the opportunity to speak to Colonel Kippenberger: ‘I asked him about the coming show, about two minutes away, and he said “They'll run like Hell”. I know I immediately had the feeling they would and so did all that heard him.’
The companies were now briefed, bayonets were fixed and all were ready. On the right, C Company was attacking along the road; on the left, D Company was attacking with 17 Platoon, under Lieutenant Connolly, following a route parallel to the road, and the other platoons, led by Lieutenant Cunningham, coming in from the left flank. In C Company, 15 Platoon, under Lieutenant Thomas, was on the right, and 14 Platoon, under Lieutenant King, on the left, while 13 Platoon, under Sergeant Dutton, brought up the rear. Realising the smallness of their numbers, the men of the 23rd were glad to be joined by small parties from the 18th and 20th. A handful of men from 23 Battalion Headquarters and from HQ Company, including some cooks who were anxious to join their mates, followed C Company.
About 8.10 p.m. Colonel Kippenberger gave the word to the tanks to lead the way and the attack was on. This time the 23rd was not withdrawing, as had been too often the case, but was going forward to attack the enemy. The onset of darkness meant an end to Stuka raids: this time it would be men against men on the ground. Their spirits rose! As the tanks moved off, page 78 the infantry gave a cheer and the cheer changed quickly to a deep shout of defiance and determination. Leading participants in the attack can best describe that shout.
Lieutenant Cunningham: ‘The uproar of yells accompanying the attack was sufficient to make the enemy in front of A Company withdraw off the ridge. Above the noise, Rex King could be heard roaring like a bull as he led his men forward.’ ‘Hook forwards, hook!’ was King's main battle cry, say others.
Lieutenant Thomas: ‘… suddenly…. I found myself shouting to my men and we were away…. And then it happened. I don't know who started it, but, as the tanks disappeared as a cloud of dust and smoke into the first buildings of the village, the whole line seemed to break spontaneously into the most blood curdling of shouts and battle cries…. the effect was terrific—one felt one's blood rising swiftly above fear and uncertainty until only an inexplicable exhilaration quite beyond description surpassed all else, and we moved as one man into the outskirts…. By the time we entered the narrow streets, every man was firing his weapon to the front or in the air and every man, you could feel it, was flushed with confidence. Nothing could stop us.’
Lieutenant Connolly: ‘I was on top of the world that night yelling and shouting like old Orb does on parade or in the mess’.
The fierce battle cry had its effect: it startled the enemy and impressed New Zealanders of other units. Thus Colonel Gray,30 commanding officer of the 18th, wrote in a private letter: ‘I shall never forget the deep throated wild beast noise of the yelling charging men as the 23rd swept up the road. There was a hell of a battle in the village.’ Private Adams31 of the 18th's ‘I’ section recorded how he was too late to join in the attack but how, ‘'Twas quite dark now and suddenly from Galatas 400 yards away we heard the most ungodly row I have ever heard—our chaps charging and yelling and screaming to put the wind up them, cat calls and battle cries, machine guns, rifles, hand grenades all going at once.’ Ferry, the volunteer gunner in one of the tanks, said: ‘The howling and shouting of the infantry sounded like the baying of dogs … as it rose and fell, it made my flesh creep.’page 79
The tanks in the lead fired their guns at the slightest sign of the enemy, who shot up flares, called for mortar fire, most of which fell harmlessly in the rear of the attackers, hurled stick bombs and grenades, and fired all their small arms at the advancing New Zealanders. One tank had a track blown, Lieutenant Farran was wounded, and the other tank temporarily retreated but was turned back into the village by Thomas and his men as they surged forward. Streams of tracer bullets came from the windows and from behind low stone walls. They were ill-aimed but caused casualties nonetheless.
On the right, the C Company men cleared the first few houses one by one but, finding more Greek women and children than Germans in some, they pressed on. Well supported by Sergeant Templeton, Corporals Thompson32 and Irwin,33 Privates Diamond34 and Bellamy35 and several others, Thomas led his platoon up to the knocked-out tank, clearing the enemy with bayonet and bullet as they went. Here they halted, reloaded and, under some cover from the Spandau bullets coming from across the square, gathered themselves for a last charge. But Thomas can tell his own story:
‘I realized that my force was rapidly dwindling in spite of the reinforcements of Sgt. Dutton and his men. The opposition was desperate but to retreat with the knowledge of the consequences to the Division was unthinkable. Templeton, my Sgt., kneeling by me on the road, suddenly jerked and stretched out gasping quietly. Action, quick action was essential: I decided to charge. The boys rose as one man, we jostled each other for the lead, and firing from the hip we advanced across the square. The consternation at the far side was immediately apparent. Screams and shouts showed desperate panic in front of us and I suddenly knew, with that peculiarly clear insight which sometimes comes in battle, that we had caught them ill prepared and in the act of forming up…. By now we were stepping over groaning forms, and those which rose against us fell to our bayonets, and bayonets with their eighteen inches of steel entered throats and chests with the same horrible sound, the page 80 same hesitant ease as when we had used them on the straw-packed dummies in Burnham. The Hun seemed in full flight. From doors, windows and roofs they swarmed wildly, falling over one another to clear our relentless line. There was little aimed fire against us now. The earlier exhilaration returned, victory seemed assured.’
Victory was assured, despite the last-ditch stand of a group of diehards. Thomas himself was wounded shortly afterwards—hit by a bullet in the leg and by a grenade in the back. Lieutenant King, whose experiences in the advance were somewhat similar, was also wounded, as was Captain Harvey. But, without officers, the men of C Company hastened on to make an end to the job which had been so successfully begun. Private Gallagher36 made a solo charge and cleared one strongpoint singlehanded. Sergeant Hulme and Private Dunn37 cleared another. Sergeant Dutton and Private Joyce38 led the way in a rush which took some 13 Platoon men in and through a large stone building which held up progress for a few minutes. Everywhere the fighting was bitter and no quarter was given on either side. ‘From one building we got 11 machine guns,’ wrote Gallagher later, ‘it was like a butcher's shop inside—some grenades had been popped in the windows.’ Soon they came out on the side of the village opposite that on which they had entered. There were about thirty of the men who had gone in with C Company left standing.
Entering from another angle, D Company had its measure of success. The leading platoon, No. 18, under Lieutenant Cunningham, took the hardest way of entering Galatas by going over walls and through backyards, but this was sound tactics as it enabled some heavy machine-gun posts to be outflanked or overrun. When they did find themselves forced to charge up a narrow street, a machine gun held up the attack for a minute or two until Private David Seaton39 broke the spell by striding forward firing his Bren gun from the hip. While he kept up steady bursts, others edged round to a flank and knocked out the machine gun with grenades. Seaton was killed but the attack surged on again.page 81
It is perhaps unfair to single out a few for special mention since practically all were heroes of the fight to retake Galatas. But those not mentioned will not grudge the honour done to a few as representatives of them all. Corporal Alan Henderson,40 a section leader in 16 Platoon, showed outstanding qualities of leadership in leading his men to knock out some of the last machine-gun posts on their flank. Private Fitchett41 used grenades coolly and effectively in the house-clearing, while Private ‘Ginger’ Drysdale42 knocked out a troublesome post. As one particular strongpoint was making progress impossible, Lieutenant Cunningham tried to knock it out with a grenade lobbed up in the air but it burst harmlessly on a roof, scattering slates in all directions. He next rolled another grenade along the cobblestones and it burst in the doorway of the house. As the German occupants dived out, Private Lydiate43 shot four of them while Cunningham despatched the officer with his pistol. In many places the enemy stood firm until wiped out by fierce hand-to-hand fighting. Bayonets, rifle butts, pistols and bare hands were all used in what was the closest (in the most literal sense of the word) fighting in which the 23rd ever engaged.
Lieutenant Connolly has recorded an incident which illustrates the closeness of the fighting in Galatas: ‘My platoon followed Cunningham's…. one Larsen44 must have walked into the village square from another direction as when I got there he was held off the ground by a huge German paratrooper. I had with me one Kennedy45 (… can't be sure of the name but he was wounded with me next day). The German had Larsen by the throat at arm's length while he fumbled with his other hand for a knife. Kennedy and I had rifles with bayonets and as we hopped in, the Hun used Larsen as a shield to keep us off. As we separated to get around him, he exposed his back for a moment and Kennedy split his head with a lovely butt stroke. Larsen was a man with a grown family but was up and off in the hunt in no time.’page 82
While the recapture of Galatas was principally a 23rd achievement, credit must be given to the representatives of other units who joined in this fierce fighting. Colonel Gray rallied those of the 18th nearest him and led them into the village, where they joined in destroying some of the German posts. Some of his officers, such as Lieutenants Macdonald46 and Lambie,47 also led their men in this fighting. Platoons of the 20th under Lieutenants Bain,48 who was badly wounded, and Green,49 who was killed, and some gunners under Lieutenant Carson50 joined in the bayonet charges, which put the issue beyond all doubt and gave the Germans their first real setback after they had occupied any part of Crete.
German accounts of the battle, some published in 1942 and others secured from prisoners captured in Italy in 1944–45, show that Galatas was occupied by both parachutists and troops from different mountain regiments. These accounts fully confirm the closeness of the fighting, as a few extracts demonstrate. ‘A bitter hand-to-hand fight develops in the darkness…. In the village itself hell is let loose, and everywhere the battle comes down to bitter individual clashes. Cpl. B. of a machine gun company described these…. “Suddenly we are face to face with a crowd of Tommies three yards away; in the darkness they are only recognizable by their flat helmets and lowered bayonets. As quick as lightning our lieutenant whips up his machine pistol and fires into the attackers, and the rest of us fire our pistols and carbines as rapidly as possible. But bullets and grenade splinters are whistling round our ears too. There is thunder and lightning in every corner and cranny, and the flashes of grenades flicker like a fire…. our machine guns fall silent, one after the other, grenade splinters are putting them out of action. The crews are nearly all wounded or dead; but they are holding the position! Our brave comrades defend themselves with pistols and hand grenades in this fearful hand-to-hand struggle. It is a case of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a page 83 tooth! … our ammunition is running out slowly. With a heavy heart our lieutenant decided to evacuate the village with his still further diminished band”.’51
In Galatas the 23rd suffered serious casualties: C Company lost all its officers and most of its senior NCOs wounded, while both companies lost some of their best men. At such a cost is victory won in close fighting. The enemy was estimated to have lost 200 killed and many more wounded. These estimates may be high, but the German accounts both of the different companies in Galatas and of the fierceness of the fighting would appear to support them.52
‘… The counter attack was carried out with the greatest gallantry right through the village and the blow delivered by Farran's two tanks and the two little companies of Infantry stopped the whole German advance. When the village was cleared and the firing died down it also stopped on the whole field. Anyone who was there could never forget the occasion. General Freyberg, in his report on the Battle of Crete, says that this counter attack was the highlight of the whole battle.
‘The intention of the counter attack was to deliver a blow that would check the Germans’ advance. The position was so bad and so many troops were disorganized that I thought it useless to try and patch up the line any further. The secondary object was to give the Divisional Cavalry an opportunity of extricating themselves, and this was seized very ably by Major Russell. Both objects were therefore achieved.
‘I have given you this account at length because it is one of the most brilliant episodes in the history of the 23rd, and the reasons for the attack must be of interest to those interested in the Bn. It was one of the best and most effective efforts made by any single Bn in the division throughout the war.’
When the fighting died down, the Germans established themselves in one strongpoint at the south-western exit from Galatas while Lieutenants Connolly and Cunningham, the two surviving officers of the battalion, proceeded to regroup their forces inside the village in case the enemy should in his turn launch a counter-attack. Colonel Gray and his party of the 18th left the village to the 23rd, ‘whose objective it was’, as Colonel Gray page 84 termed it. The 23rd signals platoon ‘teed’ into a cable and established contact with 4 Brigade Headquarters, which received its reports of a successful attack on Galatas with scepticism. Lieutenant Jones had, however, received the correct report from his runners with the two companies, Privates Redfearn53 and Ericksen.54 Their report was confirmed by Captain Harvey who, though wounded in the mouth, was able to give a useful account and solicit help for the wounded. At this point Colonel Kippenberger handed over to Major Thomason and went back to 4 Brigade Headquarters, where a conference was being held on the next moves to be made.
Major Thomason placed Connolly in command of C Company and left it to hold the village, and made D Company establish contact with B Company on the right centre, while HQ Company continued to cover the left flank. From some-where he secured a small truck, which he sent up to the edge of the village to evacuate the wounded, many of whom were carried out on doors in the absence of stretchers. Unfortunately, most of the wounded reached 6 Field Ambulance's dressing station too late to be sent back to catch the last hospital ship and therefore had to remain and be taken prisoner of war.
After the attack had gone through Galatas, a steady stream of refugees came down the road past the 23rd headquarters established on the side of the road. Sergeant Young55 and Corporal Wastney56 examined them carefully to make sure no Germans were among them. Throughout the fighting in Crete, Bob Young, although only a private at the time, carried out the duties of Intelligence Sergeant with conspicuous success. Frequently employed in liaison work between companies and between the 23rd and Brigade, he normally made a habit of collecting the maximum amount of useful information. As Lieutenant Bassett wrote of him later: ‘Steady as a rock and undauntedly cheerful, he reconnoitred night and day without ceasing, his reports being always full and accurate.’
Since Galatas itself could be outflanked and the line through the village was too long for the troops available to hold effectively, the conference at 4 Brigade Headquarters, under page break page 85 Brigadier Inglis,57decided that the forward troops must withdraw to a shorter line to be established by 5 Brigade. Orders to this effect were received about 3.30 a.m. on 26 May by Major Thomason and the 23rd were successfully withdrawn about an hour later. Many of the battalion were highly indignant at having to withdraw so soon from a position so hardly and so gloriously won. For example, Connolly could write later: ‘Then the awful order to retire came. Cun and I were mad. Both of us felt we'd won the war at that moment…. I was giving all the Brass Hats Bun Hats that night.’
An A Company ‘listening post’ under Sergeant A. C. Hooper, on a small ridge to the north of Galatas, was inadvertently forgotten when the order to withdraw was given. At daybreak Hooper reported to his company headquarters only to find it occupied by the enemy. He and his party then made for the hills in an attempt to outflank the enemy and rejoin the battalion. Passing through the outskirts of Galatas, they ran into some Germans who were too surprised to act quickly. After an exciting and exhausting series of narrow escapes and record-breaking sprints from one patch of cover to another, often under fire, this section rejoined the battalion in the early afternoon.
By this time, the 23rd was in reserve on either side of the coast road and behind the line held by 21 Battalion, which included A Company of the 20th for the time being, 19 Battalion and 28 Battalion, whose positions linked up with those of 2/7 and 2/8 Australian Battalions. Here the weary soldiers of the 23rd carried out normal post-battle reorganisation. But they could not rest for long. The usual amount of strafing and bombing was experienced. About 2 p.m. a wounded officer reported a ‘break-through’ on the coastal sector: Brigadier Hargest ordered the 23rd to send two companies forward ‘to restore the line at all costs’. Major Thomason sent A and C Companies forward to do this job. On its way forward C Company was ruthlessly machine-gunned from the air and, as a result of two savage attacks, the company suffered thirty casualties. Headquarters No. 2 Company and B Company were sent forward to replace C. The German fighters and Stukas were page 86 still active and, according to one member of the relieving party, it took about four hours to advance one mile. Actually, the situation in the front line was not as serious as had been reported. Major Thomason carried out a personal reconnaissance of the forward area and found that, despite attacks and temporary penetration, the line was still holding.
Private Pankhurst's account of being under fire from the air on this occasion deserves recording for its graphic picture of an all-too-common experience of that time:
‘Our Btn was told to go to a position on the right because the Huns were thought to be breaking through…. We got hell … I think the 23rd lost 34 men…. Now here's a close shave. As we were making our way up a small gully C Coy were coming down causing a lot of congestion. A Hun fighting Messerschmitt crossed this gully firing his guns. I felt the heat of the bullets pass my face and the leaves were dashed from the tree under which I was crouched. “Damn it all,” I thought, “this is no place for mother's little boy now that bloody squarehead knows we are here”. So I out of the gully, crossed the road & made my way among the olive trees to our rendezvous and it's just as well I did for that darn plane came down the gully a few minutes later (not across as it did the first time) and cleaned up fifteen men with one burst from its guns.’
Late that night word came that 5 Brigade was to withdraw again to a new line ‘two miles west of Suda at approximately the junction of two converging roads’, and that 23 Battalion would provide the rearguard. The battalion established a strongpoint covering the bridge on the Canea road just east of the junction of the main coast road and the Alikianou-Canea road. It held this position till after 1 a.m. on 27 May, by which time the rest of the brigade had withdrawn through it. As they marched back, the troops helped themselves to rations and ammunition from dumps which were being abandoned. Although little was known of their efforts at this time, the withdrawal of the New Zealanders was assisted by the stand made by 1 Welch and 1 Rangers Battalions and a detachment of Northumberland Hussars who had been sent forward by Major-General C. E. Weston, the commander of the Suda sector.
The position to which the 23rd withdrew in the early hours of 27 May was known as 42nd Street because the sunken dirt road about a mile to the west of Suda and prominent in this area had been worked on by 42 Field Company of Royal Engineers. The Brigade Major, Captain Dawson, allocated page 87 battalion areas south of the main road to the 21st, 28th, 19th and 22nd in that order, with the 23rd, as the rearguard force, expected to pass through the forward units into a reserve position behind the Maoris. On the morning of 27 May, however, the units were not arranged as methodically on the ground as the Brigade Major had planned. Many men had dropped page 88 exhausted where they found themselves at the end of their tiring night march. Thus the men of the 23rd found themselves in touch with both the Maoris and 2/7 Australian Battalion, one of the units of 19 Brigade which was holding the ground north of 5 Brigade.
About 9.30 a.m. enemy bombers came over again and began the ‘softening-up’ process which was a preliminary to an infantry attack which began about an hour later. The Maoris and 2/7 Australian Battalion, assisted by platoons and small parties from the 19th, the 21st, the 22nd, and the 23rd, launched a counter-attack with the bayonet which gave 42nd Street a name of some importance in the Battle of Crete. On the whole front the Germans lost some 300 men and their advance was checked. The 23rd men who participated in this charge were mainly from HQ and A Companies, led by Sergeant McKerchar58 of the signals platoon. The rest of the unit were ordered to man the line of 42nd Street when the alarm was given and this they did.
The rest of the day was comparatively quiet, apart from some bombing and strafing. About 3.30 p.m., however, the Germans were reported to be carrying out an outflanking movement round the hills to the south. One small party of Germans entered the village of Tsikalaria on a hill to the south of the 23rd. D Company, with men from A and C Companies, hurried over to drive the enemy out. The Germans withdrew without a fight. The 23rd men returned elated—not only had they succeeded in their primary mission but they had also discovered a dump of beer, whisky and gin.
By this time, it was clear that the programme was one of withdrawal to Sfakia in the south, whence the troops could be evacuated by the Navy. In the late afternoon, orders were given for that night's withdrawal. The Maori Battalion was to move first but was to leave two companies at Beritiana to prevent the route out from being cut by enemy coming through that point. The 23rd was to act as rearguard again and allow the other units to withdraw to Stilos. When the time for final withdrawal came, the enemy was applying pressure. The 2/7 Australian Battalion counter-attacked and this enabled the 23rd to break contact with the enemy about 11 p.m. D Company, the last to withdraw, had to avoid heavy machine-gun fire on fixed lines as it pulled back. At the cemetery, east of the Suda end page 89 of the tram lines, the 23rd passed through A Battalion of Layforce, a commando force lately landed in Crete under Colonel R. E. Laycock.
A gruelling night march followed. All were feeling the lack of sleep and of regular meals, to say nothing of the strain imposed by frequent attacks from the air. The road grew steeper and rougher the farther south it went. At daybreak the battalion reached Stilos. Major Thomason established his headquarters in a cave and ordered A and D Companies to occupy a ridge on the west of the road, covering the northern approaches to Stilos. Lieutenants Norris59 and Cunningham, the two company commanders, made a reconnaissance before settling down. As they reached a stone wall at the top of the ridge, they saw Germans coming out of a creek bed about 400 yards away. Machine-gun fire whizzed over the ridge. In great haste the men of the two companies, many of whom had already dropped off to sleep, were summoned to the ridge. Major Thomason ordered those near him to join A and D Companies, shouting, ‘Sergeant Hulme!’ Get men on top of that hill! Whoever gets men there first wins! ‘Hulme was among the first to arrive and opened fire from behind the stone wall just when the enemy leaders were about 15 yards away. He was joined by Sergeant Bob Young and then by D Company. After the leading elements of II Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment had been repelled, Hulme was to be seen sitting side-saddle on the stone wall, shooting at the enemy on the lower slopes. His example did much to maintain the morale of men whose reserves of nervous and physical energy were nearly exhausted. At one stage, too, Hulme threw the grenades that were being hurriedly primed by others. Eventually, after shooting several Germans, he him-self was wounded in the arm.
Twenty-first Battalion and a company of the 19th also responded to Thomason's call, joined in repulsing the enemy and, after extending the line taken up by the 23rd to either flank, succeeded in beating off the attack. Had it succeeded 5 Brigade's withdrawal would have been seriously endangered. Possibly the Germans concerned were anxious to justify themselves, but 85 Mountain Regiment subsequently reported of this engagement: ‘A terrific struggle developed, including bloody hand-to-hand fighting.’page 90
Even exhausted men could smile and say ‘Joke!’ when they saw the predicament of some hundreds of Italians who now approached Stilos from the south. A prison camp for Italians captured by the Greeks in Albania had been opened and its inmates were marching with white flags to join their German allies. They looked like a procession marching on Parliament, but the effect was spoilt by the German mortars which opened fire on the road: the Italians scattered like frightened rabbits. But their nuisance value was such that they were hurried through the 5 Brigade area to join their allies.
At a 5 Brigade Headquarters conference at nine o'clock that morning of 28 May, Brigadier Hargest asked, ‘Can you fight all day and march all night if we can extricate ourselves?’ The battalion commanders, apart from Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer60 of the Maori Battalion, who was worried about his two companies left at Beritiana, said ‘No!’ and agreed that they must push on by day and avoid being cut off. Fifth Brigade was at this stage co-operating very closely with 19 Australian Brigade under Brigadier G. A. Vasey, and the plan was for the New Zealanders to fall back through the Australians, who were seven miles back.
When the time to withdraw came, the 23rd's forward companies were again in contact with the enemy and it seemed that a counter-attack would have to be launched to enable them to disengage. To the delight of the 23rd, shouts and hakas were heard from the rear of the Germans, who withdrew in some confusion. Captain Royal's61 two companies of Maoris at Beritiana had sent back their wounded under care of a strong escort, which had decided to charge through the enemy to rejoin 5 Brigade.
The daylight withdrawal was in some ways both more and less difficult than had been expected: enemy aircraft did not trouble the men that day, a change that the exposed nature of the rising road through the mountains made especially welcome; but the heat and the going were most trying. A few men had acquired new boots in those happy days immediately after page 91 arrival in Crete but the majority were now finding their boots wearing out and giving trouble. Dirt- and sweat-stained clothing chafed and rubbed. Only the strongest were able to carry on without showing signs of collapsing with the steadily mounting fatigue. They reached Vrises at 3 p.m. and rested there for three hours. During this halt, those who could not keep up were given permission to continue the march in their own time.
At 6 p.m. the march continued. Brigadier Hargest urged all units to keep their men together, to adopt a reasonably easy pace, to conserve water and to retain arms and ammunition. His wise counsel was followed to the benefit of all and some stragglers were picked up. The Brigadier's determination to bring his brigade out as nearly intact as possible was a major factor in the success of this withdrawal. As Lieutenant Cunningham said of this operation: ‘During the next five days being reduced in numbers and seeing our Brigadier frequently we could admire his coolness and ability.’
The battalion moved back first from Vrises in order to take up a defensive line on top of the pass behind Amigdhalokorfi, five miles farther to the south and some 2300 feet above sea level. About 11 p.m. the 23rd occupied its positions, with D Company on the left of the road, HQ Company, A Company and a detachment of gunners under Captain John Snadden,62 who temporarily counted themselves part of the 23rd, on the right. The other 5 Brigade units marched through about and after midnight and made their way down to the Askifou Plain.
The 29th May passed quietly. The enemy had also found the march exhausting and, in addition, had had to deal with the ‘blowing’ and blocking of the road. Only about 4 p.m. did the leading scouts of two companies of mountain troops put in an appearance. Water was sent up to the 23rd in all kinds of containers, including great glass wine bottles carried in basketwork panniers. But the enemy were seen to have supplies dropped to them from the air. The 23rd companies were seriously reduced by now: A Company, for example, had only forty men under Lieutenant Norris, the only officer left with the company. Several officers and men had been sent back suffering with dysentery and many of those still with the unit were troubled by the same complaint. All needed more sleep, more food and more drink. After giving his order to withdraw shortly after 4 p.m., Major Thomason handed over command page 92 to Lieutenant R. L. Bond. Thomason had been a tower of strength to the battalion from Galatas onwards. He had carried on with a bomb splinter in his knee until he could no longer walk; he had served the 23rd well.
As the battalion withdrew from the Rogdhia position, the two rearguard companies, A and D, were hurried along by enemy fire. Corporal Dan Davis,63 who had commanded 16 Platoon from 20 May onwards with both ability and gallantry, again showed his quality as a soldier by covering the final withdrawal of D Company. Farther back, 2/7 Australian Battalion ensured that the enemy would not follow. After marching through a beautiful valley and the village of Sin Kares, the 23rd embussed in 15-cwt trucks supplied by the Royal Marines and was taken south to within a short distance of the zigzag road leading down to Sfakia. Its march across Crete was practically at an end. Despite the steepness of the slopes and the roughness of the rocks, men slept where they lay.
The next day, 30 May, was not a particularly happy one for the battalion. Although not engaged in any active role, it came under enemy mortar and shell fire in the late morning and had to shift its position. In the early afternoon, Lieutenant Bond received orders for the final withdrawal to the beach at dusk and for the embarkation that night. Even a renewal of the mortaring could not rob the men of a feeling of satisfaction that their trials and troubles in Crete were practically over. This feeling of satisfaction was rudely shattered, however, when it was announced about 5 p.m. that the orders for the embarkation of the 23rd had been cancelled, that there was some prospect of getting away the following night, and that, if it were not possible to embark at Sfakia, Brigadier Hargest was determined to lead all able-bodied men eastwards along the south coast to some other point where embarkation might still take place. The prospect of being taken prisoner of war loomed up and was not improved by the fact that no rations and no water were issued that day. In difficult circumstances, the very junior commanding officer proved himself a worthy successor to his three predecessors: as a brother officer put it, ‘Bond's optimistic spirit and determination dominated the 23rd Bn scene.’
Next morning 5 Brigade moved down to Sfakia. The 23rd reached the village about 8 a.m. and was issued with a light ration of two tins of bully beef and three packets of biscuits page 93 for eight men. The battalion was called upon to supply a rearguard of thirty to fifty of its fittest men to scale the hills again and with ‘Burrows Force’, the 4 Brigade rearguard, give protection to the evacuation beach. Volunteers were called for and found: soon Lieutenant Cunningham was leading his party up the 2000 feet to man a protective outpost till dusk. Prominent in this party were Sergeants Barcock,64 M. Bowie, Trewby and McKerchar and Corporal Davis. The rest of the battalion held a reserve position farther down the slopes while those who were not fit remained in the village. Lieutenant Jones improvised a system of signals communication between Battalion Headquarters and the troops in the hill positions. The day passed without their being attacked.
At 9.15 p.m. on 31 May the battalion reassembled east of Sfakia and, with the other 5 Brigade units, began moving to the embarkation beaches. The troops passed through the cordon supplied by 22 and 28 Battalions to prevent stragglers usurping positions reserved for fighting and organised troops and shortly before midnight began embarking on the landing craft, pinnaces and launches used for taking the troops out to the waiting ships—the cruiser Phoebe and the destroyers Abdiel, Kimberley, Hotspur and Jackal. Mere words cannot express how glad these men were to be aboard these ships or how grateful they were to the Navy and to the individual sailors for their help. Private Pankhurst can speak for his fellows: ‘The sailors fed us and treated us very well…. We were in the space where mines were usually kept and, as we were very crowded, it was hot as a furnace. But it would not have mattered to us if the ship had been a slave trader so glad were we to be off Crete.’
The 23rd came off Crete with reduced numbers but still a disciplined fighting unit. On 20 May, when the fighting began, it numbered 24 officers and 547 men, a total of 571. On 31 May the strength state was given as 230. The only officers left on the active list were subalterns—Lieutenant Bond as CO, Lieutenant Jones as Signals Officer, Adjutant and IO, Lieutenant Norris in command of A Company, Lieutenant Cunningham in command of D, and Lieutenants McGregor and Coop with HQ Company. Lieutenants Orbell and Gray, also evacuated with the unit, were sick men. The battalion's casualties in Crete were not known at the time but were later officially listed as 56 killed or died of wounds, 187 wounded and 114 prisoner of war, of whom 58 had been wounded—a total of 299 casualties page 94 This leaves a discrepancy of 42, a figure no doubt made up of those who were evacuated sick or for some other reason.65
Its individual members make a unit but a battalion history can rarely spare space for stories of individuals. In Crete, various individual acts of daring and gallantry went unrecorded and unrewarded. Decorations were won which were never awarded. Nevertheless, justice was done in the case of Sergeant Clive Hulme, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallant exploits on Crete, and justice demands that the history of his unit should record, even if briefly, some of those exploits.
Some mention has already been made of Hulme's participation in the counter-attack on Galatas and the repelling of the enemy at Stilos. But most of his outstanding efforts were made alone or with small patrols and did not fit into any unit actions. They were typical of this man who sought so frequently to fight a one-man war. Hulme was the battalion provost sergeant from early 1940 onwards. In his official capacity he was assisting Lieutenant Roach66 of 21 Battalion to run a Field Punishment Centre east of the 23rd's area and south-west of Platanias when the Germans began to land on 20 May.
At first Hulme and the other members of the Field Punishment Centre were busy dealing with the parachutists dropping in their area. Later, Lieutenant Roach reported that the Germans gave some trouble but ‘Sgt. Hulme got cracking—very aggressively. He stood in full view of any German and fired bursts into any suspected places and that closed up the odd burst of fire.’ Sometimes alone and sometimes with another—for example, on two occasions he had Private Shatford67 with him—Hulme went out and dealt with enemy riflemen. Stalking them carefully, he almost invariably got his man. Roach's report shows how much one determined infantryman could dominate an area when it says: ‘Hulme used to wander about a lot—from the camp to the road was all his country.’ Hulme himself claimed no special credit for the manner in which the Punishment Centre men cleaned up their area but 126 German dead were counted in that general area. Reporting in to 5 Brigade Headquarters on one occasion with some marked maps, Hulme was detailed by Brigadier Hargest to deal with a sniper, whom he stalked and shot.page 95
Hulme returned to the 23rd the day before the unit left its area near Maleme. By this time he had acquired two items from parachutists he had shot which gave him some protection on his stalking patrols and may possibly have misled the Germans. These were a camouflage suit or blouse which he wore over his battle-dress tunic and a camouflage hat, which could be worn either rolled up like a balaclava or down in a hood, with eye-slits, over the face. He killed two other Germans before the order to withdraw came. On a visit to Brigade Headquarters, he ran into a small party of New Zealand engineers held prisoner by one German sentry. Afraid to shoot for fear of hitting a New Zealander, Hulme crept up behind the sentry, jumped on him and killed him with a short German bayonet. Directed to find out how many Germans were in Pirgos, Hulme ran into two unguarded aircraft which he set on fire with German fusee matches.
After Galatas, Hulme heard that his brother, Corporal ‘Blondie’ Hulme,68 of 19 Battalion, had been killed. Determined to avenge his brother, Hulme dropped behind the withdrawing unit and, taking up a position covering a food dump, waited till the leading Germans arrived. Before this patrol pulled back, Hulme shot three of them.
During a conference of senior officers, including Australian and British, at 5 Brigade Headquarters behind 42nd Street, German snipers sent bullets whistling over. Hulme volunteered to deal with the trouble. He climbed the hillside from which the Germans were firing, came out above four Germans, and shot the leader. He was wearing his camouflage suit at the time and, when the Germans looked round to see where the shooting was coming from, Hulme also looked round, giving the impression he was one of them. When the men below him looked down again, he quickly picked off two of them and then shot the fourth as he moved up towards him. A fifth he shot as he came round the side of the hill towards him. Most of these proceedings were watched by Major Thomason through his binoculars.
Sergeant Hulme's official citation says that he ‘made his score thirty-three enemy snipers stalked and shot.’ It adds: ‘Sergeant Hulme's Brigadier, in supporting the recommendation for the award of the Victoria Cross, states that during the whole of the fighting until he was wounded, Sergeant Hulme conducted himself with such courage that the story of his exploits was on page 96 everyone's lips’. That this was true of the commanding officer of the 23rd may be seen from Lieutenant Thomas's account of a visit from Colonel Leckie in the dressing station behind Galatas: ‘Colonel Leckie limped over to see me. He stayed and talked with me for some time, speaking sadly of the Battalion's casualties and proudly of its showing throughout the fighting. He spoke at length of Sgt. Hulme who … had done wonders.’
In his letter of recommendation of Hulme, Brigadier Hargest also said: ‘From my own personal observation I know he showed such a complete contempt for danger that it amounted to recklessness.’ With the prescience of a mystic and the assured self-confidence of a man who trusted his intuition or ‘sixth sense’ in the special kind of fighting in which he engaged in Crete, Sergeant Hulme established something of a record for an infantryman.
For the New Zealanders, Crete was neither a success nor a failure. The Germans had won the island but at such a cost that they were never again to employ their airborne troops in an invasion or large attack. One German spearhead had been effectively blunted. Many lessons concerning the importance of supporting arms and good signals communications were learned by the New Zealanders.
In the 23rd, those men who had lasted out till 31 May had every reason to be proud of their stamina and courage. To the end, they had remained a fighting unit and provided rearguard after rearguard. In his report on the campaign, Major Thomason concluded with some satisfaction: ‘The officers and men fought a great action against hopeless odds. They did everything that was required of them and more—no matter what odds were against them…. continually bombed and machine-gunned from the air, at no time were there complaints or any suggestion of down-heartedness, and never a thought of surrender.’
The men quickly looked to the future with confidence. The conviction, born in Greece, that when they were supplied with adequate equipment and well supported on land and in the air they would pay old debts with interest, now grew in intensity. Private L. A. Diamond wrote soon after the campaign: ‘I long for the day when we can match the Germans in the sky, ‘plane for ‘plane. When that day dawns, Germany is beaten. We know by experience that we can whack his land forces, tanks included, any day of the week.’ The outlook for the future was lightened by this confidence which came from the knowledge and experience gained in Crete.
1 Lt-Gen Sir Edward Puttick, KCB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 26 Jun 1890; Regular soldier; NZ Rifle Bde 1914–19 (CO 3 Bn); comd 4 Bde Jan 1940-Aug 1941; NZ Div (Crete) 29 Apr-27 May 1941; CGS and GOC NZ Military Forces, Aug 1941-Dec 1945.
7 Brig L. W. Andrew, VC, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Ashhurst, 23 Mar 1897; Regular soldier; Wellington Regt 1915–19; CO 22 Bn Jan 1940-Feb 1942; comd 5 Bde 27 Nov-6 Dec 1941; Area Commander, Wellington, Nov 1943-Dec 1946; Commander, Central Military District, Apr 1948-Mar 1952.
8 Lt E. J. McAra; born Dunedin, 5 Apr 1906; commercial artist; killed in action 20 May 1941.
36 Sgt B. O'C. Gallagher; Cobden; born Dunedin, 29 Jun 1913; miner; wounded 24 Oct 1942.
51 Gebirgsjager auf Kreta, pp. 188–92.
57 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Hamilton; 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; GOC 2 NZ Div 27 Jun-16 Aug 1942, 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50; Stipendiary Magistrate.
60 Brig G. Dittmer, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Maharahara, 4 Jun 1893; Regular soldier; Auckland Regt 1914–19 (OC 1 NZ Entrenching Bn); CO 28 (Maori) Bn Jan 1940-Feb 1942; comd 1 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) Apr 1942-Aug 1943; 1 Div Aug 1942-Jan 1943; Fiji Military Forces and Fiji Inf Bde Gp Sep 1943-Nov 1945; Commander, Central Military District, 1946–48.
61 Maj R. Royal, MC and bar; Wellington; born Levin, 23 Aug 1897; civil servant; Maori Pioneer Bn, 1914–18 War; 28 (Maori) Bn 1940–41; wounded 14 Dec 1941; 2 i/c 2 Maori Bn (in NZ) 1942–43; CO 2 Maori Bn May-Jun 1943.
65 In the above figures, five men who died of wounds while prisoners of war have been included with the killed; the wounded include those wounded and taken prisoner.