27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 5 — Crete
The cruiser Ajax, one of several ships which brought men of 27 (MG) Battalion to Crete, arrived at Suda Bay on the morning of 28 April, and passed through a gap in the anti-submarine boom near a small island—Suda Island. Close in shore lay the cruiser York, beached after being severely damaged by Italian motor boats a month earlier; an oil tanker was barely afloat, and several other craft were damaged. But the men in the Ajax were more interested in the ships at anchor which they knew carried fellow survivors from Greece. When their vessel tied up alongside two destroyers lashed together near the water-logged tanker, shouts of recognition were exchanged on all sides.
An air-raid siren wailed somewhere in the hills that towered above the harbour. ‘Action stations’ sounded on the ships, guns were elevated, and eyes searched the sky in all directions. Ack-ack guns opened fire, and puffs of smoke were seen perhaps 20,000 feet above. ‘We hold our brens ready,’ wrote Sergeant-Major Johnstone. ‘What for I don't know because they are no good over 2,000 feet, but I suppose it is the feeling of being able to hit back if the enemy comes down low enough.’ The plane was reconnoitring, however, and soon departed.
Disembarkation began immediately. The men climbed the concrete steps onto the main street of Suda, where they were met with ‘New Zealanders and Tommies to the right, Aussies to the left,’ and were told to walk a few miles along the road to a transit camp. ‘Off we go in twos and threes carrying our gear. I still have my bren and 24 full mags., my rifle and two haversacks, this makes a pretty good load, and as we are very tired it seems twice as heavy.’ They were offered ‘a cup of delightfully cold water and occasionally a glass of wine’ at houses along the way, and at last reached the camp, where they were given tea, bully beef and oranges. ‘It is a great day, a lot of lost friends have been discovered, the sun is shining and it is nice and warm, our tummies are full and we are enjoying a smoke in the shade of the trees. Who cares for air raids? Nobody apparently, everybody is far too busy talking and recounting past experiences. Some air raid warnings are given but they page 85 are treated with contempt because the planes keep up very high and unless they clip the top of the trees like they did in Greece nobody cares.’
The men were then directed farther along the road to a camp near Canea, the capital of Crete, where they were to spend the night. ‘Again we get a rousing reception from the local lads and lassies as we plod along. We come to a stream where a lot of NZers are having a long overdue wash and swim…. For many this is the first wash for over a month. It will be so in my case when I get a chance to get into the water. We inquire the way to our camp and soon find it up the stream a bit and entirely covered in olive trees. A most delightful spot indeed and we down packs and gear, strip off our clothes and into the creek we go.’
The water was colder than expected, and the bathers were soon out and dressed. They had an odd assortment of clothes: some wore a mixture of summer and winter uniform; others had British, Australian, Greek and even German garments. ‘I must say we looked a pretty tough lot as we sat around the improvised cook house.’
After a good meal they settled for the night under the olive trees. A few had blankets, and most had greatcoats; none had both and a few had neither. ‘So we sleep in heaps and pile the coverings over as evenly as possible.’ In the morning they were wakened by the chatter of Greek children. A roll call after breakfast revealed that about a third of the battalion had been collected together, with Captain Grant the senior officer.1 They were mostly from Company Headquarters and 1 and 3 Platoons of 1 Company, the Anti-Aircraft Platoon, and 10 Platoon and half of 11 Platoon of 4 Company. With other men detached from their companies during the withdrawal from Greece they totalled 208.
They now proceeded to a camping area east of the village of Galatas. Following the road along the coast to the west, they missed the proper turn-off and had to retrace their steps two or three miles. It was hot, and those who had sore feet or were tired were allowed to make their own pace. Some were given rides in trucks, but very few vehicles were about, and most of the men just ‘walked and walked until at long last we came to the camp.’page 86
Crete was now the foremost Allied position facing the German advance through the Balkans. If the island fell to the enemy, he would gain a base from which his aircraft could attack Egypt and the Suez Canal and shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean. The invasion would probably be by air and sea; if paratroops—who had been employed at Corinth in Greece—could seize the island's airfields, other troops could be landed from the air, and perhaps further troops and heavy equipment could be brought in small ships.
Major-General Freyberg, who assumed command of the forces on Crete on 30 April, found that the troops available for the island's defence were the original garrison of one British brigade (another two battalions arrived later from Egypt); some ill-equipped Greek regiments composed largely of raw recruits; and a number of British, Australian and New Zealand units evacuated from Greece, all below strength and short of equipment; altogether some 32,0002 British and 10,000 Greeks. These forces were deficient in guns, ammunition, transport, signals equipment, digging tools and other essentials. Specialists— gunners, engineers, drivers and others—were formed into infantry units although not trained for such a role and in some cases strange to their weapons. The Navy gave all the assistance it could by bringing equipment and supplies, but port facilities were most inadequate, and the Luftwaffe, operating from airfields in Greece, had complete control of the sky.
From the defenders' point of view Crete, 160 miles long from east to west and 40 miles wide at the broadest part, faced the wrong way. A backbone of mountains, rising in places to 7000 and 8000 feet, sloped abruptly down to the sea on the southern side, where no suitable harbours existed, but descended more gradually to the north coast, where the best harbours and only airfields were situated. There was an aerodrome at Maleme, about ten miles west of Suda Bay, the principal port for bringing in supplies; a landing ground at Retimo, about 30 miles east of Suda; and another aerodrome at Heraklion, a small port 35 miles farther east. They were linked by only one road from east to west; few, very poor roads led across the island to the south.
The defence was centred mainly around these airfields and the Suda Bay-Canea area. The New Zealand Division (less 6 Brigade, which had returned to Egypt), now commanded by page 87 Brigadier Puttick, was to hold the Maleme or westernmost sector, which lay along the coast west of Canea and extended a mile and a half to three miles inland; it was an area traversed by steep-sided valleys, where olive groves, vineyards and occasional fields of corn were cultivated in terraced slopes and on the lower ground near the shore. In this sector the machine-gunners were deployed during the next few days.page 88
To make up platoons, cooks, drivers, clerks, runners, batmen and others who had had little or no training with the Vickers were briefly instructed how to handle the guns. Only the eight guns brought by 1 Company from Greece had tripods; most of the spare parts, ammunition and other equipment had been dumped at the embarkation points or thrown overboard by naval ratings. Seven guns without mountings had been brought by the platoons of 4 Company, and others were obtained until the unit had a total of twenty-four, but most of these were without tripods, condensers, tubes, cans and spare parts. ‘I learned later,’ says Grant, ‘that the tripods3 were sent in their boxes to the Greek units in mistake for rifles.’
Lieutenant Kirk (3 Platoon), with thirty-six men and four guns, joined 4 Brigade in the Canea-Galatas area on 30 April, and Second-Lieutenants Brant (11 Platoon) and Carnachan (10 Platoon), with 40-odd men and four guns in all, joined the same brigade next day. They were given an anti-paratroop role. Second-Lieutenant MacDonald (1 Platoon), with thirty-five men and four guns, came under the command of 5 Brigade, located farther west between Platanias and the Tavronitis River. MacDonald's guns were sited on a ridge in 21 Battalion's area, south of the Platanias-Maleme road not far from Pirgos, where they were to cover the beach and the Maleme airfield. The remainder of the unit went into bivouac in an olive grove in the same battalion area, in which 23 Battalion replaced the 21st a few days later.
Only Kirk's and MacDonald's guns had tripods; the others were mounted on forked sticks, which made accurate shooting at any distance virtually impossible. At first each gun had only two belts of ammunition—enough for about two minutes of rapid fire—and not much more was received later. When another four guns without tripods and other essential equipment arrived on the 3rd, Lieutenant Green4 (from 3 Company) and Second-Lieutenant Luxford (Headquarters Company) were each given two. These were sited to cover the eastern and western approaches to the airfield, where they came under the command of 22 Battalion. Some ammunition was procured from the RAF, and mountings were constructed from six-by-six inch page 89 timber and U-brackets made to Green's specifications at an ordnance workshops.
About a week later Green and twenty-eight men were despatched to Suda Bay, where they were given four brand-new Vickers guns (the tripods and plenty of ammunition came later) and were landed on Suda Island to protect the harbour defence booms. The island, only about 200 yards by 70, was an old stronghold which had once withstood a long siege by the Turks. ‘Architecturally it was very interesting,’ Green writes. ‘There were battlements right round the slopes, old gates, strongholds honeycombed in the rock. There was a church said to mark the landing place of St Paul on his way to Rome; another plum centre on the island for HQ; a lighthouse and a signalman's cottage. The strongest stone walls were on the S. point, yards thick…. there was a camp with the old gun embrasures, dungeons, iron grills and gates on the sunken way from the north to this southern stronghold. On the N. point we used sand bags to make gun positions…. We had a month's food and water…. Our work was mostly a night job, sitting by the guns watching the booms.’
The guns were mounted on wooden posts and were laid on fixed lines along the booms each side of the island. ‘The only time that we fired,’ says Corporal Cook, ‘was one night when a supply boat from a Navy minesweeper tried to go through the boom without acknowledging our challenge. A few bursts of Vickers fire produced immediate results and we got our acknowledgment very smartly.’
To strengthen the machine-gun defences at Maleme, Brant left his section in the Galatas sector and formed another platoon. He and Luxford were each given two more guns without tripods, which brought the number supporting 22 Battalion to eight.
Thus, by 15 May, the equivalent of five machine-gun platoons, each with four Vickers guns, two or three Bren guns and anti-tank rifles, and a rifle for every man not otherwise armed, were deployed near the Maleme airfield and in the Galatas area. The sixth platoon, on Suda Island, was completely out of touch and in fact did not see the other machine-gunners again. Nor was it easy to maintain communication between the platoons on the mainland of Crete. They had no trucks (except Kirk's page 92 platoon, which received a 15-cwt on 19 May), motor cycles or telephones, and could keep in touch only by runner, which became very difficult when the enemy increased his air activity.
Mark VIIIZ and Mark VII ammunition arrived from time to time and was distributed to some of the platoons, but in the end they had sufficient for only a few minutes' rapid fire.9 Small quantities of clothing and blankets were also delivered, until each man had at least one blanket or greatcoat, shirt and shorts, and perhaps battle dress. The machine-gunners vigorously dug gunpits and slit trenches with the few picks and shovels they could borrow from other New Zealanders, the RAF or the Greeks, and attempted to wire their positions, but did not have sufficient wire to do it properly.
The invasion was expected 01 16 or 17 May, and then on the 19th, but did not eventuate until the 20th. Meanwhile the sky was seldom empty of German aircraft, and Suda harbour was bombed heavily and frequently. The men in the Canea-Galatas sector watched spectacular searchlight and ack-ack displays which, however, seemed to have very little effect on the Luftwaffe. A great cloud of black smoke hung over the harbour.
The platoon on Suda Island had a much closer view. ‘On one day there were eight ships blazing in the harbour, apart from the sunken York which had been hit before we landed on the island,’ says Lieutenant Green. ‘The repairs were almost complete when bombing sprung the plates and killed a diver. The ship settled more firmly….
‘During the bombing we did nothing. There had been Bofors but they had been taken away. Anyhow we had a night job watching the booms and were told not to fire. The planes would come low and down the harbour to the sea, lower even than the level of the island.
‘Most interesting was the sight of the little minesweepers covering the outer boom…. They swept up, turned neatly round and back again no matter how many planes came over bombing and straffing. All a ship had was a Lewis gun. When one did hit a plane, or more likely when a plane flying low hit the mast and crashed, we cheered the ship as it sailed along the boom.page 93
‘We had a grand stand seat when the harbour was bombed but while the blitz was on we had little sleep. There were 3.7 and Bofors on both sides of the bay. On one occasion 25 Stukas were attacking the 3.7 on N. hinterland.’
From the 13th onwards the Maleme sector was blitzed daily, sometimes for hours on end. During an exceptionally heavy raid on the 15th an RAF Gladiator, shot down near the airfield, crashed and turned over on the beach in front of a machine-gun pit. While enemy fighters tried to set fire to the plane with incendiary bullets, Lance-Corporal Smith and Private Curtis10 left the gunpit, ran forward to free the trapped pilot, and took him to safety. Smith was killed a few days later, but Curtis was subsequently awarded the MM.
On the 19th the last British aircraft—four Hurricanes and three Gladiators—were withdrawn from Crete, which undoubtedly was preferable to their being purposelessly sacrificed, but unfortunately the airfields were not destroyed.
The Luftwaffe renewed the bombardment shortly after six next morning. The Maleme airfield was not bombed—obviously it was to be saved for the enemy's own use—but its perimeter was savagely pounded, which raised immense clouds of dust and smoke. Swarms of fighters and fighter-bombers strafed the nearby countryside with such thoroughness that no man outside a slit trench seemed to escape special attention. ‘I thought to myself that something was really going to happen,’ says Luxford. It soon did. After a brief lull the onslaught was intensified, and some time after eight o'clock aircraft arrived towing perhaps fifty gliders, which swept in to land, some near the mouth of the Tavronitis, where the troops they carried overwhelmed the crews of the ack-ack guns; some along the riverbed, where they seized the bridge; and a few south and east of the airfield. Next came many large Junkers troop-carriers, which discharged hundreds of paratroops, a dozen from each plane, east, south and west of the airfield. While the parachutists were still floating down, and before those who reached the ground could collect together as a fighting unit, the defenders inflicted great slaughter with rifle and machine gun. But on the far side of the river the paratroops landed out of range and therefore unopposed.
One glider came down between and in rear of the two machine-gun sections in the Point 107 area, and from the cover of a stone wall its crew caused casualties and pinned down page 94 Bremner's section. Gould's section, about 200 yards south, also suffered casualties by fire from the same source, and could not bring its own guns to bear. It was subsequently reported, however, that two or three Fleet Air Arm men armed with ‘those extra curly “M & V” tin grenades’ dealt with these Germans.
Although handicapped by their makeshift mountings and the shortage of ammunition, the Vickers did some useful work; according to Captain Campbell,11 OC D Company 22 Battalion, they were able ‘to get some juicy shooting in among the gliders in the riverbed.’
Gould refers to another target: ‘Jerry landed two light mountain-type guns immediately across the river from us and we spent all day unsuccessfully trying to locate one among the trees, but the other he set up most conveniently right on one of our ranging marks—on a tarmac road, without a vestige of cover at 600 yds—a Vickers gunner's dream target—then proceeded to man it with a succession of crews as we wiped them out one after another.
‘After about four crews had been cleaned out he abandoned the idea and endeavoured to get [the gun] out by lassooing it and dragging it to the roadside. Another burst or two stopped that and it was not in action again during the day.’
Luxford's guns, farther east and north-east, had opened fire as soon as the troop-carriers had begun to disgorge their loads. ‘The bombers flew around and around for hours protecting these paratroops’—so it seemed to Luxford—‘until about 1000 hrs a further batch of fighters and bombers arrived together with more troop-carriers. These planes let go their paratroops behind me and on both sides of me, but did not make their way towards the drome in daylight. During the day we continued to fire at targets whenever they appeared.’
Many paratroops came down in 23 Battalion's area—where MacDonald's platoon and Grant's headquarters were located— and in 21 Battalion's area farther inland. Everywhere they were engaged with such devastating effect that two-thirds of a German battalion, including all its officers, were killed, and the survivors were unable to attack the airfield.
MacDonald's platoon was better supplied with ammunition. He did not have to give commands when the parachutes began page 95 to unfold. ‘The men without orders unlocked the pins, had the guns loose and were following up the paratroopers. Other targets were boxes coming down. We gave one a good dose and were annoyed to find it contained only rifles. An A/Tk Gun fell among us and nearby 6 m/cycles.
‘There were three waves after the first one and groups were getting established because we heard Spandaus firing in every direction. However we dealt with our own area satisfactorily.
‘Boxes of supplies seemed to land past the EAST edge of the drome and the Huns seemed to be making for them. So we covered the slight rise to the drome from the SE to the EAST end. We collected a fair amount of Hun gear ourselves.’
Nevertheless the enemy was gathering in sufficient strength in the west to press the attack against 22 Battalion's positions from that direction. He captured the western end of the airfield and also breached the defences near the bridge; but as long as our troops shared the airfield with him his troop-carrying aircraft could not land. Two Junkers 52 that attempted to do so met such heavy fire that they were forced out to sea again.
Smith's men alongside the airfield had ‘a pretty hectic time’, but held out until nightfall, when they found the place untenable and moved back to join Luxford's section. They did not take their guns, which were bolted to the improvised mountings, but removed the locks. As they were without arms, Luxford sent them back to Grant's headquarters, about 1400 yards to the east. ‘A stretcher party passed through my position just before these men got to me,’ he says, 'so I directed them back the same way. However, they must have run into some Germans and been taken prisoner because when I got back myself… they had not arrived, neither had the stretcher bearers.’
Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew,12 CO 22 Battalion, passed through Luxford's position about 6 p.m. and ‘told me he was withdrawing his troops from my left as he was being over-run and that he was putting a section of Infantry in front of me and that they would be in position by 8.30 P.M.’ No infantry had arrived by that time, however, and an hour later, when Luxford could hear Germans around his position, he decided to withdraw his section south to Headquarters Company. There he reported to the company commander, who asked him if he had page 96 received the orders to withdraw sent to him about half past eight. He had not. Later Luxford and the few machine-gunners still with him went back with 22 Battalion as far as Headquarters 23 Battalion, where they joined Captain Grant.
Grant found the situation far from reassuring. The 22nd Battalion had withdrawn from Maleme. Luxford had arrived with less than half his men. Brant was reported wounded and missing, and none of his men arrived before dawn. None of the two platoons' eight machine guns was brought back.
At nightfall Brant's platoon, still in position on the western side of Point 107, was very low in ammunition. ‘… both my guns were reduced to less than two belts each,’ says Gould. ‘I saw Brant (who was in an Infantry post some 50 yds from my positions where he had been all day) at dusk when we were first able to move about with any degree of comfort in the ploughed area in which the pits had been sited, and discussed the ammunition situation with him only to learn that the nearest supply would be estimated at 5 miles in rear through country unknown to us and in the dark. It was obvious that even with a carrying party from the Infantry, which was not even considered to be a possibility, that there was no show of getting sufficient up to the guns to make the situation tenable at daybreak.’
D Company 22 Battalion, on the riverbank, had been out of touch with Battalion Headquarters all day; the signal section had received a direct hit when the bombing began, and the runners Captain Campbell had sent to Battalion Headquarters had not returned. In the evening Campbell went out himself to see what had happened, and about 1 a.m. told Gould that as the battalion had gone and ‘we had been cut off for at least 12 hours, we could either try to march out with his boys or wait and surrender next morning. We stripped the guns and left within 10 minutes.’ Campbell led a mixed party of infantrymen, machine-gunners, RAF and wounded back to B Company's area, south-east of Point 107. They heard German voices on all sides, and found that B Company had gone, so continued to retire.
‘After a short spell in a wadi,’ says Gould, ‘we were stirred up by Spandau fire, and after trying to “get” the guns without success, Fowler13 [CSM D Company] told us it was each man for himself, giving us an idea of where we were to go. Jerry page 97 got on to the boys as they made their rush over the lip of the gully and was causing casualties. Anyway it didn't appeal much to me so I made my way out solo under the muzzles of the guns causing the trouble and after some anxious minutes receiving some individual and very personal attention, managed to get clear without any damage…. I heard that three of my section were knocked out here by a Jerry grenade but never found an eyewitness….
‘At this stage the boys were irretrievably scattered, one party took off on their own and ran into a patrol and were taken prisoner and others went off with friends to different units. I later located Coy HQ and took back what was left of the section and after a brief period with 23rd Battn we got to Grant just in time to start off on the hike back to the Canea area.’
The 20th May had not been so disastrous for the machine-gunners in the Galatas-Canea sector. Green's platoon, on Suda Island, watched the troop-carriers approach the harbour and then swing out to sea again; apparently this was not their destination. The aircraft could also be seen over Maleme, away to the west, and the battle could be heard very clearly.
Few if any paratroops dropped in 20 Battalion's area, but Kirk's platoon saw many troop-carrying aircraft and a couple of gliders, and watched the parachutes ‘falling like snow’ beyond Galatas and in the direction of Maleme. They also saw Canea being ruthlessly bombed. The ack-ack defences grew weaker and did not prevent the planes from flying a few feet above the trees beneath which the machine-gunners were hidden. 'Sometimes their fighters machine-gunning around us made us keep our heads down for half-hour periods,’ wrote Sergeant Philpott.
No enemy landed near Booker's section, farther west along the coast, until the afternoon, when ‘a few stragglers out of one plane parachuted down inland a little from us,’ says Hatherly. ‘The nearest of these met with a noisy fusillade of rifle bullets as he descended. We had up to that moment filled a passive role, and all were glad, I think, to be able to “let fly” at the enemy, even though the enemy in this case was so small in number—one in fact—as hardly to matter.’
Carnachan's section, on Red Hill, saw the paratroops drop in Prison Valley. The section moved to a position reconnoitred the previous night and occupied a trench on Wheat Hill over- page 98 looking Galatas, and at dusk, with sights set at 200 yards, was exchanging rifle fire with enemy snipers.
Heraklion and Retimo were still in British hands, but the enemy's occupation of Maleme airfield meant that he would be able to land troops, guns and supplies to reinforce his drive towards Canea and Suda Bay. Nevertheless the airfield could still be brought under fire by field guns (75-millimetre), mortars, and the Vickers of MacDonald's platoon with 23 Battalion. In fact the hostile reception given a Junkers 52 which landed on the airfield about 8 a.m. on the 21st must have persuaded the enemy that it was still too soon to attempt to land his troop-carriers there.
This plane had been about 1300 yards from MacDonald's platoon, which fired belt after belt into it. Six or seven men got out, and somebody inside seemed to be handing out a box to them—probably containing ammunition. The motors started up and the plane took off in the direction of the sea, but one of its wheels dropped off and bounced across the beach into the water. Another plane landed on the beach about 500 yards from MacDonald's platoon, which was ‘pumping everything from four MGs into it—it stopped in the shingle and nobody got out. The mortar people near us hit it directly with one bomb—their first.’ Later other planes began to land on the western end of the airfield, where they were obscured from the machine-gunners' view by hills—‘but the arty behind us lobbed some shells into the area. Eventually there were many planes on the ’drome—some on fire—and we were shooting at all and sundry.’
More paratroops had been dropped west of the airfield early in the morning, and some aircraft had also landed on the beach beyond the Tavronitis. Thus reinforced, and no doubt anxious to destroy the weapons—including MacDonald's four Vickers—which could fire on the airfield, the Germans advanced cautiously eastwards, and with strong support from aircraft, machine guns, mortars and light guns, probed against 23 Battalion. ‘Our chief concern became more and more one of self defence,’ says MacDonald. ‘From the hills south of the ’drome they overlooked us on the lower ridge to the east. The inf which should have been in front melted away and the Germans began to crawl up at us.’
This German assault from the west was not successful. The 23rd Battalion beat off all the attacks and withdrew only from page 99 the forward slope where the mortars and machine guns were sited, to form a new line above the old positions. At the same time two companies of paratroops jumped to the east of 23 Battalion, but most of them were killed by the Maori Battalion and a detachment of engineers.
In the Galatas sector, where the Germans, virtually hemmed in in Prison Valley, were not strong enough to attack, advantage was taken of a comparative lull to strengthen 10 Brigade's front. This involved moving one of Kirk's sections from near the coast to a position overlooking Prison Valley. The other section, under Philpott, stayed where it was, on the seaward side of the main road.
Kirk had been ordered at eleven the previous evening to take the section to a rendezvous in Galatas, from which he was to be guided to the headquarters of the Composite Battalion. ‘I was told that Major Lewis14 would indicate an area where my guns could engage at long range some Greek civilian prisoners who had been released and were working under the enemy trying to construct a landing ground in rear of the prison.’ Kirk reported to Lewis at 2.30 a.m. and asked to be led to the area where he was to place his guns so that they could be dug in before dawn, but three hours elapsed before he was taken to Wheat Hill. There he found Carnachan, and they decided to place Kirk's guns (which had tripods) in Carnachan's positions. ‘These were very unsatisfactorily situated in an infantry trench, but it was the best that could be done as the whole area was very bare and constantly under mortar and MG fire. It would have been impossible in daylight to dig new positions without heavy losses.’
While Kirk's guns were going into position they came under intense mortar fire and air attack, and the section commander (Corporal Buckeridge15) was wounded and had to be evacuated. This must have disclosed the position to the enemy, for whenever the Vickers opened fire heavy fire was returned. Nevertheless, during the next two or three days they engaged targets in Prison Valley, including five anti-tank guns, at least one of which was put out of action. The enemy appeared to abandon his supposed attempt at making a landing ground.page 100
One of Kirk's men, Private Delury,16 wrote on the 21st that it was ‘very hot and had a torrid sort of day, done a fair amount of shooting. Darkness very welcome…. [We] are in sight of the prison camp, which is now flying a Red Cross flag. We have our gun but nothing else, no spare parts, no spare barrel, no condenser can, but it is going like a bird.’ Next day: 'Still in our gun position, and plenty of action…. Planes had a real day out harassing and ground straffing, it seemed like the end several times. Heat and flies very trying. Rations not so hot but no one seems very hungry….’
The men not needed to man the two guns of Booker's section were given other tasks and spent some time with the ‘infantillery’, who Lance-Corporal McColl says were ‘crawling around in shallow trenches and getting shot at…. A lot of them had scooped out hollows in the sides of their trenches where they huddled because they had neither guns, rifles, or grenades….’
While one of this section's guns, under Corporal Paterson,17 stayed on the headland—where it did no shooting—Sergeant Bradshaw, with six men, took the other to Cemetery Hill, ‘a very lively spot’ just south of Galatas. There Lance-Corporal Laing18 and Private Gilroy,19 with the tripodless Vickers attached to the loop of an ammunition box, fought a duel with a German machine gun on the forward slopes of ‘Spyglass Hill’ (Monodhendri). ‘Their fire was effective,’ says Bradshaw. ‘I could see through my glasses two Jerries hit and the Jerry m.g. finally withdrew. Darkness descended. The local infantillery were busy conducting extremely local patrols. Some time in the dawn we moved further down towards the sea….’ Soon it became necessary ‘to steal rations in order to be fed’; rationing a machine-gun detachment seemed to be nobody's responsibility.
If Crete were to be held, it was essential that the Maleme airfield should be recaptured as soon as possible. A counter- attack by 20 and 28 Battalions was planned for the night of page 101 21–22 May, but because a seaborne invasion was feared—an enemy flotilla did set out for Crete but was defeated by the Navy that night—20 Battalion was not permitted to move forward from the Canea area until relieved by an Australian battalion. The counter-attack, therefore, did not get away on time. Both battalions met opposition all the way, but drove through pockets of the enemy with grenade and bayonet. Daylight overtook them when they were only a short distance beyond 23 Battalion, and despite desperate fighting they progressed no farther; a company of the 20th which reached the airfield had to pull back.
MacDonald's platoon, which had seen the flashes of bursting grenades between it and the sea during the counter-attack, now had only two guns in working order. These were well dug in, but the casing of the barrel of one was shot up, and a German damaged the other at close range. The position was under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, and captured Bofors guns at the airfield were shooting at the top of a ridge in the rear, possibly because the enemy believed there was an artillery observation post on it. ‘The shells usually skimmed our hilltop en route. Occasionally one burst on contact with the top of an olive tree.’ The platoon had suffered casualties, including two killed, and some men sent back for water did not return. No food had been received since the start of the battle, and ‘too many Huns [were] crawling about the vines.’
MacDonald therefore pulled back from the exposed surface on the broad top to the reverse slope of his ridge, where there was better cover from machine-gun and mortar fire. Here, with a party of Maoris, he awaited an attack which the enemy evidently was preparing. ‘We remained on the reverse slope with two Maoris on top watching. They yelled “He is coming!” and came back. The Maoris fixed bayonets and I jacked up a Spandau.
‘The attack began with a bursting mass of flame from the grenades the Huns threw on to the top—shook us a bit. Then they came over.
‘There was no order but we stood up and charged forward, the Maoris yelling at top. The GOUNS appeared to stand aghast. It was most exhilarating; I seemed to be as light as a feather. The GOUNS let out a shriek or two and the rest bolted down hill like rabbits, over stone walls, plunging through vines. Very soon the MGs opened up, together with the mortars, and we got back quickly.page 102
‘We stayed the night on the reverse slope with some brisk exchanges of fire; one fellow would have a light trigger-finger and start up the whole show—no sleep worth having.’
The failure of the counter-attack on Maleme had confirmed the enemy in his possession of the airfield, where he was now free to pour in reinforcements of men and material as fast as his planes could land and unload. Fifth Brigade was in an exposed position and in danger of being cut off, and therefore was ordered to withdraw to a line forward of Platanias and linking up with 10 Brigade.
Captain Grant attended a conference at Headquarters 23 Battalion about 5 a.m. on the 23rd when orders were given for the battalions to go back over the hills south of the coastal road and take up defensive positions by ten o'clock. Grant set off at once with all the machine-gunners except MacDonald's detachment to take up a position near the sea in rear of the village of Ay Marina. ‘On the way back to this position,’ he says, ‘we were under mortar fire and were hard-pressed by the enemy. Sniping was prevalent from all sides and several casualties occurred, one [Lance-Corporal Smith] being killed.’ They took up positions in the open and under olive trees, but could not dig in because tools were unobtainable. They experienced several heavy concentrations of artillery and mortar fire as well as strafing from the air.
MacDonald's detachment, reduced to about ten men, remained with a group of Maoris covering the withdrawal of the main body of 28 Battalion. Theirs was a difficult task, for the enemy followed up very closely. ‘DITTMER20 said that we would have to fight it out as the Huns were pressing or edging forward all the time. We therefore decided to fall back by the ridges—DITTMER left T. BENNETT21 and me to fire the odd shot and give the rest some cover. Left many Maori wounded behind. Then down to the creek ourselves—have a drink! Up the other side under the olive trees—Spandaus going in all directions. I moved up that side very fast with a Maori boy carrying ammo for my Spandau. Was nearly shot by my Maoris but established page 103 myself on top and fired back at the Hun from a small cemetery. The Hun was easily seen on the main ridge (22 Bn) and on our smaller one.
‘Formed up in groups: almost half a coy went round the bottom of the ridge. The rest of us, led by DITTMER, went back into the hills and round into the PLATANIAS R.—had Spandaus for extra automatics—shot up on one sunny spot by Spandaus in the hills, so left for an irrigation canal—then over the PLATANIAS R.
‘Went almost to the beach….’
Some of MacDonald's men arrived back in parties of two or three.
The main battlefront was now on the Galatas line, which was rearranged on the night of 23–24 May. Fifth Brigade— including some of the machine-gunners who had supported the brigade during the previous four days' fighting—was withdrawn into a reserve position between Karatsos and Canea; the front line, which ran southwards from the coast at Staliana Khania to Wheat Hill and thence south-eastwards to Cemetery Hill and to the west of Prison Valley, was held by 4 NZ Brigade (commanded by Brigadier Inglis) on the right and 19 Australian Brigade on the left.
Captain Grant's men reached the reserve position west of Canea about 2 a.m. on the 24th. They saw no ground fighting that day, but sheltered in their slit trenches while the Luftwaffe, with great ferocity, reduced the town to flaming ruins. Huge clouds of smoke swirled over the machine-gunners' position.
At a conference at Brigade Headquarters in the evening Brigadier Hargest told Grant to collect his men together and organise them into platoons. None of the twelve Vickers that had supported 5 Brigade remained, and only forty-five of the 100-odd men could be accounted for (ten more were found with 20 Battalion next day). Grant's men were attached to Divisional Signals, where Hargest could call on them should he want to use them, and were promised two Vickers and some ammunition.
By this time Philpott's section had spent about ten days coast-watching in this sector, with little to do except shelter from the strafing and bombing. When a hundred German prisoners were marched down the road towards Canea on the 23rd, ‘The few Greek civilians who are still living near where we are camped were very pleased at the sight of them,’ Philpott page 104 wrote. ‘Their houses had been bombed and machine gunned.’ Next day ‘a bridge about 100 yards from camp … received hell from the divebombers which attacked it in force, but without results, traffic still could pass at dusk.’
The six Vickers guns in the Galatas line were now supporting 18 Battalion, which had relieved Composite Battalion and was holding a 2500-yard front facing west between the sea and Wheat Hill. Carnachan's section, which was covering Ruin Hill and Wheat Hill, had its first casualty when Private Malcolm22 was killed by a mortar bomb. Delury, in Kirk's section on Wheat Hill, says ‘the planes kept us very low all morning, but [we were] doing some shooting in the afternoon, gun still doing a good job. A mortar has us ranged very nicely, and is too close for comfort. I think it is somewhere in the prison….’
In the afternoon (the 24th) Kirk took his section about a mile from Wheat Hill to a position near the coast road, where his two guns could engage any enemy attempting to outflank 18 Battalion on the right of the line.
Both guns of Booker's section had now left the headland. Bradshaw had his in a ‘vast cavern’ (a trench six or eight feet wide) on Red Hill; Paterson had the other in the Ruin Hill area. Bradshaw's position came under ‘extremely severe and accurate mortaring’ and machine-gun fire, which caused casualties among a platoon of 18 Battalion. Finding nobody there senior to himself, Bradshaw took the infantry under his command and towards dusk withdrew his men, now twenty-five in all, to a ridge about 200 yards in the rear (on Murray Hill), where Private Dalziel23 was killed by a mortar bomb. A few ASC and artillery reinforced Bradshaw's party. He went back to Battalion Headquarters and returned with the order: ‘Hold on at all costs as a strong force of our troops is coming through to counter-attack tomorrow.’
Paterson's gun and the remainder of the section were behind a ridge. Hatherly recalls a bayonet charge across this ridge— ‘and a little beyond I think—in which all took part. However the objective was reached without making contact with the enemy! This forward position became too hot for everyone and all withdrew to the ridge and its terrace on the rear side of the plateau. Saturday night fell with us all (18 Bn men and our gun and its men) in this position expecting the Jerries to attack page 105 during the night. They didn't though they were close enough for us to hear them talking…. During the night two separate attacks were made by our men from which the 27 M.G. men were excluded—being kept presumably in reserve. The 18 Bn men suffered casualties but failed to dislodge the Jerries. That was when I recall the vegetation caught alight.’
The Germans now had a powerful force on the Galatas front: two comparatively fresh battalions of mountain troops, the remains of the paratroop regiment that had been dropped at Maleme, and two battalions of the regiment in the Prison valley; they were strongly supported by artillery, mortars and machine guns, and apparently as many aircraft as the sky could hold. On the other hand the New Zealand and Australian battalions were a long way below strength, and the line was patched up with non-infantry ad hoc units; they had very little artillery and no air support.
The defenders endured a continuous drubbing from aircraft, guns, mortars and machine guns on the morning of the 25th, and this reached a peak after midday, when the enemy began his first probing attacks. Fierce fighting broke out on D Company's front, on the right of the line. The infantry ‘received a terrible battering from the German mortars and machine guns but held out as long as it was possible for them to do so,’ says one of Kirk's men (Corporal Pitcon24). ‘They suffered very heavy casualties before they were finally forced to retire.’ About 5 p.m. Kirk saw Germans on D Company's hill. ‘The guns opened fire and the hill was rapidly cleared of the enemy. Several of our troops had surrendered and were used as a screen—the enemy made them walk over the edge of the hill into dead ground. The enemy attempted to establish LMG posts which our guns successfully prevented.’
Lieutenant-Colonel Gray25 (CO 18 Battalion) personally led a counter-attack, but succeeded only in delaying the advance of a more numerous enemy. It appeared to Kirk that the hill had been retaken. ‘However as far as we could see no troops were left on the ground and the enemy constantly tried to establish himself on the hill. The guns prevented him from doing this—also the guns had not been located.’ One of the page 106 Vickers stopped with a bullet jammed in the barrel, and as the blockage could not be cleared, had to be replaced by another, but this also stopped through the same cause.
The gun sent to Kirk as a replacement was Paterson's. This section had withdrawn to Headquarters 18 Battalion at dawn and stayed there most of the day. ‘Sgt Booker manned our tripod-less gun and fired one belt straight through, spraying the ridge ahead,’ says Hatherly. ‘Gallagher26 … was detailed to take the gun to Kirk's platoon which was to our right down towards the sea. He was to rejoin us … at 18 Bn H.Q. but as that had been evacuated I went back there in case he was looking for us in vain. However he wasn't there—only two unconcerned donkeys! This excursion meant however that Paterson, Doyle27 and myself were delayed in getting back up the next ridge (beyond which was the road leading up to Galatas). This forward slope was under heavy fire….’ Doyle got back unscathed, but Paterson and Hatherly were wounded.
Not only in D Company's sector had the front been in danger that day; by 2 p.m. all the forward troops of 18 Battalion were under attack, and on the southern flank A Company was hard pressed on Wheat Hill. There Carnachan's section suffered several casualties, including Corporal Parker28 and Private Spurdle29 killed, and both Vickers were put out of action. Throughout a terrific bombardment by mortars and under heavy machine-gun fire Parker, in charge of one of the guns, had remained at his post observing and had repeatedly engaged targets until killed while using his field glasses to spot a mortar nest.
The pressure against Wheat Hill became too great, and when A Company and its attached troops began to fall back through Galatas, Carnachan's men were ordered to go too. Sergeant Kain30 volunteered to organise a party to assist carry in the wounded to the ADS east of Galatas, which meant making trips page 107 into country now occupied by the enemy, and while he was doing this he lost his life.31
C Company and one or two small groups were left holding the foremost positions in the centre of the line.32 One of these groups consisted of Bradshaw's half dozen machine-gunners and twenty or thirty men of Supply Company and 18 Battalion. Armed with three Bren guns, rifles, and the solitary Vickers, they manned four trenches on Murray Hill, across a narrow gully from Red Hill. About 8 a.m. the first Germans appeared on the crest of Red Hill, filtering forward in twos and threes, but snap shooting by the riflemen and bursts from the Vickers and Brens kept the hill clear. Mortar and machine-gun fire came from Ruin Hill (to the south), and there was much movement in an olive grove and a vineyard on the southern side of Red Hill. Casualties occurred, and by midday only Bradshaw, Laing and Gilroy remained of the machine-gunners, and about a dozen infantrymen and drivers. When heavy small-arms fire was heard on the right, Bradshaw sent a runner to find out the cause; he returned to report that ‘D Company are going out with their hands up.’ Later another runner approached from the rear and shouted ‘Get out if you can. The Jerries are all round you.’
When the infantry fell back on both flanks, the Murray Hill party was left ‘holding on at all costs’ on a precarious salient. Hostile fire came from their front, the right and the rear, and about 5 p.m. the enemy began to close in from Ruin Hill. Bradshaw decided to withdraw. He removed the lock of the gun, in case it should fall into enemy hands; Gilroy carried the gun and a belt of ammunition; Laing had 1000 rounds. The eight infantrymen—all who remained—filed along the trench to the right with the intention of making a dash to the next cover. Gilroy recalls that one of them said, ‘“I've come to the end of the trench—What will I do?” “You go over and we'll see what happens,” suggested another of the eight. In a moment they were all out of the trench, and in a few moments they were all shot down. All who were left, viz., Bradshaw, Laing page 108 and myself, crawled to the point where the infantrymen had started their unsuccessful dash. We were no sooner there, than we heard a commotion along the ridge—30 or 40 Germans were running towards us, shouting and squealing as they came. Sgt. Bradshaw gave the order to fire, but we were impeded with the loads we were carrying and could do nothing before the Germans were upon us. We were ordered to surrender, to walk out, and to put our hands up. We were in a hopeless position— we had no alternative but to obey. L/Cpl Laing was wounded during the few brief seconds that we were aware of the enemy's approach.’
While the three machine-gunners were being escorted back by their captors, a German came out of some trees and opened fire with a sub-machine gun. Laing was hit again, and collapsed when he reached the far side of Red Hill. Bradshaw and Gilroy bound his wounds, but had to leave him when ordered to return to the forward slope of Red Hill to pick up German wounded. ‘It was then that we saw the results of the snap shooting in the morning,’ says Gilroy. ‘Many Germans lay dead on the hill, mostly with bullet wounds in the head or upper part of the body.’
With only one Vickers in working order, Kirk's section was still in position farther north. At 8.30 p.m. he learnt that 18 Battalion had withdrawn over an hour before. Battalion Headquarters could not be found, and the runner who went to look for it brought back the information that Galatas had been lost and that the enemy was on the reverse slope of the ridge on which the machine-gun section was dug in.
Kirk therefore ordered his men to withdraw. While they were doing so they were assisted with covering fire from a platoon of 18 Battalion in their rear; apparently this platoon had not received orders to retire. The machine-gunners came under fire while crossing a forward slope, but had no casualties. They went back across country to the Galatas road, where they found that 18 Battalion had gone farther back towards Canea. Kirk ‘reported to Col Gray who advised me to remain attached to his Bn. I could obtain no information as to the whereabouts of the other section and Platoon HQ.’ Several men had become separated from Kirk's section. In fact, by this time men from most of the machine-gun sections were scattered throughout the Division and fighting as infantrymen.page 109
A shortened line had been patched up between Galatas and the sea, but there was a danger that the enemy, who now occupied the village in strength, might thrust towards the coast and cut off the troops on this flank. A counter-attack on Galatas, ‘one of the fiercest engagements fought by any New Zealand troops during the whole war,’33 checked any such threat.
This attack was led by two British light tanks. The corporal and gunner of one of them had been wounded, and Colonel Kippenberger, who hastily organised the attack, called for volunteers. Those chosen were Private Lewis34 (a machine-gunner), who took command of the tank, and Private Ferry35 (from Headquarters 4 Brigade), who became gunner. ‘There was a Tommy driver, and my particular weapon was the speaking tube,’ says Lewis. ‘We were given ten minutes to look the tank over and to get instructions.’ The instructor was Lieutenant Roy Farran, of 3 Hussars, who concluded: ‘Of course you know you seldom come out of one of these things alive.’
In twilight, about 8.10 p.m., Farran set off in the first tank; Lewis followed in the second. Behind them came the infantry. They entered the village and proceeded down the main street towards the square. Farran's tank was knocked out and its occupants wounded. The ratchet in the turret of Lewis's tank had jammed. ‘As the slit restricted visibility, I stood up in my seat. I got splinters in the forehead, my eyes were cut about a bit. I thought it time to duck.’ He ducked, but in doing so lost his grip on the speaking tube to the driver, who turned the tank round. ‘By the time I had found the speaking tube, we were back with the infantry. They cursed us a bit, told us what they thought. I got the tank heading in the right direction again. I don't think Ferry had fired before. Now he opened up on doors and windows, doing the place over nicely. I could see that through the slit. That's where I was. There's no doubt Ferry silenced much fire.
‘We went right on to the square…. but we were almost out of ammo, and Farran hadn't broken through, so we turned back.
‘On that trip we used up the rest of the ammo. Hell had broken loose down the street. The infantry was on the job. Our page 110 chaps were going through the houses with tommy guns, rifles and bayonets. There was nothing we could do to help them, so we kept on going.’
The infantry charged the square and went some distance beyond, and when at last the fighting died down only one strongpoint at the far end of the village still held out.
The troops had endured six days' fighting, with little if any respite from merciless air attacks; casualties had been mounting continually. So few men remained that a further withdrawal would have to be made if they were to keep an unbroken front. During the night of 25–26 May, therefore, the Division drew back to a line east of Galatas, which it held with 5 Brigade on the right and 19 Australian Brigade on the left; 4 Brigade reformed in the rear.
Captain Grant's party of machine-gunners attached to Divisional Signals had received the promised two Vickers guns with tripods and eight boxes of Mk VIIIZ ammunition. The ten men who had been located with 20 Battalion came back in the evening to link up with the main party. Very severe bombing killed Lance-Corporal Tozer,36 mortally wounded Lance-Corporal Morrison,37 and wounded one or two others. By this time, also, MacDonald was reported missing38—as indeed were many others. The whereabouts of Kirk's and Carnachan's men was unknown.
Philpott's men were still in the same place, where they had gone through the ordeal of waiting day after day under constant air attack. ‘No sabbath day, but another hell of a day,’ Philpott wrote in his diary on Sunday the 25th, ‘heavy bombs have been dropping all round us and machine gun bullets spraying the ground…. their fast fighters are on top of us before we know where we are, so it is best to stay and wait patiently in one's trench.’page 111
They had to wait another day. While Grant's party moved back early on the morning of the 26th to the vicinity of the wireless station south of Canea, Philpott's section stayed in what had become 21 Battalion Group's39 sector of the line. This was not a very happy position. ‘Bullets are whining over our heads, explosive bullets,’ Private Bell40 wrote in his diary. ‘The enemy are approx 400 yds away on our blind side. We can't get the gun around to fire on them. Planes are roaring overhead continuously. About ½ hr ago a dozen or so bombs were dropped a couple of hundred yds away…. This afternoon will be embedded in my mind for the rest of my days. Mortar bombs are bursting around our gun-pit.’ The line held, but could not be expected to last much longer, for the troops had reached the limit of their endurance. Another retreat was inevitable.
Philpott called at Headquarters 5 Brigade at 8 p.m. and asked Brigadier Hargest if his two guns could be used for some other task, and was told that all troops would be withdrawing at midnight to an area three miles beyond Suda Bay. The machine-gunners had no transport, but were to carry the guns and as much ammunition as possible. Philpott decided to leave soon after ten o'clock. He assembled his men and told them to take their own rations and to keep together. After passing through the ruins of Canea, however, they became divided into two groups, one led by Philpott and the other by Sergeant Cato;41 those who could not keep up the pace gradually dropped behind.
Meanwhile the small parties of machine-gunners still with the battered 18 Battalion had moved back to the Suda Bay area in broad daylight. Casualties had occurred in Kirk's section during an attack by four Messerschmitts, and by nightfall only seven men could be accounted for. Grant's larger group was more fortunate. His men moved at night and by 6 a.m. on the 27th were 12 miles south-east of Suda Bay. Although desperately tired and hungry, they immediately dug slit trenches with tools they had collected while passing through an ordnance dump. This was just as well, because an air attack, in which incendiary and explosive bullets as well as cannon shells were used, began about eight o'clock and lasted all day. Some vehicles were set on fire, but there were no casualties among the machine-gunners. They obtained food from a nearby ration dump, and washed and drank from a plentiful supply of water.page 112
It was now no longer a question of prolonging the defence with the hope that in some way Crete might be saved, but of getting as many men as possible over the mountains to the south coast, where they might be taken off by the Navy.
Leaving Divisional Signals—which was ordered to make all haste to Sfakia, the embarkation port—Grant's group joined 20 Battalion on 27 May, and made contact for the first time since before the invasion with Kirk's and Carnachan's very depleted sections, still with 18 Battalion. Grant's two guns, which had been manhandled from the other side of Canea, were placed in an 18 Battalion truck—and were not seen again. Kirk still had his guns, but only one was in working order.
They set off with 4 Brigade that night. The march was a cruel test for men already fatigued and footsore. The rough road zigzagged and twisted always upwards to a height over 3000 feet, and was congested with troops, sometimes in columns nine abreast. Trucks and ambulances weaved their way through these columns and disorganised units, and individuals kept falling out for water, or from sheer exhaustion. After marching for more than ten hours, Grant's men reached wooded country south of Vrises, where they rested two or three hours before continuing on in mid-morning on the 28th to the mile-long Askifou Plain. There, with 4 Brigade, they were to take up positions in an anti-paratroop role and keep the road open to Sfakia.
The parties led by Philpott and Cato had not been able to get in touch with the main group of machine-gunners; they had no news of their platoon commander (Kirk) or of Grant. Hearing that Crete was to be evacuated, Philpott sought confirmation at Divisional Headquarters, and was told to continue on towards the south coast. This the two parties did, walking all night and reaching the top of the pass in the morning. Food was scarce and they were lucky if they could get a cup of water. Their two Vickers guns joined the abandoned equipment strewn along the route.
Fourth Brigade was to guard the northern entrance to the Askifou Plain until the last of 5 Brigade had passed through. A Company 18 Battalion, to which the few remaining men of Kirk's and Carnachan's sections were attached, was therefore sent back at dawn on the 29th to hold the head of the pass about a mile west of Kerates. The remainder of the brigade, including Grant's party—now only one officer (Luxford) besides himself and twenty-two men—moved to a defensive position at page 113 the southern exit from the plain, where they stayed all day. They had no tools with which to dig in on rocky ground, but fortunately the Luftwaffe showed very little interest in them. Kirk's guns, which had been placed in an 18 Battalion truck, were still available, and the serviceable one was put in position at the southern end of the plain.
The last troops of 5 Brigade came through late in the afternoon, with the enemy close on their heels, and the 18 Battalion rearguard, some fifty men supported by a light tank of 3 Hussars, had no easy task holding out until dark.42 A German machine gun got in behind them and covered the road leading down to the plain, but was attended to by three 75-millimetre guns manned by Australians with the main body of 4 Brigade. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray and Kirk acted as spotters; they sat on the rocks above the road directing the fire and calling out corrections to the guns.
The delaying task successfully completed. 4 Brigade withdrew at nine o'clock to a bivouac area at the end of the road above the little embarkation port of Sfakia. The machine-gunners hid in the Komitadhes ravine until late in the afternoon of the 30th, when they made their way down the steep track to the beach. Most of them embarked with 4 Brigade that night in the destroyers Napier and Nizam, and after surviving several bombing attacks at sea, reached Alexandria next day. They discovered Cato and some of his section already at Amiriya. Luxford and five men, who had been detailed to remain behind when the main party sailed, turned up a day later.
Philpott was among those left at Sfakia who became prisoners of war on 1 June. The Germans bombed the village. ‘White flags had been flying since dawn, we were instructed to destroy our rifles and tin hats, then waited to be collected.
‘Prior to being captured we were machine gunned from the air while standing out in the open with towels and hands up. It was an appalling sight, repeatedly these fighters came in and put bursts into the large groups. The boys became panicky and a dozen or so were killed, with a large number of casualties.
‘We were all grouped together and supplied with music for the rest of the day.
‘The German officers were very nice to us and allowed us to do anything as long as we received permission.page 114
‘At 4.30 p.m. we commenced our long trek back towards Canea in file over broken beach tracks. Collecting large numbers of prisoners on our way, we marched all night….’
Lieutenant Green and his twenty-eight men on Suda Island, with their four new guns and plenty of ammunition, had survived the battle intact, only to fall into enemy hands at the end. They were very unlucky not to get away.
They had received reports on the progress of the fighting until, about the fourth day after the invasion began, the boom control defence tower received a direct hit and ‘went up in a mushroom-like cloud. We were isolated.’ The last report they had received had been that the situation was well in hand, but they saw flames at the western end of Suda Bay, and a few days later fires in the Galatas-Canea area. Small groups of men struggled along the road past Suda Bay. Three New Zealanders in a dinghy pulled in at Suda Island with the news that the Division was going to Sfakia to embark. ‘I did not believe it,’ says Green, ‘but they insisted.’
Ships were leaving the harbour; destroyers had come and gone. A Greek caique arrived at Suda Island with three members of a British intelligence group, who had been sabotaging enemy ships at islands in the Aegean. They agreed to explain the machine-gunners' predicament to somebody ashore, and returned late in the evening with verbal orders that the platoon was to be picked up by tank landing craft on the night of 29 May. Green's men left Suda Bay in the LCT.
‘In it we were to go to Sphakia and lay down the defence for the evacuation. The officer whom the sabotage group met must have thought we had more than four machine guns. We must have been the last ship to leave Suda Bay. All night there were flares; white, red and parachute flares over the harbour.
‘To my dismay I learnt that the LCT was going by the west side of the island. It was in German hands but the other way would have taken four days. Still the LCT was a very old job. It had been on the Libyan coast and needed repairs. There were two stops, one off Maleme aerodrome. Flares went up and we were shelled.
‘By dawn we had made the west coast and run ashore, were camouflaged and on shore well dispersed waiting for nightfall. But unfortunately we were directly in the line of flight from Maleme aerodrome to the Athens airfields. At dawn two low flying Junkers 52 must have seen the LCT for within half an page 115 hour two Stukas came over and scored direct hits with bombs on the LCT and, as we learnt later, another LCT further north on the coast met the same fate.’
The naval commander handed over to Green, who reconoitred and found that in the darkness they had landed on a promontory at the western end of the island. Their way of escape, southwards along the coast, was blocked by a crashed German plane; some men, armed with one of the plane's guns, were sheltering under its wing.
Shortly afterwards, at 7 a.m., a warrant officer arrived from the other LCT. His party—there were fourteen men in each LCT—wanted to join forces with Green's. They had no map, no water, and the sailors were badly clothed and shod for walking. The warrant officer wanted twelve hours to get his men over some very rocky country. Green did not want to stay, but agreed to do so because it was daylight and would be dark by the time the other party caught up with his. Shortly before it was time to leave they saw movement in the hills a mile and a half away. Germans were approaching fast.
‘We decided to run between the plane and the sea in groups of about ten, rendezvous and go overland to Sphakia, over the roughest part of the island. The other party never came up— they had given up the job.
‘In the dash some got through. Two sailors got to Sphakia, with the aid of the Greeks, and found the Germans there. The majority were caught as the enemy had come down the promontory on a right angle front and closed the escape route. Half an hour later it would have been dark and some may have slipped through with at least a chance of starting across the island for Sphakia.’
After the party had surrendered Corporal Adams43 was given permission to recover his great coat down on the beach, but unfortunately his action in running to get it was misunderstood by a German with a spandau farther along the beach and he was killed.page 116
The others were quartered for about six weeks at Kisamos Kastelli, and were made to do road work and unload ammunition and stores from ships and barges. ‘We had no option in this and were forced to do the work as at that time we were not registered POW,’ says Corporal Cook. ‘Later we were taken over to the main POW camp [near Galatas] which was in a filthy state, the sanitation being non-existent. After about three weeks there we were loaded onto an ancient Italian tramp steamer, some 1500 of us being crammed aboard like sardines, and taken up to Salonika where our troubles really began.’
At least one member of Green's platoon escaped. After about a fortnight at Kastelli Private Carter45 was taken to Canea to work in a kitchen, and from there was transferred to the prison camp. Late one evening he waited for a column of trucks to pass the camp and, hidden in the dust, slipped out between two vehicles. Next day he reached Meskla, in the hills to the south, where fifteen men were in hiding. With another New Zealander he made his way across the island to Suia, on the south coast, where they met two Australians. They found a 16-foot boat in a dilapidated condition and set out with a favourable wind and a blanket as a sail. They had to bail continuously to keep the boat afloat, but after a voyage of ninety hours reached Sidi Barrani. While they were hauling the boat up onto the beach the gunwale broke away.
Delaney spent eleven months at large on the island. ‘Hunger, dysentery, and a dislike of barbed-wire confinement’ compelled page 117 him to leave the prison camp. At night he and Private Collins53 slipped through the wire, crossed the road, and made their way on all fours through a vineyard. After pausing to eat some grapes, they walked for about an hour through the olive groves and settled down to rest until daylight.
They were well cared for in a small village about one and a half hour's walk from the prison camp, but as the Germans were searching for stray Allied soldiers and the Cretans who sheltered them might be punished, they decided to separate. Collins was recaptured, but Delaney took to the hills where the Cretans were visited less often by the enemy, and kept on the move from village to village towards Retimo. He and an artilleryman settled in a village near Heraklion; sometimes they slept in the village, sometimes in a cave. The Cretans were really hungry, but gave them food. Delaney acquired a taste for snails. 'Snails, regarded as a delicacy by Cretans,’ he says, ‘were a tasty dish that was frequently enjoyed. The snails were first boiled so that they would give off all of their slime. They were then washed and, still in their shells, dropped into a vegetable stew into which a liberal amount of olive oil was poured.’
Two or three times Delaney and his companion were nearly recaptured. They crossed the mountains to the south coast, where they eventually joined fifteen or twenty British, Australians and New Zealanders, and on a dark night were taken on board a Greek fishing boat propelled by a noisy motor and a large sail. The boat seemed to be under the control of the Navy, but the crew of three would not say. After two days and two nights they reached Bardia, where the rescued men exchanged their civilian clothes for uniforms before returning to Cairo.
‘All the men who stepped off the Greek fishing boat were in agreement that the Cretans had, by feeding, clothing, and sheltering them, shown a spirit that may never be found elsewhere,’ says Delaney. ‘Cretans who were caught harbouring Allied soldiers were either imprisoned or shot by the Germans, but even the fear of such reprisals did not deter them in their efforts to help the Allies in every way.’
2 The New Zealanders, including seven infantry battalions and divisional troops, totalled 7702; the Australians, 6540.
4 Green, who had been wounded in Greece, was evacuated from Megara beach, near Athens, in the Thurland Castle, which was bombed and hit at sea and therefore went to Suda Bay instead of Alexandria as originally intended.
8 Lt P. M. Hatherly, MM; Tangiwai; born Marton, 16 Nov 1916; student; three tines wounded.
9 On 14 May the guns at Maleme airfield had 16,000 rounds of Mk VIIIZ and four boxes of Mk VII; MacDonald had 22,000 of Mk VIIZ and two boxes of Mk VII; there was a reserve of 14,000 Mk VIIIZ at Coy HQ. By 20 May Kirk had 20 belts of Mk VIIIZ. It is not known how much Carnachan had.
11 Col T. C. Campbell, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Waiouru; born Colombo, 20 Dec 1911; farm appraiser; CO 22 Bn Sep 1942–Apr 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Jan-Dec 1945; Area Commander, Wellington, 1947; Commander of the Army Schools 1951–53; Commander Fiji Military Forces 1953–56; Commandant, Waiouru Military Camp, 1956-.
12 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–Mar 1942; comd 5 Bde 27 Nov–8 Dec 1941; Area Commander, Wellington, Nov 1943–Dec 1946; Commandant, Central Military District, Apr 1948-Mar 1952.
20 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; Commandant, Papakura Military Camp, 1946; Commandant, Central Military District, 1946–48.
27 WO II T. E. Doyle, MM, m.i.d.; Brisbane; born Wairoa, 21 Aug 1913; truck driver. (Apart from the time he was on furlough, Doyle served with the battalion throughout the campaigns in Greece, Crete, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Italy.)
31 A New Zealander who visited Crete in 1954 was told by a priest at Galatas that the Germans had lined up some civilians in front of the church when Kain opened fire from a nearby corner. The civilians escaped, but six or seven Germans and Kain himself were killed. The priest believed that the civilians would not otherwise have escaped death.
32 In Crete D. M. Davin says: ‘By holding on so long there is little doubt that these resolute troops prevented a break-through in the centre which would have overwhelmed Battalion HQ and might have carried on with even more serious results.’
38 MacDonald, still accompanied by a Maori, was completely done in for want of sleep. On the night of 26–27 May they found the enemy between them and Canea, so put to sea in a 14-foot boat. They sailed round the Akrotiri Peninsula, but were overtaken by daylight before they could reach the southern shore of Suda Bay, so hid on its northern side, where they were brought water by the Greeks but were discovered and captured on 1 June.
42 In this exploit the company, weak as it was, a single mortar, a handful of machine-gunners from 27 MG Battalion, and the supporting three guns, had held up at least two fresh German companies.’ Davin, Crete, p. 421.
44 The Germans told Green that if they ‘had not taken the high ground [Point 107] that night [20–21 May] the island could not have been taken and they would have evacuated next day by air and ship.’