I: Force Reserve and 42nd Street
I: Force Reserve and 42nd Street
ON 26 May the enemy had gone on reinforcing. III Battalion of 141 Mountain Regiment had been landed and rushed forward to join I Battalion near Pirgos—the two battalions now made up Jais Group. There were other arrivals: the heavy infantry guns of 100 Mountain Regiment; the rest of I and II Batteries of 95 Artillery Regiment; more of 95 Reconnaissance Unit to join the part already in action towards Meskla; and medical reinforcements.
Orders had been issued by General Ringel at 9 p.m. on 26 May. Next day Utz's 100 Mountain Regiment was to push on towards Kharakia and the southern outskirts of Canea, with Ramcke's paratroops conforming on the left. On the right Heidrich's paratroops would also advance and conform with Jais Group on their right. Still farther south 85 Mountain Regiment would move on Ay Marina and thence to Stilos and Megala Khorafia. And on the extreme right 95 Reconnaissance Unit would be directed from Meskla on Neon Khorion.
The main emphasis was on the roles of 141 and 85 Regiments; for Ringel had great hopes that these two would cut off General Freyberg's main force. ‘Outflanking moves might take a long time, but they promised to gain us victory sooner in the end.’ And again, ‘a concentric attack was planned for 27 May, to tie down the main enemy force at Canea, while our forces to the south cleared the way east.’1
The enemy was of course wrong in thinking that the main force was still in the Canea area, though had it not been for Brigadier Puttick's withdrawal the night before this might have been the case. But Force Reserve was still there and was to have an unhappy fate.
1 5 Mtn Div WD.
The 1st Rangers, perhaps 400 strong, occupied undug positions to the left rear of D Company 1 Welch. Northumberland Hussars, under 200 in strength and also in undug positions, were east of the Kladiso.
Before dawn and after it patrols were sent out by 1 Welch and 1 Rangers to make contact with the Royal Perivolians. They found no one. Shortly after daylight aircraft appeared and strafed the force heavily but ineffectively for an hour. An attack on the forward positions followed. Enemy mortars and machine guns killed or wounded many, and the fighting was the more severe because the enemy had infiltrated the forward defences before first light.
To Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan it became increasingly clear that not only were there no supporting troops on his left but that the enemy was there instead. He therefore sent off his Motor Contact Officer to report to General Weston. The officer did not return and may not have got through.
After midday the attack had become so heavy that Duncan decided he could not with an open flank hold out much longer. He must withdraw to the line of the Kladiso. He reported his intention to General Weston in a message which seems to have failed to get through. In trying to carry the intention out, his companies came under heavy fire and some of them did not come back—either because they could not or because the order had not reached them. He decided that the second position could not be held either. He therefore sent Major Gibson—on whose report this account is mainly based—to take back B and D Companies, which had managed to cross the river, and form a line west of Suda.
Gibson's detachment set off and on the east side of Canea met 300–400 men—some from the other two units but many from all quarters. All these tried to get through to Suda but found the road already cut. By making use of all cover and taking offensive action when molested, most of them were able to reach Suda, helped no doubt by the enemy's preoccupation with 42nd Street.page 372
The other companies—A and C of 1 Welch and perhaps elements of the other two units—were cut off with the commanding officer. They fought on as long as they could, and at least one party of a dozen men under a sergeant, just east of the former position of 6 Field Ambulance, was still fighting next morning.1 An eye-witness account conveys the spirit of their resistance:
One incident was that of a Bren gun team. Fired bursts all day, drawing MG and mortar fire. Then must have run short of ammo. One man got out and in full view of the Germans walked 100 yds round the hillside —walked with no intention of hurrying though bullets were hitting the bare hillside. We could see every strike at his feet and above him on the slope. He got into a gunpit, emerged with two Bren mag carriers and walked back at the same pace—bullets and mortars. Then gun went into action again…. Patients cheered the inspiring sight.2
The main body of 1 Rangers had been attacked at 8 a.m. Eventually the enemy came round the right flank, seized some high ground and consolidated with machine guns. The left flank remained open. Thus exposed on both sides the battalion remained in position till midday when it got orders, presumably from Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan, to withdraw towards Suda. This withdrawal was carried out in small parties, most of which seem to have got through to Suda in the action already described. The commanding officer, however, the adjutant, and some others made for Akrotiri Peninsula, presumably with the intention of crossing Suda Bay by boat. They were cut off. On arrival at Suda the main body got orders from General Weston's HQ not to attempt to reorganise but to push on in small parties towards Sfakia.3
Thus the last resistance west of Canea ended and the way into the town lay open to the enemy. He for his part had appreciated by early afternoon that this was the case and so diverted 100 Mountain Regiment towards Suda, leaving the seizure of Canea itself to Ramcke's paratroops. This took place towards evening.
1 Reports by Lt A. T. B. Green and Gnr. J. R. Rowe.
2 Report by Capt R. S. Sinclair, then in 6 Fd Amb's old site.
3 The above is based on 1 Rangers WD. No doubt the survivors of Northumberland Hussars and 1 Welch were also ordered to make for Sfakia without reorganising.
4 Battle Report of 141 Mtn Regt says: ‘Supplies could not be brought up from the dump at Maleme airfield because the Maleme-Suda road was not entirely in German hands.’
The result was, however, that at a critical point of the battle Australian and New Zealand troops came under a commander whose experience was of regular British marines and who would have little understanding of Dominion troops and their special capabilities and outlook.
Thus General Weston cannot have realised that, if Brigadier Puttick thought the situation demanded it, he was quite prepared to take the responsibility of ordering withdrawal without specific orders from above—however reluctant he was to take such a course. Nor does Weston seem to have realised the necessity for keeping his subordinate in touch with his plans; for it is not possible otherwise to account for his failure to apprise Puttick of the result of his discussions with General Freyberg or, again, his failure to keep Division informed of the exact movements and timings of Force Reserve. To some such basic misunderstanding, increased perhaps by the fact that General Weston was a Royal Marine and not an infantry officer, by the extraordinary weakness of communications and by his lack of staff, and to all the standard difficulties of a battle in a state of flux, we must attribute many of the confusions of this period. Had wireless or line communication between Suda Area HQ and HQ NZ Division existed, the whole story might well have been different and many of the misunderstandings of the day would not have occurred. What in fact happened is the story of very tired and very harassed men, driven by extremely heavy pressures, and not fully acquainted with one another's difficulties and intentions. In such circumstances a certain strain between forward and rear HQs is inevitable.
At 42nd Street the line was manned by 19 Brigade on the right and 5 Brigade on the left. Some way behind, at Suda Docks, was A Battalion of Layforce; for Lieutenant-Colonel Colvin had been directed by General Weston at dawn to hold a rearguard position there.1 Presumably the plan was that the two forward brigades should fall back through this commando battalion after nightfall.
After learning from General Freyberg about 4 a.m. that Weston was to organise and command the withdrawal, Brigadier Puttick had gone on to join his own HQ at Stilos. General Weston himself was informed of this role about 6 a.m.
In fact, however, the special circumstances made it inevitable that the rearguard should be carried out mostly by the collaboration of the two brigadiers:
I was able to have little influence on the rearguard operations until Thursday [29 May], owing to the extreme difficulty of movement on the road, the difficulty of locating rapidly moving H.Q. and the fact that any D.R. who left his M.C. unattended for the shortest time had it stolen. The fact that the rearguard actions were efficiently and successfully conducted was due mainly to the excellent cooperation between N.Z. and Aust. Brigadiers and Col. Laycock.2
The 19th Brigade, having a shorter distance to go, had reached 42nd Street by about 3 a.m. The last of 5 Brigade did not arrive till at least an hour later. Brigadier Vasey and Brigadier Hargest reported to General Weston as soon as they arrived and then, with Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry, reconnoitred the territory. On Puttick's instruction they were to decide their forward positions in collaboration, and they chose defensive localities for the battalions as best they could in the dark. The units then moved in, the plan being for unit commanders to work out company areas as soon as daylight made this possible.
But this plan does not seem to have reached the unit commanders before daylight came. Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer, for example, had disposed his unit under the impression that this was to be a rest area and that there was a covering force out in front. Once his companies were under cover, however, he began to feel uneasy and felt more so when he failed to locate Brigade HQ. About 8 a.m. he met Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, who shared his doubts. An encounter with General Weston made them still more uneasy:
1 Brig Wills says that the searchlight unit of MNBDO was also there, together with the docks operating unit and some Australian troops—probably gunners without guns.
2 Report by General Weston.
The incident suggests that Weston believed that A Battalion of Layforce and the miscellany of troops in Suda would be able to manage the rearguard. Whatever its precise explanation, it illustrates the confusion prevailing on the front. General Weston, in spite of having seen General Freyberg, Puttick and Hargest, seems not to have grasped the necessity for 5 Brigade's presence. Hargest was under the impression that he had put his brigade into the line and that they knew attack was to be expected; and the battalion commanders believed that there was a covering force in front.
The battalion commanders, however, decided to act not upon their beliefs but upon their doubts. They found Major Blackburn of 19 Battalion and arranged to put their battalions into a defensive line. They also concerted the plan—to which the commander of 2/7 Battalion also agreed—that if the enemy got to close quarters they would open fire and charge.
The upshot of these arrangements and those already made by the two brigadiers was that 19 Brigade was on the right of the line and 5 Brigade on the left. The 19th Brigade had 2/8 Battalion from the coast to the left of the main road and 2/7 carrying the line on to the left. The 19th NZ Army Troops Company was in reserve.
On 5 Brigade front 21 Battalion Group held the right flank, linking up with 2/7 Battalion. The order of units thence southwards was 28 Battalion, 19 Battalion, and part of 22 Battalion2 Such an account, however, gives too schematic a picture. Units had become mixed up during the night march and the attempt to sort them out was not complete by the time the need for action came.3
In this area the first thought of each man was to have a wash which we hadn't managed to have for some seven or eight days and to drink gallons of water which had also been very short. We redistributed the available ammunition and managed to get some washing done as, by this time, our clothes were literally sticking to us. There was very little aircraft action here and the majority of chaps, always prepared to dive for cover, wandered round seeing who was still on deck and who wasn't as most of the chaps hadn't seen each other since the action started at Darratsos. Yarns were being swapped, washing was being done and bodies were being washed when, without any warning whatsoever, the enemy opened up with spandau fire from about three hundred yards1
1 Report by Lt Cockerill, 19 Bn. Other reports mention that air attack did take place. If so, it probably coincided with the ground attack or was on a smaller scale than usual. From this time on enemy air attack was less concentrated and less effective, perhaps because poor airfields, and the strain on maintenance staff and crews, were beginning to tell.
Apparently I Battalion had been working its way at an angle across the front, unaware that it was held. The companies, probably well spread out, bumped the whole line more or less simultaneously and a fierce fire-fight, backed on the German side by mortars and soon by strafing and bombing as well, broke out. The foremost elements of the enemy then began to fall back, with the result that they became more dense about the hinge of the two brigades and in the area of 5 Brigade.
Major W. V. Miller, commanding the right company of 2/7 Battalion, had sent forward a patrol to keep the advancing enemy under observation while he planned a counter-attack. He sent word to Captain St.E. D. Nelson, commander of the left company, asking him to join in. When the shooting started he signalled his com pany forward to the patrol and engaged the enemy. ‘It took a few minutes to establish superiority of fire and after this was effected the enemy broke and ran.’1 Nelson had meanwhile come up on the left and both companies charged.
On 5 Brigade front the plan already formed by the battalion commanders was at once put into action. Bayonets fixed, the troops charged forward with an élan almost incredible in men who had already endured so much. The Maoris took the lead, the units to right and left soon following. Captain Baker's account gives a fair impression:
… As soon as B Company clambered up the bank I waved my men forward and was able to keep them under control while section commanders got their men together.
The other companies were as ardent as A and B. Dittmer had difficulty in getting D Company back into reserve and holding on to Headquarters Company; while his Adjutant, his Intelligence Officer, and his RSM had already ‘got away to a flying start’.2
This example fired the units on either side. The two forward companies of 21 Battalion Group—Captain Trousdale's3 A Company and A Company of 20 Battalion under Captain Washbourn— ‘went straight in’. The reserves, Headquarters Company and 7 Field Company, as impetuous and eager as those of 28 Battalion, were off before Lieutenant-Colonel Allen could stop them. Fearing that his remaining reserve, the Divisional Cavalry, might do the same (and justly, for some of them did), he hastily gave orders that they should put some troops where the other reserves had been. Then he himself followed the advance.
The 19th Battalion, on the left of 28 Battalion, had D (Taranaki) Company forward and 14 Platoon of C (Hawke's Bay) Company. In concert with the Maoris these rushed forward, but found fewer enemy on their front and could not press on so far because of machine-gun fire coming from the hills to the south.
Accounts of how far the attack was carried and what numbers of enemy were killed vary. A conservative estimate of the former is about 600 yards. And whatever the exact number of enemy killed, the figure was astonishingly large—large enough to make the German authorities inquire afterwards into allegations that their wounded had been bayoneted. The 21st Battalion reported 70 dead on its front when all was over as against 21 killed and wounded of their own. The Maoris claim 80 killed on one part of their front against four of their own killed and ten wounded. The Australians estimated that 200 Germans were killed; 2/7 Battalion lost ten killed and 28 wounded. Over the whole front the enemy can hardly have lost fewer than 300 men, and I Battalion of 141 Regiment was virtually finished in this its first action.
1 Report by Capt F. Baker, OC A Coy.
2 'Statement by Lt-Col Dittmer.
3 Lt-Col A. C. Trousdale, MC; Howick, Auckland; born Canada20 Oct 1895; estate agent; commanded 1 Bn North Auckland Regt Aug 1942–Jul 1943; CO 21 Bn Jun–Jul 1944; comd NZ Adv Base Jul–Aug 1944; comd Freyberg Wing, 2 NZEF PW Repatriation Unit (UK) 1944–45; wounded 22 Nov 1941.
The experience was salutary. Colonel Jais decided that the prudent course was to keep clear for the time being of the wounded lion and take literally his orders to make for the head of Suda Bay. He therefore withdrew the remnants of I Battalion to the high ground along the road from Canea to Katsifariana. And in the afternoon he sent III Battalion forward to cut the coast road which its machine guns and the advanced parties of I Battalion had already been harassing. By the middle of the afternoon the road was cut, but patrols sent towards Suda were soon forced back by fire from 19 Brigade.
So successful had been the aggressive response of the two brigades to his first approach that even by nightfall the spirit at Jais' HQ was still far from offensive. Jais was worried about the gaps in the defensive front that he had formed and he had fears for his right flank. He was convinced there was a superior force in front of him— ‘This enemy force was launching counter attack after counter attack to restore its situation ….’1 And ammunition, because of the stand of Force Reserve, did not come up until late evening. He therefore satisfied himself by building up a ‘firm defensive position’ which, according to him, ‘beat off despairing enemy counter-thrusts with no difficulty’ before and after midnight.
Reports from 5 and 19 Brigades confirm the enemy's more cautious attitude, although mortars and machine guns were troublesome and 19 Brigade had from time to time to discourage infiltrating infantry—no doubt patrols trying to get into Suda.
The really disturbing thing for the defence was the sight of enemy parties moving across the hills on their left flank—presumably the left elements of 85 Mountain Regiment. One of these parties entered the village of Tsikalaria on the extreme flank of the 42nd Street line. This was going too far. A counterattack by D Company of 23 Battalion expelled the interlopers and was rewarded by the discovery of a dump of beer and gin.
The two brigadiers, however, were not at all sure what course was expected of them. ‘Neither Comdr 5 NZ Bde nor myself received any orders as to the future withdrawal of our forces, though we were aware that the whole of the garrison was withdrawing to SPHAKIA where it was hoped to re-embark.’1 This statement rather suggests that copies of the order for withdrawal issued at 3 a.m. had not reached 5 and 19 Brigades. It may be, however, that the order had reached them but that the two brigadiers felt the situation had been seriously modified by the elimination of Force Reserve which had been meant to do the rearguard, and that further orders from General Weston were called for. If Weston had intended to issue further orders to meet the new situation, it can only be assumed that he was not able to get back to 42nd Street once he had left it, because of the stream of traffic.
In the absence of General Weston they had to reach their own arrangements. During the day they found Lieutenant-Colonel Colvin, the commander of A Battalion Layforce, at Suda Docks. His orders from Weston were that Layforce should delay the enemy on the road to Sfakia.
D Battalion meanwhile was about four miles from Suda, and its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Young, had been sent out by Colonel Laycock to reconnoitre for a suitable delaying position. He eventually found one at Babali Hani. Young was also ordered to put a company at dusk to cover the main road where it turns south to Stilos. This seemed a bad tactical position and Laycock protested but was overruled by Force HQ.2
The two brigadiers, apparently thinking that the main body at least of A Battalion would cover their withdrawal through Suda, decided to go out that night, 5 Brigade making for Stilos and 19 Brigade for Neon Khorion, where 2/7 Battalion would guard the road from Stilos and 2/8 Battalion the road from Kalivia. To try and make sure of the turn-off from the coast road, Brigadier Hargest would strengthen the commandos there with another two companies.
2 Report by Lt-Col Young.
His mortars were searching blindly and collected a few of our men. One bomb killed two and wounded five Sigs personnel of 5 I.B. [Inf Bde] H.Q. who were sheltering in a slit trench. Though there was little food there was water in two good wells but these involved some risk as Jerry had his mg laid on fixed lines to their approaches and fired up the olive lanes at odd intervals …. The scrap raged pretty fiercely towards evening and Jerry advanced in mass two or three times on our right, but bayonet charges by Aussies on the right rotated him somewhat and firing settled to blind sniping again. The Aussie M.G's dealt out a fair walloping every time Heine collected as he was trying to advance straight up the road.
According to the plan 19 Brigade was to begin moving at 9 p.m., 2/8 Battalion first and 2/7 Battalion a quarter of an hour later. The whole brigade was expected to be clear by ten o'clock and then 5 Brigade was to move in the order of Brigade HQ, 28 Battalion, 22 Battalion, 19 Battalion, 21 Battalion Group, and finally 23 Battalion which would do the rearguard. Units were to begin thinning out at dusk in preparation for the move. And 28 Battalion, which was to leave first, was to pay for that privilege by providing the two companies for the stand at Beritiana.
The wounded were a difficulty. Since there were too few trucks to make a general plan possible, the units were left to do the best they could. The 21st Battalion Group still had a truck, and Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, to shorten the trip, ordered it to take the wounded to Retimo, thinking the road open. Fortunately Hargest met it and directed it towards Sfakia. The 23rd Battalion discovered some abandoned trucks, which two volunteers from Headquarters Company repaired under fire, and was thus able to evacuate its casualties as well as some Maoris and Australians. The fate of the rest must be inferred from Brigadier Hargest's words:
…. we loaded our wounded and sick on to lorries and pushed them off as far as we could. Poor chaps, little could be done for them but move them—the seriously wounded we had to leave.1
A curious incident occurred as 2/8 Battalion was about to withdraw. An escaped prisoner brought news that the enemy was aware of the intended withdrawal. The two Australian commanders decided to go on with their plan. But when the time came it was still fairly light and the enemy had become very active, bringing down a good deal of automatic fire. They therefore changed their minds and put their timing back an hour.
1 Letter from Brig Hargest.
As a result 2/8 Battalion did not move until 10 p.m. The New Zealand battalions seem to have begun to leave about the same time or a little after, except for 23 Battalion. The time when 2/7 Battalion left is difficult to decide. According to the second-in-command, Major H. C. D. Marshall, it left at 10.15 p.m. But 23 Battalion sources say that the enemy was pressing forward and making it difficult to disengage. In order to put a stop to this 2/7 Battalion put in a counter-attack, and as a result 23 Battalion was able to withdraw about eleven o'clock, its last company, D Company, still under fire from machine guns on fixed lines. The German sources, though inclined to turn the merest exchange of fire into a counter-attack, do something to confirm this story.
Eventually at some time after midnight all the units of both brigades had passed through A Battalion Layforce, Brigadier Hargest watching his men go past from a Bren carrier on the Suda road. They had a weary march before them, and to get an idea of it we cannot do better than resort to Snadden's account of how he and his gunner platoon fared:
Tired as we were, the thought of early relief spurred us on and we burned up the pavement of the excellent motor road which led round Suda Bay. Soon however we broke off on to a much rougher going and started climbing. Throughout there was silence broken only by the tramp of feet. Our greatest hardship was the lack of water and the fact that we could not smoke. Over the rise and down into a huge valley, the road getting worse all the time. At the bottom we see lights. These turn out to be burning stumps of olive trees which glow hotly in the breeze which fans them. What can have been the tragedy here? We strike a bridge just before we begin climbing again. A plane is heard overhead— ‘Keep still’. A yellow flare lights up the whole countryside and we are a huddled column on the roadway. How long does it take to burn out? It seems an age but it shows one thing—a well. The flare out, in we go ‘Boots and all’. To hell with planes. Two I tanks roll forward towards our friend. Up more hills and really we think we must be climbing the main ridge. Somewhere about 0300 hrs 28 May we doss down on a stony ridge overlooking the road and sleep the sleep of the just.
In much the same way all the battalions went on towards Stilos, 28 Battalion dropping A and B Companies—about company strength when combined—at Beritiana under the command of Captain Rangi Royal. As they arrived at Stilos in the hours before dawn they were put in position by the brigade staff.
1 Capt Snadden.