2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Desperate Fighting by Gunners and ‘Infantillery’
Desperate Fighting by Gunners and ‘Infantillery’
The climax of the struggle for Galatas was sure to come on 25 May; but it was slow to develop. The Luftwaffe arrived as usual; but the only immediate action on the ground was severe machine-gunning from Ruin Hill, to which the infantillery on Murray Hill replied effectively. Clark's OP, however, was rendered useless before dawn, since streams of bullets were coming right into it, and Clark and his two assistants therefore moved back 50 yards, taking their telephone with them. When morning came, however, the telephone refused to work and Clark could do nothing to subdue extremely heavy mortar fire which came down on the infantry.
The southern approach to Galatas also came under fairly heavy fire, to which the machine guns, mortars and artillery (F Troop, 5th Field, and C Troop, 2nd/3rd Australian Field) replied with some authority. It was held by Nolan's 4th Field company on the right, then Divisional Petrol, then Dill's 4th Field platoon, then Divisional Cavalry, east of the road, with 19 Battalion on its left. Some 370 Greeks under an English officer were in Galatas. The enemy was now so thick on the ground that even the erratic fire of F Troop was quite useful.page 148 page break
The New Zealand Anti-Tank Battery on the range at Lydd, Kent, March 1940
A 4th Field 18-pounder at Maadi Camp, early 1940
A 60-pounder in Libya, early 1941
A 4.5 medium gun in Libya, 1941
A 4.5 howitzer of the 6th Field, Helwan, January 1941
B1 of the 6th Field driving through Athens, March 1941
The 4th Field in the Olympus Pass
A spectacular 4th Field gun position at Olympus
Driving past Thermopylae
Tempting the Stukas: the 6th Field at Molos
4th Field shells bursting among Germans at Kriekouki
Paratroops over Maleme
The Askifou Plain from the north
The embarkation beach at Sfakia
4th Field RHQ at Baggush
A 6th Field conference in Libya: J. B. Hardcastle, C. K. Reed, J. V. Masefield, J. T. Stewart (back to camera), M. G. Oliver, Panaho Smith, A. J. Edwards, J. R. Prisk
A 2-pounder portée in Libya with Bren gun on ack-ack mounting
Portée action in Libya, November 1941
The few surviving 6th Field guns prepare to withdraw from Belhamed
Jack Spring (GPO of D Troop, 6th Field) and his staff have just withdrawn from Belhamed. From left: A. A. Jackson (47 Battery), Arch Forbes (Signals), Gordon Eastbury, TSM Alf Otto, Spring, Roger Rabone, Pat Foster
The 4th Field looks towards Belhamed, with 6th Field pick-up in foreground
Monstrous 210s shell Belhamed
4th Field RHQ near Belhamed. Major D. A. Carty in foreground
4th Field Signals Office near Belhamed
The bombing and aerial machine-gunning reached a peak of intensity early in the afternoon, making communications between guns and observers highly unreliable and straining the fabric of command. But the troops holding the line were as determined as ever and fought back fiercely. The first ground attack came against the extreme right at 2 p.m. and continued for an uneasy hour, during which more infantillery went forward to reinforce the infantry. An attack from the south met the fire of the gunners and Petrol Company head on and was enfiladed by Divisional Cavalry and beaten back. In the 19 Battalion area Sergeant Tavendale with a Breda but no mounting for it was given the curious task of shooting down a reconnaissance plane that seemed to hover overhead. His men fired a few rounds to test the heavy machine gun and then tried to rig up a makeshift mounting in the trees, but without success.
A pause in mid-afternoon ended with the heaviest bombing raid of the battle, which broke all telephone communications, and a general attack started against the whole front. After an hour the company on the right, north of Red Hill, was overwhelmed and the commander of 18 Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Gray,47 led a group of infantillery in what would have been a bayonet charge had they had bayonets. They could do no more, however, than impose a slight check on the enemy advance. Before long the battalion began to fall back towards the reserve position of the Composite Battalion on Ruin Ridge, though this had already been greatly weakened to reinforce the front. A high wind swept over the hot slopes of Murray Hill and made it hard to disguise the clumsy defences there, which accordingly came under devastating fire. Men of 18 Battalion and odd detachments of infantillery among them kept falling back, and by 6.30 p.m. MacLean, with his 4th Field detachment on the northern tip of Murray Hill, realised that the troops around him had gone, that the enemy had passed him on both flanks, and he was in grave danger of being cut off. He therefore withdrew to where 18 Battalion Headquarters had been, only to find it deserted. Continuing towards Ruin Ridge, MacLean lost several men wounded and was himself hit in the foot.page 150
One little party trying, Canute-like, to turn back the grey waves of German airborne troops, consisted of Second-Lieutenant Herrick,48 WO II Harding49 and Staff-Sergeant Kyle50 of the 4th Field and two NZASC men. They had been engaging enemy snipers beyond Red Hill and were so intent on this task that they were unprepared for hundreds of enemy much closer at hand. Kyle suddenly saw them advancing through the vineyards, and when he rose to warn the others he was wounded in several places. The two NZASC men picked him up and carried him back just ahead of the advancing Germans. They left him at a crossroads in Galatas and there he was later captured. Herrick and Harding were both killed.
The centre of the line, the southern approaches to Galatas, remained unbroken, though the collapse of the right threatened to outflank it. Carson's patrol went forward to strengthen the right of the Petrol Company. As they did so 30 Stukas bombed the Wheat Hill area, opening a gap which Carson hastened to fill. The infantry to the right had withdrawn, however, and the flank was being turned. The Petrol Company was ordered back and, with Carson's patrol and Nolan's two 4th Field platoons, they swung their right flank back eastwards, pivoting from the lower slopes of Pink Hill and hoping to form a front facing west to guard Galatas. It was a move which might have done credit to trained infantry; but it was wasted, as no troops remained to anchor the right flank and continue the line northwards. The various detachments therefore withdrew through the town.
Divisional Cavalry withdrew at about the same time, but Dill's 4th Field platoon remained between Pink Hill and the road, together with a platoon of 19 Battalion. Dill, a nephew of the field marshal, was made of stern stuff indeed. His men feared for him and with good reason. At the height of the attack he went forward to the foremost spur of Pink Hill to watch the development of the assault and there he stood, scorning to take cover from the machine-gun fire which swept the area. Sergeant Hill51 who was with him tried to get him to keep down, but Dill calmly refused. Hill swore at him, exasperated, page 151 but Dill said (as he undoubtedly believed), ‘If a man believes he will be hit, he will (be hit)’. There was no mock heroics here, no trace of ostentation, only the recognition by an instinctive leader that men in a critical and desperate situation will respond to firmness in the face of danger. Enemy swarmed among the trees and thickets below and tried again and again to mount the slopes and gain this key to the southern access to Galatas. The gunners thwarted every enemy attempt. The handful of infantry of 19 Battalion did the same, driving machine-gun crews from their guns with hand grenades. Inevitably Dill was wounded and Hill dragged him back out of sight of the enemy, where the crew of the solitary 2-pounder picked him up and carried him a little farther. Hill then went back to an RAP in the town, found it deserted, and returned to Dill, discovering that he had been wounded again in the meantime. Desperate to save his officer, the sergeant dashed back to get help; but already it was too late, for Dill was dying. The survivors of the two platoons, gunners and infantry, were by this time falling back from Pink Hill under overwhelming pressure and they entered Galatas, followed up closely but cautiously by the Germans.
The time gained first by the Cavalry, Petrol Company, Nclan's 4th Field platoons, and Carson's RMT patrol and then by the two platoons, including Dill's, which fought on was of crucial importance to the defence. Without it the measures being carried out to form a line between Galatas and the coast after the collapse of 18 Battalion could scarcely have been completed. The brave and skilful defence of Pink Hill held up a powerful attack, blunted its point, and kept the Germans out of Galatas until it was getting dark. By this time the defence on the right had hardened.
Another group of gunners, however, also made a valuable contribution at this critical hour. F Troop had kept up its somewhat erratic fire on the Prison Valley all afternoon, reinforced at times by the fire of C Troop of the Australian regiment, though this concentrated mainly on the right flank by the coast. There were also two guns of C Troop of the 5th Field in anti-tank roles; but this day neither could fire. One of the two, a long way west of the Galatas turn-off, was disabled by its crew when Lieutenant Gibson judged that practically all of 18 Battalion and the Composite Battalion had passed the gun position in the course of their retreat and Second-Lieutenant Francis arrived to say that the front had collapsed.page 152
Both Gibson's and Francis's detachments (the latter having ditched their useless Breda) were still determined, however, to do what they could to hold up the enemy. They joined the 5th Field armed party under Captain Beaumont and with him came under command of 20 Battalion, which was trying to plug the gap on the right. Quickly they disposed themselves on the extreme right, between the coast road and the sea, alongside two companies of the 20th. The other French 75, under Second-Lieutenant Boyce, had been facing Galatas village from an antitank position south of the turn-off. The Australian C Troop was little more than 100 yards away to the east, the other side of the road to the coast and behind the crest of a steep rise. These guns, able to bring down indirect fire (as Boyce's gun was not), had been extremely busy during the afternoon. Boyce was out of touch with the general situation and strolled over to the Australians for news of what was happening. While there he had to take cover from a particularly heavy bombing attack, and after it he learned that the Australian OP was closing down. Since the enemy was evidently getting close to Galatas and the neighbourhood was thick with stragglers, Boyce hurried back to his gun, only to find that the crew had departed. He managed to catch up with three or four of them and called them back. They told him an officer had ordered them to spike their gun and withdraw. Thinking Boyce must have been hit in the bombing, they obeyed—though in fact they had done no more to disable the gun than throw away the firing mechanism. Boyce was furious; but for the moment there was nothing he could do except take the men to see if they could help the Australian gunners. Major Bull was at this time gathering together stragglers and organising them into a defence platoon for the Australian C Troop. Boyce's men readily joined this and Boyce, who still had his binoculars, offered his services to the Australians. He was soon needed. Germans could be seen moving across Ruin Ridge and the guns were manhandled to the crest of the ridge to engage them over open sights. This called for Gun Control and Boyce took command of one of the guns. All four Italian 75s fired right into the enemy groups and drove them pell mell off the ridge. Another enemy party then set up what looked like a heavy machine gun in front of the ridge and not far from Galatas. Boyce's gunners found themselves looking down its barrel and their first round blew it to pieces. The Australian gunners rose splendidly to the occasion and worked furiously as dusk was gathering. Boyce page 153 was suffering from conjunctivitis, however, and found it hard to pick out targets. He therefore handed his binoculars to an Australian officer. At the very last flicker of daylight a large body of enemy was seen moving towards the turn-off, and the guns were about to fire when someone shouted that they were Maoris. A moment later it was too dark to fire.
F Troop had carried on as before, firing on instructions from Captain Bevan on Wheat Hill when the telephone was working and on registered targets when it was not. The line kept getting cut by the bombing and mortar fire and Bombardier Khull52 worked bravely and well to repair it again and again. Then Bevan had to withdraw when Wheat Hill fell and it was all predicted fire—though in fact somewhat unpredictable because of the need to improvise propellant charges. After dark, when the situation seemed to be in a state of extreme flux, F Troop ceased fire.
Boyce then learned that the Australian troop had orders to move back and he asked them to tow his gun to their position before they left. Collecting his men from the defence platoon, he went back, they found the firing mechanism, and the last gun of C Troop, 5th Field, reached the position of C Troop of the Australian regiment in working order but with only one round of ammunition, which was in the breech. The rest of the ammunition was at the anti-tank position. A large fire in Galatas kept flaring up, but otherwise there was no sign of battle and the neighbourhood seemed strangely quiet. A fierce engagement had taken place in the town at dusk and shortly afterwards, when infantry with slight tank support had counterattacked and driven the Germans back to the southern outskirts; but the only gunners who knew anything of this were those in a group of the 5th Field under Captain Cowie, which lined a stone wall on the northern outskirts during the critical last hour before nightfall and stayed there until ordered, late at night, to withdraw.
Lieutenant Clark from Red Hill also reached the Australian gun position in the evening and there met Major Bull. A new line was to be taken up next day by the New Zealand Division, running southwards from the hospital and excluding Galatas. Together Bull and Clark went back to reconnoitre positions from which F Troop and the Australian C Troop could support this line. They picked a site just east of the last bridge on the page 154 coast road to Canea—a bridge under which flowed the stream which passed the Perivolia transit camp. The Australian troop arrived first and went into position on the left. They sent back a truck to pick up Boyce's ammunition, which it did, only to slide into a ditch afterwards from which it could not be extricated. Boyce himself waited and waited with his gun at the former Australian gun position. When all around was ominously quiet and day was not far off, he heard lorries coming from the direction of Karatsos and learned to his delight that it was F Troop. Captain Duigan had a spare truck, the gun was hooked on to it (with the round still in the breech), and the one C Troop gun and the three F Troop ones were driven to the new gun position, where they were ready for action at dawn.
The night 25–26 May saw the end of the Composite Battalion as such and its story from then onwards was of small groups which became intermingled with the many other groups on the road, and in rest areas and some of the defensive positions that were created in the course of a general retreat, which had by now become inevitable. Most of the infantillery—Beaumont's group with 20 Battalion on the right, Bliss's group on Ruin Ridge, Kissel's of nearly 20 gunners with 18 Battalion, Nolan's and Dill's 4th Field men from Pink and Wheat Hills, a 5th Field group under Captain Hardy at Ruin Ridge, and Cowie's detachment at the stone wall north of Galatas—heard some time in the night that their destination was the Perivolia transit camp; but they did not all reach there by dawn.
Many gunners lay dead, dying or wounded on the Galatas battlefield. Staff-Sergeant Kyle, to take one example, was lying helpless at the main crossroads in Galatas, unable to move because of his terrible wounds. When the battle was still raging around him, a German wearing a white helmet and carrying a white stick came up to him, knocked his steel helmet off, and dropped a field dressing into his hand. Then, as an afterthought, the German turned back to him and asked, ‘Why you fight?’, at the same time firing a bullet which cut through Kyle's battledress and braces but did him no further harm. German troops then appeared in strength, firing profusely ahead of themselves. One of them came over and gave Kyle some morphia and another, after asking where he could fill Kyle's water bottle, took it and brought it back full. They put him on a stretcher and asked about the contents of various tins of rations they had found. Next day, the 26th, others came and took away his stretcher. In the afternoon he was put on a blanket and carried page 155 laboriously over Red Hill to the coast road and then driven by ambulance car to Maleme airfield, from which he was flown to Greece. He spent the rest of the war years as a prisoner.