III: The Eleventh Day: 30 May
III: The Eleventh Day: 30 May
May the 29th had been another good day for General Ringel. The advance guard reached Retimo during the afternoon and relieved the paratroops at Perivolia. It was then decided to wait till next day for the two tanks which had arrived at Kastelli before going on.
The 100 Mountain Regiment, meanwhile, after its check above the Askifou Plain, was content to follow up the withdrawal during the night and claim the capture of the empty plain next morning.page 428
SFAKIA, 30 MAY
Foremost in the rearguard which 100 Mountain Regiment had now to deal with were the three tanks of C Squadron and the Australian Bren carriers. Behind these were the 42 Field Company sappers, ready to blow the roads as the armoured vehicles fell back. At 6.45 a.m. came the first clash. About two companies of enemy with light AFVs appeared. The tank commanded by Corporal Summers at once opened fire. His first bursts had disposed of perhaps a dozen enemy when the guns jammed. He withdrew and Sergeant-Major Childs' tank came into action, but it was soon hit in the petrol tank and immobilised. The armour then withdrew behind the first demolition, which the sappers blew at 8.55 a.m. In this brush the carrier crews had helped the tanks by dismounted action from fire positions on either side of the road.
One Bren carrier crew now took up a second dismounted position just north of Imvros and left of the road, while another covered the right. The tanks with their longer-range machine guns gave covering fire from the southern outskirts of the village. The enemy took time to come forward, and meanwhile a section of Royal Marines got established about a mile and a half south of Imvros.
About ten o'clock the new position was attacked and the enemy moved in cautiously to within a hundred yards of the Bren crews, who held their fire, waiting to be sure of not firing on stragglers. Once sure, they opened up, doing a good deal of damage before they withdrew under cover of the tanks. The Royal Marines had in the meantime fallen back, and after about half an hour more the tanks were too hard pressed and had to come back to the vacated Marine positions. The second and third demolitions were then blown.
Even without the infantry support which could have given the flanks some cover, the tanks and carriers were able to go on using the same tactics and hang on until at last they were again forced back by mortar fire—though not before they had by a feigned withdrawal caught the enemy exposed on the road and caused about forty casualties.
The enemy now became more cautious and tried outflanking. But the armour held on behind a further demolition until a new move was necessary. The wounded tank could go no farther and had to be destroyed. The other two and the carriers fell back to a final position. By 5 p.m. the two tanks were fit for nothing more and Major Peck reported to Brigadier Vasey. Vasey decided that both tanks and carriers would have to be wrecked and left. This was done at 5.45. The crews left for the dispersal area.page 430
This coolly fought action had prevented the enemy coming up against the main positions much earlier and great credit is due to those who took part. In fact their resistance and the demolitions seem to have destroyed the enemy's stomach for a frontal advance, and Colonel Utz, early in the afternoon, began to call for dive-bombers and motorised artillery. The call for air support got through too late to be complied with that day; and the guns were too far back to be got forward till 31 May.1
The enemy was now right up against the main delaying position where 2/7 Battalion barred the road, with the Royal Marine battalion behind to give the defence depth. Seeing no promise in a frontal attack Utz decided he must try the flanks.
Here, too, he was to be frustrated. Vasey had foreseen that an attempt might be made to penetrate down the Sfakiano and Imvrotiko Ravines on the left and right of the road, and had posted 2/8 Battalion to cover the former and Layforce to cover the latter. When the first enemy party appeared, about 2 p.m., it ran into fire from the Australians and from New Zealand troops bivouacked in the neighbourhood. Twenty-five enemy dead were later counted.2
The 20th Battalion also had a brush with a party which seems to have filtered through from another part of the Sfakiano Ravine. Colonel Kippenberger had been ordered by General Weston to take his battalion down to the beach and bring back rations for the rearguard. Two companies had reached the ravine at the bottom, close to Force HQ, and two more were following down the hill when firing broke out from the north end of it. Brigadier Inglis observed through his glasses about fifty enemy with mules, a mortar, and several machine guns. He at once sent Lieutenant Purcell3 to halt the two rear companies of 20 Battalion and get them to return the enemy fire. Meanwhile Kippenberger was himself taking action to block the ravine and put some of his men where they could command it from the western shoulder. To effect these two purposes he sent Captain Washbourn, with A Company, up the ravine bed and Captain Fountaine, with C Company, up the cliffs on its west side.
3 Lt-Col H. A. Purcell, DSO, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Dunedin, 18 Jan 1915; seed salesman; CO 20 Armd Regt Dec 1943–Jan 1944, May 1944–Mar 1945; wounded 19 Dec 1944; Chief of Staff, Southern Military District, 1951–.
Apart from some mortar fire during the day which gave 23 and 28 Battalions trouble and forced them to change their positions, there were no further serious excitements and the enemy reserved most of his dash for reports to higher headquarters.
Behind the defensive screen the problems of the night's evacuation were being busily canvassed. General Freyberg held a conference at 9.30 a.m. which General Weston, Brigadiers Vasey, Inglis and Hargest all attended. He told them that four destroyers would come that night and each would take 500 men. The ships would have to be clear by 2 a.m. Both 4 and 5 Brigades were to go but, as room could not be found for all, one battalion would have to remain. The battalion to stay was to be from 5 Brigade and Hargest was asked to nominate it. He chose 21 Battalion.
… I sent for Col. John Allen 21st and told him, ‘I have to choose, John, your Bn with its attached troops is the strongest, you yourself are the youngest CO and the freshest … you have to stay.’
He took it like a man.2
The laconic note in Lieutenant-Colonel Allen's report suggests that this interview took place at 2 p.m. ‘1400 hrs. Went to Bde HQ. 21 Bn placed under 19 Aus Bde. Went to their HQ and saw the Brigadier (Vasey) who asked me to get the Bn disposed tactically. This I did ….’3
At the conference General Freyberg had instructed Brigadier Inglis to take charge of the embarkation that night, impressing on him the need to keep the beach under firm control. Inglis decided to use 18 Battalion for this purpose and went with Gray to reconnoitre the beach and the route to it. On his return to Force HQ he was met by Captain Morse with a signal from Admiral Cunningham to the effect that no more than 250 troops were to be taken off in any one destroyer, because the ships would be exposed to air attack next day and the risk of casualties on a crowded boat was too great.
1 Infantry Brigadier, p. 75. The figures given for the enemy party by Brig Inglis and Col Kippenberger are not necessarily irreconcilable. The original party probably broke up and Upham's platoon would have dealt with one portion of it. For this and earlier actions in Crete Upham was awarded the VC.
2 Letter from Brig Hargest. The account of the conference is based on a report by Brig Inglis which differs from Brig Hargest in some minor particulars.
3 21 Bn Report.
Inglis then went to General Freyberg for fresh orders. ‘He said, “You and your HQ must go. The C.O. and HQ of each 4 Bde Bn and 28 Bn must go. Hargest and the rest of his Bde will have to stay till tomorrow night.”’1
Brigadier Inglis at once dictated the following warning order, timed 2.25 p.m.:
Force H.Q. directs that the following Tps only embark tonight:
Balance of 19, 20 and 28 (Maori) Bns will be placed under Comd Lt-Col Burrows and is expected will be embarked tomorrow night.
H.Q. of each Bn must be embarked tonight.
Units will organise forthwith parties to be embarked tonight.
Orders for the move to the beaches will be issued shortly.
G. P. Sanders, Maj BM
The grim news came as a relief to Brigadier Hargest. ‘I obeyed with a light heart—no need now to ask Allen to stay. We were all staying.’2 He called his commanders together and told them that, except for 28 Battalion, the whole of 5 Brigade would have to stay another twenty-four hours. Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer at once objected. His battalion had fought the campaign as a unit and as a unit it should meet whatever came next, whether it was embarkation or being left behind. He spoke like a good battalion commander but Hargest had his orders and had to enforce them. The protest was overruled.
At 7.45 p.m. General Weston sent out a further order:
I propose to leave on top storey the following under Vasey:—
19 Inf Bde
21 NZ Bn
I should be glad if Comdr 5 NZ Bde would bring down with him for duty on the ground floor his two remaining Bns. The remnants of 4 NZ Bde under Lt Col Burrow[s] will be brigaded with 5 NZ and known as 4 Bn.
One Bn is immediately reqd for protection of western gully which has been giving a lot of trouble today.
1 Report by Maj-Gen Inglis. The author has not been able to trace the signal from Admiral Cunningham.
2 Letter from Brig Hargest.
Meanwhile more encouraging propects for next night's embarkation were opened by a message from Weston at 8.5 p.m.:
Shipping is being laid on tomorrow night for a proportion of fighting tps. Advantage can only be taken of this if you hold on to present positions tomorrow. Am confident you will do this.
The valley and heights on your left will need attention. Suggest at least one coy each side of ravine.
It had been a difficult day for all the battalions and they badly needed cheering news. Food and water had been hard to come by. All the troops had been tried to the limit and had then had to summon up reserves they hardly knew they had in order to face the disappointment of no evacuation that night, the doubts about evacuation next night, and the knowledge that even if it came they would have to endure between now and then another twenty-four hours with the threat of infiltration always present and a further call to battle always possible. But they acquitted themselves well in these adversities as in all those that had gone before. The spirit which had overcome exhaustion and carried the men of 20 Battalion up the steep slope to counter the threat from the flank, like the spirit which animated Lieutenant-Colonel Allen when he received his orders to join the last rearguard, was characteristic of all that was best in the Division in this campaign and in many another to follow.
As commander of 4 Brigade and as officer responsible for the night's embarkation, Brigadier Inglis was to get one more unpleasant shock before the day was out. During the morning engine trouble forced one of the four destroyers coming from Alexandria—the Kandahar—to turn back; and in the afternoon Kelvin, damaged by a near miss, was also ordered to return. News of this reached Captain Morse during the afternoon, after Inglis had issued his orders for the embarkation of 1000 men. Brigadier Inglis, when he knew, determined that he would make no change in his orders but would somehow or other get the thousand men aboard.
Daybreak had found the battalions of his brigade, like those of 5 Brigade, in their dispersal areas on the escarpment. Here 18 Battalion was now joined by its Headquarters Company which had hived off at Vrises to give flank protection. The battalion spent the day resting, a rest disturbed only by the necessity of sending B Company to the east bank of the ravine when the enemy's page 434 penetration threat arose during the afternoon. The 19th Battalion —now reduced to a strength of 213—rested also.
The 20th Battalion's only movements during the day arose from General Weston's orders about bringing up rations from the beach,1 and the operation against infiltrating enemy already described. It was while Colonel Kippenberger was in the neighbourhood of Creforce HQ that he received the evacuation instruction for that night. He protested at Major Burrows' being left behind instead of himself and was ‘sharply overruled’—for General Freyberg had expressly said that unit commanders must go.
Kippenberger was left to contemplate one of the unhappiest situations a commander can be confronted with: the prospect of having to move off to safety leaving some of his men behind.
… I went back to the valley and with a heart as cold as stone sat down to consider the position. I had 306 men, including the Kiwi Concert Party and 4 Brigade Band. I decided that the Concert Party and band must stay, which left about 40 to remain from the Twentieth. These were apportioned between companies and I told them to make the selection any way they liked. I decided that Markham should be the officer to stay but, when a deputation of subalterns came to point out that he was married and to push their own claims to be left, selected Rolleston instead. I had to turn down very emphatically some urgent appeals to be left with the rear-party.2
Meanwhile C Company had come back from its stiff climb. Captain Fountaine explained the new situation to his weary men and asked for volunteers to stay behind.
… There was a gasp and then Grooby, the C.S.M., stepped forward. He was followed at once by Fraser, the C.Q.M.S., and by Kirk and Vincent, the two sergeants, and then the remaining forty men. The N.C.O.s insisted on staying and after much argument lots had to be drawn for the men.3
At 3.15 p.m. more explicit instructions went out. The numbers to be evacuated from each battalion—230 men—were repeated. All those to be left behind were to come under command of Major Burrows and to expect evacuation next night. Those due to embark were to begin moving towards an assembly area near Creforce HQ at once and to be there by eight o'clock. Precautions were to be taken to ensure that only those authorised should go, and 18 Battalion's orders to provide a picket for the beach were confirmed.4
1 General Weston had given this order without reference to Brig Inglis, who had already ascertained that all rations had been taken from the dump by stragglers. He therefore cancelled Weston's order to 20 Bn.
3 Ibid., p. 75.
4 4 NZ Inf Bde Op Inst No. 13.
The 19th Battalion followed and reached the assembly area an hour after 18 Battalion. Seventeen men who had lost touch rejoined on the way and made up the authorised number. But there were others in the area who were not able to make contact. At last the time to embark came, at about midnight, and the men began to be ferried aboard.
The account given by Colonel Kippenberger is typical for the events and feelings of that night:
The afternoon wore miserably on, but at last there was nothing for it but to say good-bye and go. I spoke as reassuringly as I could to the rear-party, shook hands with Jim, and went off very sadly.
We had a tramp of some miles to the beach, the last part lined with men who had lost their units and were hoping for a place with us. Some begged and implored, most simply watched stonily, so that we felt bitterly ashamed. There was a cordon round the beach with orders to shoot any man who tried to break in. I had to count my men through. We were the last unit to pass, and on the principle that there is always room for one more, I bullied the cordon officer into letting me take Frank Davis, with some of Divisional Headquarters as well. I had Brian Bassett with me and just before embarking found that John Russell was in an A.D.S. on the beach and insisted on taking him also.1
Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer had made his preparations early and nominated the officers to stay behind. Company commanders were to divide their men into those to go and those to stay. Major Dyer and Captain Rangi Royal, both men who had already shouldered ugly tasks in the days that now lay on the other side of the White Mountains, were to command the rear party.
At 6 p.m. those to embark set off and dispersed on the assembly area under cover from harassing enemy aircraft. After dark they went down in parties of fifty, were checked through the cordon, and eventually went aboard. Typical of the pride of the battalion is the story of A Company's toilet that morning:
… on the morning of the 30th, by a pooling of resources the personnel of my Company Headquarters numbering, I think, seven, had all managed to change. One man had managed to locate a safety razor with an ancient well-used blade, another had sufficient water in his water-bottle, a third provided a brush, while my steel helmet was used as the shaving mug. It had been hard work as none of us had shaved for some few days and I think we all balked when it came to shaving the upper lip. The proportion of moustaches in the Battalion was high when we eventually reached Egypt.2
2 Report by Capt Baker.
The marching personnel of Divisional HQ who had been left behind the night before had spent the day in the Komitadhes Ravine. During the day Major Davis got authority to move 50 of his men and 50 from Divisional Signals to the beach in case there should be room on the ships. Fortunately for them, the ship commanders were able to make room for 400 more than the quota of 1000 and, by the intervention of Brigadier Inglis and Colonel Kippenberger, the whole party was embarked. By Inglis' authority also, it is pleasant to record, a number of wounded and the men of C Squadron 3 Hussars were also got aboard.1
With the last boat to leave the beach went the last of the 18 Battalion cordon and its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Gray.
Apart from Divisional HQ many other groups had been collected into the Komitadhes Ravine. Major Bull's party was continually increased by other parties coming in and was organised as well as possible in the circumstances. A member of the embarkation staff had told Bull that word would be sent when parties were needed at the beach, and until then he kept the area picketed. He also organised ration parties to forage for food—though they found none. On such a mission in the village Second-Lieutenant Allison2 was offered embarkation by a beach officer but refused on the ground that it was his duty to return and report. ‘This action had immense moral effect, since some officers and NCOs were already voicing extremely undisciplined and self centred views.’3
The magnitude of the refusal is not difficult to appreciate. For such a chance of embarkation offered release from a grim situation. These were men who, mostly from no fault of their own, had been cut off from their units and had done their share of fighting in most cases. They must now have felt lost, despairing, and unfairly excluded from the organised embarkation. There was little information and no strong reason to hope that the boats would come again or that, if they came, what had happened before would not recur: the infantry organised in their brigades and with brigadiers to look to their interests would be taken off; the troops from specialised arms or services, without a high-ranking spokesman, would once more be left behind; and left behind to the certainty of long years cut off from their comrades and the war they had come to fight, languishing in prison camps.
1 WD C Sqn. Force HQ also passed through the cordon to go on board the two flying boats which arrived that night.
3 Report by Maj Bull.
For the New Zealander, whose habit of seeing for himself and deciding by what his own spirit and intelligence tells him makes him such a formidable fighter, but also makes him impatient of sitting down passively to await for an undesirable fate, such a prospect was exceedingly difficult to bear. And so it is hard not to sympathise with questioning murmurs that met Major Bull's policy. On the other hand, that policy was founded on the discipline which makes men soldiers as well as fighters and holds them together in good times and bad. If we cannot withhold sympathy from those who grumbled we cannot fail to give it to Bull and those who helped him. The firmness and lack of solicitude for self which they showed is beyond praise.
There were still other groups of gunners and others from the former Composite Battalion who had missed the control point and had gone into the Sfakia area—parties with Major Bliss, Lieutenant Coleman and other officers. These found that only the infantry units were being embarked and Bliss therefore dispersed them with orders to reassemble next night. This was unlucky for they missed the chance which arose when the ships took more than their quota.
The morning of 30 May was made even gloomier for General Freyberg than it need have been by a miscalculation of the number of men taken off the night before. It was thought that because of delay in getting off wounded only 3500 men had been embarked, and this belief is reflected in the situation report sent to General Wavell at 9 a.m. In this Freyberg also explained the operations of the previous day and the position as it was at the time of despatch with all the troops withdrawn behind Brigadier Vasey's rearguard. And in another message sent about the same time he pressed for every effort to be made to embark the maximum number of troops, not only that night but on the night of 31 May as well. Then he discovered the mistake about the numbers embarked the night before and telegraphed again to General Wavell that the number was now thought to be 6500. It was probably after this, at 1.30 p.m., that he sent a further message pleading for one last lift the next night which would take up to 7000 men and expressing despair at the idea that these men who had fought the rearguard so gallantly should be left behind.1
In the hope that Mr. Fraser might be able to bring additional pressure to bear, General Freyberg also sent him a signal at 2.50 p.m. asking him if he could get more ships to take part in the following night's evacuation. Fraser's part in these arrangements is dealt with below.1
Further messages from Middle East confirmed that destroyers were on their way to carry out the night's evacuation and that flying boats would come during darkness to pick up Freyberg's own party. He was ordered to make sure that he came by warship should bad weather prevent the flying boats from arriving.
There was now little more that Freyberg could do. After handing over the command to General Weston he sent one final appeal to General Wavell: he begged him to do everything possible to provide ships next night for the evacuation of the gallant British, New Zealand, and Australian troops who had carried the weight of the fighting.2 This done, he had made his final plea. And he had done his best to get into communication with Retimo, though without result. There was nothing for it now but to wait for the Sunderlands to arrive.
At 8.45 p.m. the party to go back to Egypt by air gathered in the caves of the RAF HQ. It consisted of General Freyberg himself, Group Captain Beamish, Brigadier Stewart, and key men from the various headquarters. In due course the Sunderlands landed on the water, the party went down and passed through the entry to Brigadier Inglis' cordon. As it did so Freyberg ordered Inglis to join the party. Inglis demurred and was in his turn ‘sharply overruled’. About eleven o'clock all were aboard the flying boats, which then set off.
My feelings can be imagined better than described (says General Freyberg). I was handing over a difficult situation with the enemy through in one place almost to the beaches from which we were to make our last attempt to get away the remnants of the fighting force that still held out, tired, hungry, and thirsty on the heights above.3
But Campbell's orders were still, so far as he knew, to hold the airfield. He decided that he and his men must fight on. It could not be for long. The enemy was well equipped with heavy machine guns, mortars, guns, and light tanks. The defence had enough rations for a day only, were short of ammunition, and were outnumbered by troops who, compared with themselves, were fresh.
C Company of 2/11 Battalion from its positions near Perivolia tried to contain the enemy but was soon overrun. The enemy's next move was to advance along the main road with guns and a tank until they reached the airfield. Other columns, also with armour, worked their way into Pigi. The defence was virtually surrounded and the ridge which it held was being steadily shelled.
Campbell saw that he could offer no further effective resistance. The choice lay between surrender and escape to the hills and the south coast. The latter course would be impossible as an organised movement. The only clue to the evacuation port was Lieutenant Haig's orders to take his MLC to Sfakia. There was no guarantee that evacuation would still be going on. In such uncertainty Campbell could hardly commit his battalions to the hills and expect the Cretans, however loyal, to provide them with food and shelter. Nor could he expect to break contact in daylight, even if it had been possible with defective communications to organise such a withdrawal.
The same objections applied to withdrawal by battalions, with the added disadvantage that the force would be even easier for the enemy to dispose of piecemeal.
The alternative, then, was surrender. Before he decided to take that bitter course, Campbell concurred when the CO 2/11 Battalion (Major R. L. Sandover) informed him that he was giving his men the choice of surrendering or dispersing. So Campbell's 2/1 Battalion surrendered more or less intact, while most of Sandover's dispersed, some of its officers and men to be captured at last by the Germans, others by one means or another to reach Egypt, and all of them to incur a lasting debt to the generous courage of the Cretans who shared meagre supplies with them and risked burnt homes and slaughtered menfolk. So ended one of the most gallant episodes in the defence of Crete.
On 30 May the Navy had two forces at sea. Returning from Sfakia and the previous night's embarkation was Force D—Glengyle, Phoebe, Perth, Calcutta, Coventry, Jervis, Janus and Hasty—with page 440 the additional escort of the destroyers Stuart, Jaguar and Defender, which had joined at 6.45 a.m. On the way to Sfakia for the next embarkation was Force C—Napier, Nizam, Kelvin and Kandahar.
Force D suffered three attacks. The first was at 9.30 a.m. and put Perth's foremost boiler room out of action. The other two attacks got no closer than near misses, probably because the RAF fighter protection system was now working. Two enemy bombers were shot down.
Force C was less fortunate. Kandahar developed a mechanical defect at 12.45 p.m. and had to return to Alexandria. In a sudden bomber attack at half past three Kelvin was damaged and also had to turn back. No replacements could be got from Force D because of fuel shortage and the remaining two ships had to go on alone. They arrived off Sfakia about midnight and proceeded with the evacuation as we have seen, taking about 1400 men in all.