IV: The Twelfth Day: 31 May
IV: The Twelfth Day: 31 May
By the end of 30 May, except for the Sfakia rearguard, all organised resistance on Crete had ended. For news of operations against that rearguard General Ringel depended on liaison officers from Colonel Utz, wireless communication having been outrun. And when a liaison officer finally got through, late in the afternoon of 30 May, his news was not particularly stimulating: 100 Mountain Regiment was held up about five kilometres from the coast and heavily engaged. Outflanking movements were being tried.
Utz considered his position difficult. Deciding that day against frontal attack—for in this he showed himself throughout a Ringel disciple and here had good occasion—he had sent two companies through Lakkoi to attack Point 798 on the west of the road and another company east of the road to seize Point 892. The western thrust ‘could not be completed on 30 May because of the unusually difficult going and the steep hills to be negotiated.’1 The encounter with Australian and New Zealand troops already described amplifies the explanation.
1 Report by 100 Mtn Regt.
Meanwhile the company of I Battalion sent east on 30 May had reached Point 892. It was joined there by a regimental observation post. From this point the whole coast could be observed and Utz was informed that there were strong forces in Komitadhes and Sfakia. Prudence counselled him to postpone his attack until he could get artillery and dive-bomber support and, because he could not get his plea for these to Ringel in time for an assault that day, he decided he would wait until 1 June. But in the evening he found that he would not be able to get artillery until the afternoon of 1 June, though air support was promised for next morning. Prudence once more intervened, therefore, and he decided he would spend 1 June completing the encirclement of the rearguard and attack only on 2 June.
Apart from the advance of 7 and 8 Companies—neither of which reached their objective—his only exploit for the day was to get a light infantry gun up on to Point 892, a difficult enough feat for those who had to manhandle it.
The defence line which was giving Colonel Utz's talents for caution such exercise consisted still of Layforce on the right guarding the Imvrotiko Ravine, 2/7 Battalion in the centre with the main road as its axis, and the Marine Battalion in reserve; and 2/8 Battalion on the left guarding the Sfakiano Ravine. The last two guns of C Troop 2/3 RAA were on the central ridge, behind the reserve.
The position was naturally a strong one, even though defended by troops who were almost exhausted and whose arms and equipment were less adequate than they had ever been at any point in a campaign distinguished for inadequacy in these respects. Since the enemy was not prepared to try a frontal attack and was waiting for his flank thrusts to mature, there was no direct engagement between the opposing forces. The enemy was content to harass the defending battalions with his machine guns and mortars.
SFAKIA, 31 MAY
Conferring on these matters in the afternoon with General Weston, Vasey suggested that he could best hold the enemy clear of the beach until the night of 1 June—the last when evacuation would be possible, Weston said—by remaining in his present position while Weston made arrangements for beach protection on the east and west. And to this General Weston agreed.1 Vasey then returned to his own HQ and passed on the news of this plan to the commander of 2/7 Battalion.
1 Report on AIF in Crete.
Weston asked Hargest to establish his HQ in the caves where his own HQ was, and Hargest then preoccupied himself with the arrangements for the hoped-for embarkation of his brigade that night and the organisation of an inner perimeter in the meantime. He also had to deal with the continual requests for a place in the evacuation that came to him from the unattached troops in the neighbourhood. The problem was a difficult one. He had 1100 troops of his own, counting those of 20 Battalion who had been left behind the night before. He was determined that these men who had fought together so long and well would go aboard that night. But he was also moved by the plight of these others.
All day I answered pleas to be allowed to come. I pointed out that I was a passenger with my men and that if I took others I must drop some of mine. That I would not do. When men came with rifles and proved their worth I sent them to one or other unit. If they came without rifles I turned them down cold—they were stragglers. Never had I such a day.2
When Hargest and Weston first met that morning the latter explained his hopes for the night's evacuation, and at 7.30 a.m. the orders were drawn up:
Although the Navy is doing its best, probably only 2000 will be embarked tonight 31 May. Allocation will be made for fighting tps and is:
Aust—2/8 Bn (200)
Comds 5 NZ [and] 8 Aust IB [presumably 2/8 Battalion] will however be prepared to increase numbers allocated in para 1 at short notice but too many tps must not be sent to the beaches so as to avoid disappointment.
1 Brig J. Hargest; WO I L. Young. From first light on 31 May the scanty rations remaining from those dumped by the Navy on the night of 28 May were issued only on the presentation of a chit signed by an officer and with priority to fighting troops.
2 Report by Brig Hargest.
These movements were the result of a change of plan from that entailed by the orders of the night before. With the enemy attempting as we have seen to circle round the flanks, there is no doubt of the prudence of fresh measures. But they were not carried out without further effort on the part of the troops:
The perimeter had to be held and I put it to the men in consideration of the priority of Embarkation that they would go back up the heights and hold—the strongest at the top, the next strongest on the inner hill features, the weaker in the hollows—noble fellows, they went back up the hillside like ‘redshanks’ and when the GOC asked me how it was going—I was able to point far up on the skyline the troops going to their appointed positions.1
General Weston began the day on the assumption that evacuation would take place that night and the night of 1 June also. He expected about 2000 to be taken off on the next lift and as many as possible the night after, when he proposed to leave himself also. Thus we have seen him discussing with Brigadier Vasey the scheme by which Vasey's brigade was to hold the central heights while the other troops behind prevented enemy infiltration into the flanks. And the alterations in the dispositions of 5 Brigade from those prescribed the evening before were concerted with Hargest to the same purpose.
1 Narrative, Brig Hargest.
The first message from Weston of which we have a copy was sent at 10.55 a.m. and dealt with rations. He explained that the supply situation was critical and asked for 10,000 rations to be sent that night: a course too difficult for Middle East, for the ships for the night's task had already left, transport aircraft scarcely existed, and the message was not received until 12.55 p.m. on the day the supplies were to be sent.1
This message evidently presupposed that all troops were not to be evacuated that night and that evacuation would continue. The next makes this assumption even plainer. Weston indicated that he had three alternative plans for further evacuation. By the first, the troops would be taken off from Frangokasterion on the night of 1 June and from Plaka Bay on the night of 2 June. By the second, evacuation would take place from Porto Loutro and would be complete on the night of 1 June. By the third, Sfakia beach would be used as before and the operation would be for one night only. Which course he proposed to follow General Weston said he would report later; and no doubt it would depend on how the military situation developed.2
Meanwhile a message evidently reached Weston from Middle East. For at 11.51 a.m. he replies to a signal sent at 6.50 that morning which must have been a request for a report on the numbers still left.3 The reply states that there are still 4000 troops organised for fighting, 3500 organised into formed groups, and 1500 unorganised stragglers—a total of 9000.
At 4 p.m. Weston still believed that two nights remained for evacuation. The lack of definite news worried him, however, and at that time he sent another signal. He repeated the number 9000. Because of the difficulty of getting troops forward at the last minute over hard terrain, he doubted whether the full capacity of the ships had been used the night before—evidently hinting that if they were to be loaded to the full timely warning would be appreciated. And he said that he had every hope that Sfakia could be used again on the night of 1 June.4
1 General Weston to Mideast, 10.55 a.m., 31 May.
2 General Weston to Mideast, 11.25 a.m., 31 May.
3 General Weston to Mideast, 11.51 a.m., 31 May. The author has not been able to trace the signal from Mideast.
While waiting for an answer to this appeal, Weston had to go ahead on the basis of what he knew.2 He called a conference at which Brigadier Hargest was present:
‘A big ship would take off 3500 tonight, after that nothing.’
We sat stunned by it. We had expected two or three more nights of it but this was to be the end.
We kept it secret and at once arranged to increase quotas. I forced ours up to 1400 inclusive of wounded—we got off 1500 actually, and the staff arranged increases all round.
The situation of the remaining ones was desperate—far more so than they knew, poor fellows. But I could do no more.3
General Weston's next move was to climb the hill and see Brigadier Vasey. They met at 7.40 p.m. Weston explained what had happened and said that he was allotting 500 extra places to Vasey and his men and 300 to the Royal Marines. This would make the distribution between British, Australian, and New Zealand troops proportionately fair. Fair, but tragically so. But for Vasey the news was not overwhelmingly bad. He would be able to get most of his two battalions off that night instead of having to hold a weakened line for a further day. He allotted the extra places to 2/7 Battalion and his own staff.
Weston had still one unenviable task. Layforce had been the last troops to arrive. There would be no room for all who had fought. Some would have to stay. The only criterion was the crude one of seniority in the battle. Weston therefore sent for Colonel Laycock. The latter was to nominate an officer to handle the capitulation. He decided it would be Lieutenant-Colonel Colvin, the commander of A Battalion. To him was given General Weston's order:
The position must be considered in the light of the following facts:
There are no more rations available and men have had no food for three days.
The wireless set can only last a few hours and the risk of waiting for further instructions from H.Q. M.E. cannot be accepted.
The decision to give priority in withdrawal to fighting troops has reduced numbers below the minimum necessary for resistance.
No more evacuation is possible.
2 It was as well he did. The wireless batteries ran down before he could get a reply.
3 Narrative by Brig Hargest.
You will collect as many senior officers as possible and make known to them the contents of this order.
You are ordered to make contact with the enemy and arrange capitulation.1
The various commanders now began their preparations. Brigadier Vasey sent his Brigade Major to warn 2/7 Battalion and the Royal Marines that they must be ready to leave at 9.15 and 9 p.m. respectively. The Royal Marines from this point must have ceased to come under his command; for he goes on to say that 2/7 Battalion was ordered to go straight to the beach and embark that night.2
Fifth Brigade was to supply the beach cordon. Brigadier Hargest allotted the job to 22 Battalion and the remainder of 28 Battalion. The following orders were sent out at 4.5 p.m.:
The 28 Bn will withdraw from komitades on receipt of this order and will R.V. in donga [ravine] where main road crosses donga.
You will come under command of 22 Bn and with it form a cordon around the disembarkation beach at sparkion [Sfakia]. Lieut Chinchen will lead you from donga to sparkion.
I desire to remind you that this job will be hard—you must be ruthless and determined. It will be necessary to be on the beach somewhere about 2115 hrs when you will report to Col Andrews [Andrew].
A similar order was sent at 4.10 p.m. to 22 Battalion, together with the information that the only New Zealand units authorised to embark were HQ 5 Brigade, 21, 22, 23, 28 and 20 Battalions in that order, except for the two cordon units which would come last. All New Zealand units were to reach the barrier not later than 10 p.m.
1 After the departure of the last ships Lt-Col Colvin passed the order to Lt-Col Young, OC D Bn. He took a copy which the version given above reproduces.
At Force HQ it was decided that patients and medical staff must be given priority that night, and at 4 p.m. a party of about eighty walking wounded and medical staff again began to creep towards the beach. Another party of 50 men, chosen by ballot from 5 and 6 Field Ambulances and from 1 General Hospital, were supposed to be taken off but lost their places to 5 Brigade HQ. Other small parties did not reach the beach.
Fortunate on this final day was the man who was with his unit and that unit infantry. For others the prospect was bleak. Thus there was no place among those authorised to embark for the artillerymen. Early in the day, at Force HQ, Brigadier Hargest had told Major Bull that his men would have to wait. Hargest was still confident that there would be another night's evacuation and assured Bull that there would then be enough shipping to take everyone. He did, however, suggest that six ‘specialists’ be selected for evacuation that night. ‘In view of its possible effect on the weak morale being shown in some quarters and Brig Hargest's certainty about the 1–2 June evacuation, this offer was declined on the spot.’2
General Weston had learnt during the afternoon of the decision taken in the Middle East to make this night the last. It is now time to consider how it came about that this decision had to be taken.
1 General Inglis reports that a few wounded were taken off on 30 May.
2 Report by Maj Bull.
The result of these arrangements was that on the morning of 31 May the Navy had two forces at sea in connection with the Cretan operations. The destroyers Napier and Nizam were on their way back from Sfakia, while Phoebe, Abdiel,2 Kimberley, Hotspur, and Jackal were on their way to Sfakia, having left Alexandria at 6 a.m. The first force, in spite of cover from RAF aircraft during the day, was attacked by bombers about nine o'clock and Napier was damaged by near misses which reduced her speed to 23 knots.
The news of this attack and the probability that the second force would have similar attacks to endure before it could be back in Alexandria must have been much in the minds of General Wavell and Admiral Cunningham at this time. And during the morning the latter learnt from Captain S. H. T. Arliss, who had commanded the destroyers in the previous night's operation, that there were still about 6500 men at Sfakia. Cunningham therefore ordered Rear-Admiral King in the Phoebe to increase the maximum number of troops to be embarked to 3500.
Shortly after this message had been sent Mr. Fraser, General Wavell, General Freyberg—who had arrived back safely at 3 a.m. —and General Evetts came to Cunningham's HQ in Alexandria. Cunningham describes what passed:
As the result of our deliberations it seemed that Rear-Admiral King's five ships would be able to bring off most of the troops assembled at Sphakia, so a message was sent telling him to fill up to capacity. At the same time I informed the Admiralty that I had called a halt after the evacuation that night, and that even if Rear-Admiral King's ships were to suffer no damage in the operation in which they were then engaged, the Mediterranean Fleet would be reduced to two battleships, one cruiser, two anti-aircraft cruisers, one minelayer and nine destroyers fit for service.3
1 Admiral Cunningham's Despatch and Rt. Hon. P. Fraser's Supplementary Report, No. 453 in Documents, Vol I. The latter is the sole source for the part played by Mr. Fraser in the sending of the Phoebe and is accepted here because initially likely and the only explanation available for the addition of the Phoebe. It may be added that the Phoebe's crew volunteered to go back without relief and did in fact do so. See Christchurch Press, 12 Jul 1950.
3 A Sailor's Odyssey, p. 387: See also Documents, Vol I, No. 453, where it appears that the decision to fill the ships to capacity was the result of representations made by Mr. Fraser and General Freyberg.
Back in London Admiral Cunningham's report that the evacuation was to end that night caused dismay. It reached the Prime Minister and, shortly after getting it, at 10.20 p.m., he rang the Vice-Chief of Naval Staff. In the subsequent conversation he made it clear that 4000–5000 men could not possibly be left behind without further attempt to save them. The Vice-Chief was of similar mind; and he pointed out that in the preceding two days heavy naval losses had been absent, a fact which he attributed to air support. The telephone conversation ended with a request from Mr. Churchill that proposals be put to the First Sea Lord for a further effort.
At 10.33 p.m. therefore the Vice-Chief rang the First Sea Lord, who agreed that if the relative immunity of the last two days were due to air support, if this could be continued, and if no new factor arose to change the situation, a further attempt should be made. Accordingly, at 10.47 p.m., the Vice-Chief rang Mr. Churchill and read to him over the telephone a draft message to Admiral Cunningham. This draft Mr. Churchill approved.2
At half past eleven the message was sent. In effect it said that, if there was a reasonable chance of an organised and substantial body of men being able to embark on the night of 1 June, then the Government thought that the attempt to evacuate them should be made. This view assumed that aircraft had contributed to the success of the evacuation so far and would be available on the next occasion also. The message ended by suggesting that if what happened during the day of 1 June indicated a different course as prudent, then the question could be reconsidered.3
To this message Cunningham replied next day, repeating and reinforcing the arguments he had already put forward the day before and reporting that the 5500 men left in Sfakia had been given orders to capitulate.4
But this account of the background of the decisions taken in the Middle East has already carried us ahead of events in Crete itself. It is now time to turn back and give an account of the last night of evacuation.
1 C-in-C Med to Admiralty, 1541 C, 31 May; C-in-C Med to Admiralty, 1043, 1 Jun.
3 O. 494, Admiralty to C-in-C Med, 11.30 p.m., 31 May.
4 C-in-C Med to Admiralty, 2031 and 1043.
As the evening of 31 May came on, the battalions of 5 Brigade called in their outlying pickets and then, when it was dark, closed in on one another and prepared to march. At about nine o'clock they were all on the move towards Sfakia ‘in a solid block and at a slow pace so that none could break in from the Donga to Sphakia.’1 By 10 p.m. the head of the column had reached the beach. A quarter of an hour later three motor landing craft that had hidden up all day along the coast appeared and the first lift of men shuffled thankfully aboard. At twenty minutes past eleven the ships themselves—they had survived three attacks by enemy bombers on the way—drew in. For half an hour they landed stores. And then 5 Brigade began to embark.
For Brigadier Hargest it had been a hard day. Since 7 p.m. he had been supervising in Sfakia and on the beach.
I was exhausted and the continual importuning was terribly hard to resist—I felt it would be easier to stay…. I met others whom I sent to join their units, others who had straggled I turned away. We came to the village where an air raid was in progress so we sheltered, then went in to see the arrangements. They were right so as the shadows fell we sat and waited. Later in the moonlight three small shapes appeared, the MLCs. They came slowly up to the beach and put their prows down. We sat on in perfect peace. Then a dark shape appeared low in the sky. A Hun—no—a Sunderland Flying Boat. It dipped and landed somewhere out of sight.
It was nearly midnight when low shapes slid into view; one, two, three, four, five. The Navy, God bless them. The flash of a signal, an order from the beach master and the men silently pushed aboard the MLCs.
Indeed, so far as things could go well on such a night—when every man capable of thinking of others besides himself was torn between relief at his own departure and regret for those who must be left behind—they went well for 5 Brigade. One by one the battalions passed through the cordon.
For the Australian and British units things went less well. At 9 p.m. 19 Brigade HQ, its two battalions, and the Royal Marine battalion had begun to move from their defence area. The 2/8 Battalion came in the wake of 5 Brigade; but 2/7 Battalion and the Marines appear to have come down the main track from the escarpment While they were still some considerable distance from the beach they found this track, a narrow one, blocked with waiting men and officers claiming to be cordon officials and active in challenging identities.
1 Report by Brig Hargest.
Fearful that his men might be held up in getting forward to the beach Vasey now sent back his two staff officers to hurry them on. While these two were away the pace began to quicken and by 2.15 a.m. most of 2/7 Battalion seems to have been near the beach in spite of having been continually hampered.
By this time Vasey was in great anxiety. For the Navy had told him that the last boats would be leaving at half past two. Two large MLCs, each capable of holding 180 men, were to carry out this lift. One of his staff now told the Brigadier that the commander of 2/7 Battalion was on the beach. Vasey therefore concluded that all was well. The two boats were loaded and set off, Brigadier Vasey apparently travelling with them.
It was not till he reached Alexandria that he discovered the true situation. The officials controlling movement to the beach seem not to have been told that 2/7 Battalion was to embark or that this was the last night. Because the Navy on previous occasions had been able to embark more than its quota, many extra troops had been allowed on or near the beach so that if this should happen again advantage could be taken of it. In consequence of these two things 2/7 Battalion had not been able to get forward in time, and no doubt its commander had come forward to see if he could expedite matters. His presence then misled Vasey into thinking the whole battalion was there.
Thus an occasion tragic enough in itself—for whatever happened many fine soldiers would have to be left behind—was made more so by the loss of a battalion which had fought well all the time that it was engaged and which in these last days had held out nobly in a position where on its endurance rested the security of the whole force.1
The Royal Marine battalion and some of Layforce were a little more fortunate. The last boats were in fact held back till 2.45 a.m. By then 100 Marines were aboard, two officers and 25 men of Layforce, and the two officers and 14 men of 2/7 Battalion. The remaining space was taken by those awaiting places, among them Major Bliss and a party of New Zealand gunners who had come down on the chance that there might be places to spare. All in all and counting about eighty walking wounded, about 4000 men were taken off.
1 Two officers and 14 other ranks were embarked.
1 Brig Hargest.