II: The Tenth Day: 29 May
II: The Tenth Day: 29 May
The rearguards had been lucky to disengage successfully at Stilos and Babali Hani on 28 May. For, apart from the fact that 85 Mountain Regiment and Wittmann's advance guard were preparing to encircle the latter position, 141 Mountain Regiment reached Vamos during the afternoon and sent a company south through Vrises to take the Babali Hani position in the right flank; and 100 Mountain Regiment was also now arriving. It was fortunate for 5 Brigade, 19 Brigade, and D Battalion that they were clear on the other side of the White Mountains by next morning.1
The relative peace from air attack on 28 May was also something to be grateful for and may be attributed largely to the causes which had already been diminishing the enemy air effort for a day or so, though in part to General Ringel's infatuation with Retimo. For on 29 May Ringel's forces were ordered to continue carrying through the orders issued on the night of the 27th. The advance guard, 85 Mountain Regiment, and 141 Mountain Regiment were therefore to go no farther south but to push east and then north towards Retimo. Only 100 Mountain Regiment was spared for operations in the south where the true opportunity for frustrating evacuation lay.
With 23 Battalion covering the road in a strong natural position at Amigdhalokorfi and the two Australian battalions to the immediate rear, there was no immediate danger on the morning of 29 May that the enemy might rush the Askifou Plain. As a further precaution A Company of 18 Battalion, supported by one of C Squadron's light tanks, had been sent to cover the entrance to the plain about a mile west of Kerates. From here it would also be able to aid the withdrawal of 23 Battalion when the time came.
1 2/8 Bn and D Bn had followed 5 Bde and 2/7 Bn and passed through 23 Bn in the early morning of 29 May. 2/7 Bn was by now just south of 23 Bn. 2/8 went to Kerates; D Bn went to the Imvros area. General Laycock says the three I tanks had run out of petrol on 28 May. They were therefore disabled and abandoned.
A timed programme was issued. Fourth Brigade would march to the beach at 11 p.m.; 5 Brigade, except for 23 Battalion, would trickle forward from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. in small parties widely spaced; 19 Brigade would begin the march to its new area at 9 p.m.; the Royal Marine battalion (and presumably Layforce) would move from its position near Kombroselia at 10 p.m.
The orders also stated that General Weston's HQ and Brigadier Puttick's would both move that night to the beaches west of General Freyberg's HQ. And it was specified that the orders assumed that embarkation would be completed on the night of 30 May. Should another night be required, 19 Brigade and the Royal Marines must be prepared to hold the rear for another twenty-four hours.
Fifth Brigade expected no difficulty in carrying out these orders, unless in extricating 23 Battalion—the unit farthest from the beaches and likely to become engaged during the day. Indeed, already at 7.15 a.m. the battalion had reported enemy in the distance, no doubt the forward patrols of I Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment. This news was confirmed by Captain Dawson when he returned from 23 Battalion late in the morning; for, indefatigable as ever, and concerned for the shortage of water in the pass, he had collected every water bottle and container he could lay hands on in Sin Kares, filled them, borrowed a truck and delivered them to 23 Battalion.
At 12.30 p.m. Brigadier Hargest reported (still to Division, so strong was habit) that he had ordered 23 Battalion to begin trickling small parties to Sin Kares at half past five and was sending Dawson forward again at 4 p.m. Probably about the same time he sent further orders to Major Thomason who now commanded the battalion: he informed him of the whereabouts and role of the 18 Battalion detachment, predicted that demolitions would prevent a heavy attack that day, and ordered him to begin thinning out ‘about 3 or 4 o'clock’ but to keep his forward companies in position till just before dark.page 418
Dawson duly went up again about half past four and found that Thomason would have to be evacuated because of bomb blast and that the command had passed to Lieutenant Bond,1 the senior of the six remaining officers. The orders Dawson then wrote out were for immediate withdrawal to conform with the arrangements made at General Weston's conference. The companies were to move out in sections as covertly as possible and go to Sin Ammoudhari, where the wounded and sick—many had dysentery— would be left to wait for transport. The others would go on till met by guides.
The orders were welcome. It was very hot for the weary troops, unable to escape the sun in the baking rocky gorge. Rations were few and water very short. Enemy aircraft had been over and the prospect of bombs among the splintering rocks was not pleasant. And the enemy, about two companies strong, had begun probing, encouraged perhaps by supplies which his aircraft dropped in front of where D Company, with 16 men, held the high ground of Rogdhia.
Headquarters Company in the centre was able to begin pulling out almost at once. For the flanks it was less easy. D Company on the left lost a man killed. On the right A Company and Captain Snadden's gunners, who had the farthest to go, also came under fire.
We have to run the gauntlet for about fifty yards to a protecting bluff. I send the party off in irregular groups and we all get across but not without some ‘hurry up’. We pick up a trail of blood leading to a goat track that will shorten our march. Our lungs are bursting and our feet aching and burning after our long rest. The bullets are still singing past but now we hear a new sound. There is an Aussie Bren detachment in action ahead of us and without much trouble we cross the divide and are on our way down towards the sea covered with their protective fire. Going up was bad but coming down was ten times worse. New muscles ached and the soles of our feet seemed to slip and slide inside our boots. Our sox were full of holes. Many of us wrapped our feet in first field dressings.2
Nevertheless, thus aided by covering fire from 2/7 Battalion, the 23 Battalion men were able to get safely down and through Sin Kares, where they found some Royal Marine trucks which took them on south.
2 Report by Capt Snadden.
3 ‘I remember seeing 28 Bn on this march moving in broad daylight straight down the middle of the road, when most troops were taking cover in the trees or keeping along the sides of the road. They marched well and it was a heartening sight.’—Brig W. G. Gentry.
Fourth Brigade had begun the day with its units still scattered. The 18th Battalion was at the northern end of the plain, while 20 Battalion and Brigade HQ were at the western edge near Sin Ammoudhari; 19 Battalion was out of touch with 5 Brigade, having overshot its area during the night and—after some confusion which is reflected in 5 Brigade's orders for the day—returned to 4 Brigade command. And the 19 Battalion RSM, who had assumed command of the mortar platoon and had lost touch with the unit, after attaching himself to 18 Battalion, had taken the platoon north with A Company of that unit when it set off to strengthen the rearguard west of Kerates.
The 20th Battalion moved at 7 a.m. to a position at the south exit from the plain. Here it was followed later by the remaining companies of 18 Battalion, by 19 Battalion, and by 19 Army Troops. These units were placed on either side of the road so as to cover the approaches from the plain. Thus the whole brigade was now together and there was only A Company of 18 Battalion still to come.
This company, meanwhile, was waiting for 23 Battalion to pass through from the top of the pass. For so small a force the danger of being outflanked was considerable and it became more so once 23 Battalion was on the move. Accordingly, at 6 p.m., Brigadier Inglis called for the support of the three guns of 2/3 Australian Regiment.
1 Report by Brig Hargest.
This sturdy little action and the approach of night persuaded the enemy to prudence. At half past eight the 3 Hussars tank withdrew together with the rest of the rearguard, and lower down the road Gray was waiting with trucks for the infantry. 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.
With A Company of 18 Battalion thus successfully disengaged and darkness come, 4 Brigade was ready to carry out its orders and head for the bivouac area allotted to it among the rocks and scrub west of the end of the road. The move began at 9 p.m. with 20 Battalion and Brigade HQ leading, 19 Battalion and 19 Army Troops following, and 18 Battalion bringing up the rear. The march was arduous and a way had to be forced through the stragglers who thronged the road. It was near daylight before the units reached the spot where the formed road ended and the steep goat track down to the beaches began. At this point the men lay down to seek what comfort weariness could give them among the stones.
To Brigadier Vasey fell the grim task of organising the last rearguard. Besides his own two battalions he had under command the Royal Marine battalion, the three guns, a platoon of 2/1 MG Battalion with two guns, the four tanks of 3 Hussars,2 and three Australian Bren carriers. The tanks and carriers were to delay the enemy as long as possible in front of the defence line and then fall back, the sappers of 42 Field Company RE blowing the road behind them.3
1 Letter from Lt-Col Gray, 24 Jul 1941. The troop had still, however, a few shells left and this was not its last action. See p. 441. General Inglis' recollection of the range (Nov 1952) is 1400 yards.
2 The tank that had been with A Coy 18 Bn now reverted to command. But the tanks were soon to be reduced to three again as the squadron leader's tank broke down at 9 p.m.
The withdrawal from the north was safely carried through, though 2/8 Battalion at least could see enemy trucks and motor cycles coming down the pass towards them from Kerates as they moved out. The move to the new positions was greatly hampered by the stragglers on the road who, ironically enough, suspected that these men who were to cover the final stages of withdrawal were stealing a march to get to the boats. It was after three in the morning before they could occupy their positions, with 2/7 Battalion forward, 2/8 Battalion guarding the deep wadi on the left of the road, and the Royal Marines in reserve.
By the morning of 29 May the greater part of the New Zealand artillery and other components of the Composite Battalion who had managed to get across the mountains were scattered along the road from the Askifou Plain southwards. Many—indeed most— of them were organised in small groups under their officers or NCOs; but they were directionless and without orders and threatened to be a serious impediment to the movement of the larger units. To Major Bull belongs the main share of credit for ending this state of affairs. On his own initiative he soon had an organisation going by which the men were got off the roads, sorted into manageable parties, and assembled under fairly good control in the ravine by Komitadhes. There he arranged pickets and got the officers to prepare nominal rolls. Ultimately all sorts of units were represented and the numbers rose to over 3000. The problem of finding rations for such large numbers was not easy but was tackled, and eventually an issue of bully beef from rations dumped on the beach was arranged—three tins per group of fifty men.
Apart from the MDS at Imvros—which handled 94 of the serious cases in the 24 hours that it was open—there were by now several collecting posts for walking wounded, and British, Australian, and New Zealand medical officers and orderlies had their hands full with the problems of caring for patients, finding rations, and organising the onward transmission of wounded to the collecting post at the end of the road. But by nightfall most of the collecting posts page 423 along the road had been cleared and the majority of the 500-odd patients were moving towards or already at the point where they were being concentrated for the final move to the ships. With each party of fifty wounded went a medical officer and five orderlies. Even this turned out to be not enough, so hard and painful was the track.
The preoccupations of General Weston's HQ and Brigadier Puttick's are implicit in what has already been said about the conferences held and the orders issued on this day. Both were much taken up with the superintendence of the various moves of large masses of men in a space continually more confined; and in addition there was much to be done in connection with the arrangements for that night's embarkation.
For Divisional HQ something more was involved. Now that all the forces of the rearguard were close enough together to be susceptible of control and Weston was able for the first time to exercise the authority he had been given when withdrawal was first ordered, there was nothing further for Puttick and his staff to do, and General Freyberg thought it pointless for them to remain. He therefore sent orders during the day for Puttick to report to Creforce HQ and for Divisional HQ to embark that night.
In obedience to this order the senior officers set off at 5 p.m. Puttick and Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry went straight to Force HQ and reported there at 7.45. Major Davis,1 the GSO 2, and General Puttick's ADC waited at the control point on top of the escarpment to meet the marching troops of the HQ who did not leave till 7 p.m.
By a quarter to nine this marching party had reached the control point. There they found that the delay caused by the attentions of enemy aircraft and the crowds of stragglers had cost them their passage that night. Those already on the beach and organised for embarkation made up the quota the ships could take. There was nothing for it but to go to the Imvrotiko Ravine and join there the crowds of troops whom Major Bull and the officers with him were still struggling to organise.
Puttick and Gentry meanwhile had stayed at Creforce HQ until 9 p.m. and then gone down to the beach with several officers from Creforce staff. When the time came to embark they did so, all unaware that their own marching party had been delayed and had failed to get aboard.
For the garrison at Retimo this was a sombre day. About 8 a.m. the naval detachment which had been operating the wireless reported that both Canea and Heraklion had gone off the air and, although contact was gained during the day with Alexandria, there was no information to be had, presumably because of security difficulties and the absence of ciphers. The few cases of ammunition and chocolate dropped by aircraft from Egypt at first light were of little help—especially as they were mostly smashed in landing.1
In the evening parties of enemy were seen. At half past nine the Greeks reported about a thousand Germans closing in on the right flank and rear. Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell ordered them to hold on, but against this opposition they were unable to do so and by 11 p.m. had had to withdraw. The 2/11 Battalion was then ordered east to replace them, leaving a company in its old positions, and was on the move till dawn. Midnight brought further reports that about 300 enemy on motor cycles had entered Retimo from the west during the afternoon. Rations were due to run out next day. No message or supplies had come from Heraklion although the road was thought to have been clear during the earlier part of the day. There was no communication with Creforce. Signals made to sea in the hope that naval forces might appear brought no result. The prospect for the next day was grim.
Less than half an hour after the convoy of ships evacuating the Heraklion garrison had put to sea there was a failure in the steering gear of the Imperial, caused no doubt by a near miss from a bomb the day before. The commander of the squadron decided that the only chance was to have Hotspur take off her troops and sink her, if the squadron was to get as far south as possible before daylight. By 4.45 a.m. this had been done and just after daylight Hotspur, with 900 men on board, rejoined the squadron.
The squadron was now an hour and a half behind time and it was sunrise before it could turn south through the Kaso Strait. At 6 a.m. the air attacks began. They were not to stop till 3 p.m., when the squadron was only 100 miles from Alexandria.
1 No dropped messages seem to have been found.
Arrangements had been made for fighter cover from the Kaso Strait onward and the time had been corrected to allow for the delay. But though the fighters appear to have come at the right time they did not find the ships.
By 7 a.m. Decoy and Orion had both been damaged and the speed of the squadron reduced to 21 knots. At last at noon two naval Fulmar fighters found it. But already the damage was serious. The captain of the Orion had been mortally wounded. Dido and Orion had both been hit, Orion twice. Both had a turret out of action and Orion's lower conning tower was also gone; and there had been heavy casualties among the packed troops on board.
Other attacks followed in the afternoon but none so dangerous. And at 8 p.m. the ships reached Alexandria, Orion with only ten tons of fuel left and two rounds of 6-inch HE ammunition.
At Creforce HQ the Retimo garrison was still causing General Freyberg great anxiety. During the morning Middle East reported that it had so far been unable to get contact with Retimo but that it was dropping a message by air. This message began by explaining that it was too dangerous to send anything in clear and it then lapsed into code, of which the effect was probably that the garrison should go south to Plaka Bay. Creforce was asked to relay this, if possible, to make assurance doubly sure.
To this Freyberg replied that he had no communications with Retimo and that he doubted if this message would be understood. He suggested that another aircraft be sent to reconnoitre for the force and drop another message. He then gave a code version of a suitable message to the effect that a warship would arrive for them on 31 May.1
This message was indeed sent by Hurricane. The Hurricane did not return and so it was not known whether or not the message had been received. It had not. Freyberg's worry is reflected in his report that day on the recent developments. After describing the loss of Force Reserve, the defence of 42nd Street and the subsequent withdrawal actions, and reckoning the effective strength of his brigades at less than 700, he went on: ‘Am anxious regarding Retimo garrison and will be grateful if you can assure me if orders for their withdrawal have reached them from GHQ ME. Also would welcome ME information regarding Heraklion.’2page 426
That evening Freyberg received orders for his own evacuation. ‘You yourself will return to Egypt first opportunity.’1 As he had not yet made his plans to hand over to General Weston and was anxious not to leave his men until the last possible moment, he decided not to take this too literally. He would wait till next day.
In Egypt there were conflicting views about how many men were still to be taken off and how much risk should be taken in the attempt. Captain Morse had signalled from Creforce on 28 May that anything up to 10,000 troops would be ready to embark on the night of 29–30 May. From this and from Freyberg's message about the tactical situation—the one saying that an optimistic view of the number of fighting troops he had would be 2000—it wa finally inferred that 10,000 would still have to be embarked and that only 2000 of these would be in organised parties.2
The other question was graver. During the day Admiral Cunningham, Air Marshal Tedder and General Blamey conferred and concluded that the danger was too great for more Glen ships or cruisers to be risked but that destroyers would keep on trying till the night of 30 May. They would send or try to send four destroyers that night. But it would be the last.3
A message sent to the Admiralty by Admiral Cunningham at 1.5 p.m. gives the background of this decision. The Admiral explains that his losses for the preceding day and till noon of this were three cruisers and a destroyer damaged, of which the last should probably be reckoned lost; that the force which had had these casualties had probably evacuated 4000 men from Heraklion, to whom there had been 500 casualties; that the force carrying out the preceding night's evacuation from Sfakia was being bombed at the time of signalling; that a Glen ship (Glengyle) and cruisers were due that night at Sfakia to take off 6000 more and were already being shadowed by enemy aircraft; and that with meagre air protection further casualties to men and ships would have to be expected next day. The question had to be faced whether it was worth while to go on evacuating men in close-packed ships which were bound to be heavily bombed; and whether it was justifiable to go on accepting a scale of loss and damage to the Fleet which might, if continued, render it incapable of operating.
The message was discussed that day by the Defence Committee and alarmed its members enough to make them signal Cunningham that he should turn back Glengyle, though letting the other ships go on. The signal reached Cunningham too late for a change of plan and he telegraphed back accordingly. He added that he hoped for better fighter protection next day and was sending three extra destroyers for escort though not for convoy. This was approved.2
The three extra destroyers—Stuart, Jaguar and Defender—left that evening to escort the returning convoy next day and to help by taking off troops from any ship damaged. Moreover, the evidenc from officers by now evacuated indicated that a further attempt next night would be worth while; and so it was decided to send four more destroyers for the night of 30 May.
Meanwhile the ships which had left Alexandria the night before —Glengyle, Phoebe, Perth, Calcutta, Coventry, Jervis, Janus and Hasty—after a single and unsuccessful attack by a bomber during the morning, arrived off Sfakia about half an hour before midnight on the night of 29 May.
The ferrying of troops by means of the Glengyle's landing craft and two assault landing craft brought by the Perth then began. By 3.20 a.m. about 6000 men were aboard and the convoy sailed for Alexandria.
1 C-in-C Med to Admiralty, 1.5 p.m., 29 May; Admiral Cunningham's Despatch.
2 DO (41) 36; Admiralty to C-in-C Med, 7 p.m., 29 May; C-in-C Med to Admiralty, 9.47 p.m., 29 May; Admiralty to C-in-C Med, 1.5 a.m., 30 May; Admiral Cunningham's Despatch.