V: Preparations of 2 NZ Division: 30 April–19 May
V: Preparations of 2 NZ Division: 30 April–19 May
With General Freyberg's appointment as GOC Creforce, command of his Division devolved upon Brigadier E. Puttick, the next senior officer of the Division present on the island. This appointment was confirmed on 2 May and dated from two days previously, when it had in fact begun. Under Brigadier Puttick Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry1 was to serve as GSO 1, and the other staff appointments essential to a functioning Divisional HQ were duly made at the same time. The new headquarters had at once to get to grips with its administrative and tactical problems. Administratively, it was necessary to get out immediately to the battalions the ammunition that Creforce HQ made available, to get the supply system organised, to build up the ration reserve at Ay Marina, to do what could be done to provide the newly arrived 4 Brigade with blankets and supplies, to go ahead with the organising of signals communications, and generally to restore and get into action that whole complicated nexus of functions without which a military formation cannot operate.
1 Maj-Gen W. G. Gentry, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; commanded 6 Bde Sep 1942–Apr 1943; Deputy Chief of General Staff (in NZ), 1943–44; commanded NZ Troops in Egypt, 6 NZ Div, and NZ Maadi Camp, Aug 1944–Feb 1945; commanded 9 Bde (Italy) 1945; Deputy Chief of General Staff, Jul 1946–Nov 1947; Adjutant-General, Apr 1949–Mar 1952; Chief of the General Staff 1 Apr 1952–.
Making the initial positions as strong as possible was the more necessary for three reasons: for movement the defence would have to rely largely on its legs and, therefore, once on the move would not be able to take with it weapons that could not be manhandled; entrenching tools were so scarce that once prepared positions were left new ones would be very difficult to dig; the enemy's air superiority was so great that any movement by day would be subject not only to observation but to so much interference as to make it virtually impossible.
None the less troops must be made available for immediate counter-attack against the landing areas, and at the same time be far enough away not to come under the heavy fire to which these landing areas were bound to be initially subjected. At the same time these same troops, or other troops, must be so disposed as to be able to protect the coast between Canea and Maleme; and the road between these two points must be kept open.
Besides Maleme and the coast, the area that seemed most vulnerable was the stretch of low country between Alikianou and Galatas. Landings in this area could threaten a drive through to Canea or north-east to the coastal road.
By the time Brigadier Puttick was able to get out and reconnoitre his sector on 1 May some defensive pattern already existed. Fifth Brigade was disposed between Ay Marina and Maleme. Fourth Brigade was completing a move from the transit camp into defensive positions west of Canea but east of 5 Brigade. Oakes Force, formed from miscellaneous artillery and ASC units during the previous few days and put under the command of Major Oakes, MC,1 on 29 April, had a defensive area between Galatas and the coast road. Other assorted units were reorganising in the general area and being allotted various roles in the defence.2
2 Since the general picture of the dispositions was to be settled within a few days into its more or less final form, details are left to that stage.
Puttick's reconnaissance had also convinced him that the main body of 5 Brigade was lying too far back. Moreover, as Brigadier Hargest pointed out, 21 Battalion was too weak—it had suffered severely in Greece—for the role of counter-attack in support of 22 Battalion at this time assigned to it. He therefore ordered that 23 Battalion should take over this task. At the same time he recommended Brigadier Hargest to dispose his Vickers machine guns in two groups so as to cover the airfield and the beaches; and his two 3-inch mortars with one covering the northern limits of the airfield and one the south. For he expected landings on the aerodrome, the beaches, and the water.
Already on 30 April Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew,1 CO 22 Battalion, had begun to question the prospects for unity in action at Maleme where there was no unified command: the AA defending the airfield was controlled from the Gun Operations Room at Canea; the Royal Marine gunners were responsible to General Weston at Canea; and the RAF and Royal Navy troops there were under the control of their own senior commanders. No doubt he spoke of his doubts to Brigadier Puttick during the reconnaissance, for the latter, in a note to Brigadier Hargest, says: ‘The AA guns at the aerodrome seem to me to be horribly exposed. Unless they are dug in and screened by bushes, etc., I'm afraid they won't last long.’ And he spoke of discussing this question with Creforce or General Weston.2
The next two or three days were taken up with moves that arose out of these modifications. Fourth Brigade moved into its reserve position with HQ at Karatsos on 2 May, and on 3 May its 18 and 19 Battalions went into Force Reserve. As a sign of the progress being made with re-equipment it is worth noting that at least one of the battalions, the 19th, now had a full complement of rifles and pistols as well as 36 Thompson SMGs, 32 Brens, two 3-inch mortars, and 50 grenades.
1 Brig L. W. Andrew, VC, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Ashhurst, 23 Mar 1897; Regular soldier; Wellington Regt, 1915–19; CO 22 Bn Jan 1940–Mar 1942; commanded 5 Bde 27 Nov–8 Dec 1941; Area Commander, Wellington, Nov 1943–Dec 1946; Commandant Central Military District, Apr 1948–Mar 1952.
A further development was the decision to close 5 Brigade up towards Maleme in order to facilitate immediate counter-attack in support of 22 Battalion. For this purpose 21 Battalion was to move from round Dhaskaliana to an area south-east of the airfield; 23 Battalion was to move into the area vacated by 21 Battalion; and 28 Battalion into the room of 23 Battalion at Platanias. The Divisional Petrol Company took over the vacated Maori positions. The 19th Army Troops Company fighting as infantry, which had been put under 5 Brigade command and sent to Modhion on 30 April, was to be strengthened by the addition of 7 Field Company and remain in static defence in the Modhion area. The role of immediate counter-attack would fall to both 21 and 23 Battalions. And to strengthen this concentration on the airfield further machine guns were added. On 2 May an MG Company had been formed from the various parties that had landed from Greece. Apart from eight guns which were with 4 Brigade and four guns under Lieutenant MacDonald5 which were with 5 Brigade, there were still another four guns. The detachment with 4 Brigade was left, but the rest of the company (Captain Grant6), except for four guns sent to 22 Battalion, was now put under command of 23 Battalion with guns sited to command the airfield and the coast. The whole move was complete by eight o'clock on the evening of 3 May.
The same day brought two Greek regiments at Alikianou and a third at Kastelli under command of NZ Division, and each of the New Zealand battalions was ordered to supply an officer to assist with their training. The presence of these regiments with the Division is duly recorded in Creforce Operation Instruction No. 10.7
3 Lt-Col J. F. R. Sprosen, DSO, ED; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 20 Jan 1908; school-teacher; CO 4 Fd Regt Apr–Jun 1942, Sep–Oct 1942; 5 Fd Regt Oct–Nov 1942; 14 Lt AA Regt Nov 1942–Jun 1943, Dec 1943–Nov 1944; 7 A-Tk Regt Nov–Dec 1944; wounded 24 May 1941.
7 The order, like many other contemporary references, calls them battalions. But so far as their rudimentary organisation went they seem to have been regiments of two battalions each.
The Division consisted of 4 Brigade, 5 Brigade, Oakes Force, Russell Force (formed on 4 May from the 200-odd men of the Divisional Cavalry on Crete, 2 Echelon Divisional Supply, and the Divisional Petrol Company, all under Major Russell,2 OC C Squadron), 1 Greek Regiment, 6 Greek Regiment, and 8 Greek Regiment. In support, but not under command, were two troops of 156 LAA Battery and one troop of 7 Australian LAA Battery.
Of these, 4 Brigade was to remain in Force Reserve except for 20 Battalion which, together with the eight MGs and an engineer detachment, was to remain under command and make up Divisional Reserve. Fifth Brigade had the specific task of preventing the enemy from gaining control of Maleme airfield and defending the area between the west bank of the Tavronitis and the area east of Ay Marina. The brigade would be supported in this by the three troops of LAA.
Oakes Force was to hold the line that ran from the coast near Staliana Khania to Cemetery Hill and prevent any advance east of this. It also had an appropriate section of coast to guard against attack from the sea. Russell Force had the task of holding a road junction near Lake Aghya and preventing any advance eastwards; and it was to counter-attack at once any airborne troops landing within a thousand yards east or west of the road junction. Of the three Greek regiments, 1 Regiment was to remain at Kisamos Kastelli and defend the area between Kastelli and Nopiyi against air or sea invasion, being joined there as soon as possible by 6 Regiment from Alikianou. The 8th Greek Regiment was to remain in the Alikianou area and attack any airborne troops landing within 1500 yards to the north of that place.
These dispositions may fairly be said to have been dictated by three main considerations: the nature of the expected attack, the forces available for defence, and the ground to be covered.
1 Operation Order No. 5, 5 May.
For this purpose, to move to the next point, only the equivalent of two brigades was available, since 4 Brigade was to form Force Reserve. Yet some reserve had to be held back for immediate counter-attack at divisional level.
Finally, the area to be defended was determined on its eastern limit by the presence of General Weston's Suda Force and on its northern limit by the sea. But the western and southern limits were in some sense arbitrary and determined only by the amount of manpower Brigadier Puttick possessed. The airfield had to be held, but farther west than this the troops available simply could not stretch; and this was to be a fundamental weakness in the upshot. Similarly to the south it was only the fact that on the one hand the hills after a certain distance became too difficult for landings, and on the other that the troops could not be spread any further on the ground, that forced the defence to take the pattern it did.
In short, the garrison had somehow to be so disposed as to cover Maleme and the AMES; the coast between Maleme and Canea; the vital hills round Canea, which would be a valuable secondary barrier for Canea should Maleme fall or get cut off, and which would cover the low ground to their west; and the low country between Galatas and Maleme.
In the circumstances Puttick could claim to have made a fair attempt at the impossible. The weaknesses in the scheme—a single line of communication towards Maleme; the open ground west of Maleme; the fact that the Alikianou valley could be covered only from the hills and that by too few troops; the weakness in reserves—will be sufficiently apparent in the sequel. It is unlikely that they were not already present to the minds of Puttick and his commanders.
Although the main pattern of the defence was now established some important developments were still to take place, and it will be best to summarise them first from the divisional point of view before going on to treat the sectors in detail.
The most important developments were in the Galatas-Alikianou sector. Here there were weaknesses of both organisation and disposition which it was obviously desirable to temper. The first moves to do so came on 13 May when the Greek authorities gave Brigadier Puttick the right to supervise the dispositions of the Greek regiments. The two concerned in this sector were 6 and page 59 8 Regiments. The 8th was now told to take up positions in the hills east of and overlooking the Alikianou-Canea road; its left flank would cover the road junction just east of Alikianou and leading into the village from the main road; its centre would be based on the hill east of and across the road from Episkopi; and its right would hold the high ground south-east of the power station at Aghya. The regiment's role would be to cover by fire the flat areas to the north and west and also to help if necessary in guarding the Italian prisoners in the camps at Skines and Fournes. A boundary with Russell Force was also laid down by which the Aghya reservoir became a Greek responsibility.1
On 13 May also was issued NZ Division Operation Instruction No. 6. This attempted to meet the weakness of organisation by forming a new brigade, 10 Brigade. It would come into existence at six o'clock next morning and would consist of 20 Battalion, Oakes Force, and 6 Greek Regiment. Under command would be two MG platoons and one troop of 5 Field Regiment, which had by now been equipped with three 75-millimetre howitzers. The commander was to be Lieutenant-Colonel A. S. Falconer of 23 Battalion; but in the upshot Falconer as the senior officer took over 4 Brigade, the senior formation, and Colonel Kippenberger took 10 Brigade.
This new arrangement meant that the whole front line from the coast through the Galatas hills was now under a single command. But there was still a weakness in this sector. Between 6 Regiment and 8 Greek Regiment lay a wide gap. Puttick seems to have felt that, since he had no forces to put there, he must rely on the fact that the gap gave access only to very hilly country on the south-east, and that to the east deep penetration was barred by 2 Greek Regiment and the units of Suda Force.
Perhaps as a final effort towards getting cohesion on this front 8 Greek Regiment was also put under 10 Brigade command on 15 May. Kippenberger, indeed, had already expressed concern about the isolation of 8 Greek Regiment and had argued that it was ‘only a circle on the map…. and that it was murder to leave such troops in such a position’. He had been answered that ‘in war murder sometimes has to be done’.3
3 Infantry Brigadier (Oxford University Press), p. 50. In fact, though isolated, the regiment played a not unimportant part in the action; and it can be argued that Puttick's action in leaving it where it was justified itself.
But before 1 Greek Regiment could be moved the permission of the Greek authorities had to be obtained; and tools and time would be needed if it was to be effectively entrenched in a new position. The permission was duly obtained, but not till 13 May. By this time Puttick had his doubts about the wisdom of the move at so late a stage.1 He conferred with General Freyberg and they agreed that the battalion had better stay where it was; for the attack was thought imminent, there was no transport with which to move the unit swiftly to its new position, too few tools for it to get dug in quickly, and no wire with which to protect the new entrenchments.
It is now time to examine the three brigade sectors in rather closer detail and to notice any significant changes that took place in their strengths or dispositions between this period and the opening of the battle. We may begin with 4 Brigade which, as has been seen, had begun to move back into reserve on 2 May.
Though 4 Brigade, as mobile reserve to Creforce, might expect to be sent on a counter-attack mission in almost any direction, it was obvious none the less that it must be dug in where it stood against initial attack. At this time 19 Battalion was in the area of Karatsos with 20 Battalion south-west of it. The 18th Battalion was in reserve still farther back and holding a line from the beach west of 7 General Hospital south to the Alikianou-Canea road. Brigade HQ was in the Karatsos area until 7 May, when it moved back to a new position about two miles west of Canea and close to the main coast road. From then on the daily routine of the battalions settled down and consisted mostly of digging and infantry training. An addition in strength came with the disembarkation on 10 May of 1 Light Troop RA which had four 3.7-inch howitzers. These guns were sited in the area south of Karatsos.
1 The invasion was expected for any day on or after 14 May.
Fourth Brigade Operation Instruction No. 7 of 16 May gives a clear idea of the brigade's composition, task and dispositions.1 As well as 18 and 19 Battalions it now included the light tanks of C Squadron, 3 Hussars, 1 Light Troop RA, and a platoon of machine guns. A third battalion, 1 Welch, was to come under command whenever Creforce saw fit and complete the brigade's infantry strength.
The brigade's counter-attack role was now definitely stated: it might have to counter-attack towards Heraklion, and unit commanders were required to reconnoitre not only round Maleme and Alikianou but east of Canea to the area of Almiros Bay and Retimo. In addition, 19 Battalion was informed that it would have to carry out any counter-attacks to the north of Suda Bay and so, presumably, in the Akrotiri Peninsula. These instructions show clearly how difficult it was for the senior commanders even at this late stage to predict where the main weight of the attack was to come.
In accordance with this view of their probable role the battalions were warned that, though they must be dug in against air attack and be ready to fight from their positions, they must not open fire on aircraft unless located and attacked or unless aircraft were about to land. In this way they would avoid being pinned down too soon. The artillery likewise, though sited to cover the beaches, was told that its primary role was counter-attack and quick movement. And a touch of optimism, if not fantasy, is introduced with the statement that troop-carrying transport was available to lift the whole brigade.
These orders were further amplified by 4 Brigade Operation Instruction No. 8, issued now for Brigadier Inglis,2 who had come from Egypt in response to a signal sent by General Freyberg on 11 May and who arrived on the 17th to take over 4 Brigade. The 18th and 19th Battalions were to detail a company each for immediate counter-attack against enemy landing in the areas south-east of them. These companies were to counter-attack on the initiative of their commanders.
2 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Greek); Dunedin; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn, 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn, Jan–Aug 1940; commanded 4 Inf Bde, 1941–42 and 4 Armd Bde, 1942–44; commanded 2 NZ Div, 27 Jun–16 Aug 1942 and 6 Jun–31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50.
The moves of 3 May3 established the units of 5 Brigade in very much the positions they were to occupy until battle began. The main activity in the interim was one of feverish preparation. Trenches were being dug, wire erected, and mines planted. At first and last light the troops stood to, and the day between these times passed rapidly enough for the men with tactical exercises, counter-attack training, and intervals of hard digging with the few shovels that could be found.
4 Lt-Col R. B. Dawson, DSO, m.i.d.; Lower Hutt; born Rotorua, 21 Jul 1916; Regular soldier; 23 Bn; BM 5 Bde, May–Sep 1941, Jan–Jun 1942; BM 6 Bde 1942–43; Senior Tactics Instructor, Royal Military College, Duntroon, Jul 1943–Jan 1946; CO 3 Bn, 2 NZEF Japan, Jun 1947–Oct 1948; Director of Staff Duties, Army HQ, Nov 1949–Dec 1952.
Hargest was still concerned, as well he might be, at the mixed nature of the command at Maleme. On 11 May he convened a meeting of the brigade's commanding officers and the senior officers of the other services. There is no record of the proceedings or of those present and no important change seems to have resulted. It is safe to infer from it only Hargest's uneasiness.
On 12 May there was set up in the brigade area a Field Punishment Centre that was to play later a not unimportant part. Situated just north-east of Modhion, its orders were to join up with 23 Battalion when warned of attack; failing warning, it was to help defend the guns in the area. Meanwhile Lieutenant Roach,2 the OC, and his 17 guards compounded his prisoners—‘plonk artists, bashers up, and some guilty of robbery and assault’3—and set them to work making roads and carrying ammunition.
Even at this late stage able-bodied men were still prized and so when 5 Brigade Band arrived on 14 May, though as a band its presence seemed untimely, its members were promptly given rifles and formed into a defence platoon for Brigade HQ under the Bandmaster, Lieutenant Miller.4 More immediately welcome were the two I tanks from 7 RTR which arrived on the same day and were ensconced that night in prepared positions south of the airfield.
At this time the attack was expected for about 16 or 17 May and the tempo of digging and wiring was hotter than ever. Brigadier Puttick arrived on 15 May to spur the work on, and Brigadicr Hargest stopped all leave to the same end. By now he felt some confidence in what had been done so far. ‘We should now be ready to receive the enemy; our defences are nearly as good as we can make them but material promised us has not come to hand— wire and carriers, etc. With it and a few days we shall be ready.’5
1 Neither of these attempts to cope with the problem was practical. 23 Bn's responsibility was later cancelled, no doubt because it was seen to be fantastic. The observation post was not heard from after 20 May—no matter for surprise.
3 Report by Lt Roach.
5 Brig Hargest's diary.
But while the troops speculated about when the attack would come and promised themselves revenge for Greece, the local commanders were still worrying about the naked territory west of the Tavronitis. One of the roles allotted to 21 Battalion was to strengthen the south flank of 22 Battalion where it ran along the bank of the river, moving up as a whole battalion if necessary. Accordingly the CO of 21 Battalion, Major Harding, MC,2 reconnoitred and decided to place one platoon overlooking the river and keep another ready to move there. Thus the whole battalion would have a nucleus on which to build if the need arose. The first platoon duly moved into position on 17 May. During this same period also, officers of 23 Battalion reconnoitred routes to 22 Battalion area to prepare for carrying out their counterattack role.
The artillery situation improved a little in this time of waiting. The first step was the organisation in the second week of May of two troops of gunners from the unarmed men of 5 Field Regiment, who till this time had been assisting 5 Brigade with defence work. On 11 May these two troops, under Captain Beaumont,3 took over three Italian 75-millimetre howitzers and two British 3.7-inch howitzers and towed them to 5 Brigade with trucks borrowed from 1 Light Troop RA. On 13 and 14 May the two troops got into position, A Troop with the 3·7s (Captain Williams4) in 21 Battalion area, and B Troop with the 75s (Lieutenant Cade5) in 23 Battalion area.
2 Lt-Col E. A. Harding, MC; Dargaville; born Dargaville, 4 Dec 1893; farmer; actg CO 21 Bn 20 Apr–17 May 1941; CO 33 Bn (Maadi); 1 North Auckland Bn. Harding handed over command of 21 Bn on 17 May to Lt-Col J. M. Allen.
For C Troop the problem of observation posts did not arise. A and B Troops were sited for indirect fire. Eventually the two troop commanders selected an OP on Point 107, in 22 Battalion's area, and managed to cajole enough wire to rig a telephone line from it to B Troop and thence to A Troop.
The composition, locations, and role of 5 Brigade are all set out in 5 Brigade's Operation Instruction No. 4 of 18 May. As there were no important developments between then and battle, a summary of the document will give a fair picture of the situation when battle began.
Besides the four infantry battalions (21, 22, 23, and 28 Maori) there were under command 7 Field Company (Captain Ferguson2) and 19 Army Troops Company (Captain Anderson3), fighting as infantry and guarding the road north of Modhion. Major Langbein4 was at first in command of the whole detachment but was evacuated about a week before battle and succeeded by Captain Ferguson. The Field Punishment Centre has already been mentioned. In addition, there were by now three platoons from 1 MG Company: one of these with four guns and mountings was located with 23 Battalion; the other two (one without mountings) with four guns each were with 22 Battalion. Finally, and also under command, there were the three troops of 27 Battery.
In support, but still not under command, were a troop and a half of 156 LAA Battery (six guns), one troop of 7 Australian LAA Battery (four guns), and a troop of C HAA Battery, RM (two 3-inch guns). And the Royal Marines also had two 4-inch guns from Z Coast Defence Battery, the primary task of which was to sink enemy ships or boats landing troops and which were sited on the north-west ridges above the airfield. Finally, there were two I tanks dug in above the airfield. These were to emerge and mop up whenever a major landing should begin. Three light tanks had not yet arrived but were hoped for.
1 See map facing p. 97, for dispositions. Colonel Frowen, CRA Creforce, had ordered the guns of C Troop to be sited on the beach. But Maj M. A. Bull, who commanded 5 Fd Regt in Crete, and Maj W. D. Philp, who now commanded 27 Bty to which the three troops belonged, used their discretion to select what was undoubtedly a better site.
2 Lt-Col J. B. Ferguson, DSO, MC; Auckland; born Auckland, 27 Apr 1912; warehouseman; OC 7 Fd Coy May 1941; CO 18 Armd Regt Dec 1943–Jan 1944; 20 Armd Regt Jan–May 1944; 18 Armd Regt Jul 1944–Feb 1945; wounded 6 Dec 1943.
3 Lt-Col J. N. Anderson, DSO, m.i.d.; Te Awamutu; born Okaihau, 15 Apr 1894; civil engineer; OC 19 Army Tps Coy May–Jun 1941; 5 Fd Pk Coy Sep 1941–Oct 1942; 6 Fd Coy Oct 1942–Jul 1943; CRE 2 NZ Div Sep 1942, Apr–Jul 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; Engr Trg Depot, Maadi, Jan–Aug 1945.
The tasks of the brigade were threefold, and in view of the importance of subsequent events in the sector the relevant part of 5 Brigade Operation Instruction No. 4 may be quoted in full:
In the event of the enemy making an airborne or seaborne attack on any part of the area, to counter-attack and destroy him immediately.
The whole essence of the bde's work is a spirited defence.
The order then deals with the method by which these tasks were to be carried out. The 28th Battalion was to remain round Platanias, patrolling the area and being ready to prevent enemy advances towards Canea or through the hills south of Platanias, and to counter-attack. The Engineer Detachment was likewise to remain in position, patrolling the beach and road in its area and preventing enemy movement on these. The 23rd Battalion was to hold its positions and be ready to counter-attack towards the beach, towards Maleme aerodrome, or towards the area held by the Engineers.
The 21st Battalion was to remain in position ready, should the enemy organise movement from west of the Tavronitis, to move up to the line of the river from the left flank of 22 Battalion, south as far as the gully south-west of Vlakheronitissa; as a preliminary move to this end two platoons and a mortar were to take up a holding position along the river flank. But the battalion also had the alternative role of replacing 23 Battalion if it went forward, and being ready from that position to launch a further counter-attack to the beach or the airfield.
The primary task of 22 Battalion was the ‘static defence’ of the airfield. It was therefore to cover the airfield and approaches with fire, withholding mortar fire until landing had actually taken place. If a major landing were made, support and reserve companies were to be used for immediate counter-attack.1 The enemy expelled, the battalion would resume its positions. Support from 23 Battalion could be called for by telephone, or failing telephone, by Very light (white-green-white).
The order also laid down the task of the MG Company: the platoon with 23 Battalion would cover the beach to its north, the east edge of the airfield and, if necessary, the airfield itself. The two platoons with 22 Battalion would cover the west and forward edges of the airfield and, if necessary, the airfield itself; they would also cover the beaches to the west and east and the bed of the Tavronitis.
One troop of 27 Battery (A Troop) from its position with 21 Battalion was to bring fire from its 3·7s to bear on the airfield, the beaches east and west of it, the area to the west, and the bed of the Tavronitis. B Troop, with its Italian 75s, would cover from 23 Battalion area the airfield, the areas east and west of it, and particularly the beach areas as far west as Kolimbari.1 C Troop, the French 75s, near the FPC, would cover as wide an arc of beach and roads as their open sights permitted.
The order also announced that twenty Bren carriers were expected, of which it was hoped to give four to 22 Battalion—in addition to three 1 Welch carriers already with the unit—two to 23 Battalion, and three to 21 Battalion. Their tasks would be covering and searching work in the battalion areas. The remaining eleven would be split into two detachments under brigade command, of which one with six carriers would hide up in the 21st Battalion's area for the support of counter-attack and for southward searching, while the other detachment with five carriers would hide up in the NZE area ready to attack to the beaches or search to the south and east.2
The order also stressed the necessity of thorough concealment in the preliminary stages and of controlled fire against enemy aircraft only after troops' landings had obviously become imminent. Any lull in aircraft attack was to be used for mopping up.
It will be seen from these orders and from an inspection of the map that the brigade plan was dictated by the dual character of its task: the defence against invasion by sea and invasion by air. The threat of the former made Hargest dispose his forces in such a way that every part of the long coastline between Platanias and Maleme was covered. At the same time he tried to have counterattack reserves, in the form of 21 and 23 Battalions, more or less immediately available against an attempt upon the airfield; while he kept 28 Battalion near him at Platanias as a less immediate reserve. In the upshot, however, the distance between Platanias and Maleme, the enemy's predominance in the air, the faultiness of communications and the fact that the enemy's landings were sufficiently scattered to distract the two counter-attack battalions, were to make the strung-out defence of 5 Brigade a serious shortcoming.
2 The full number never reached 5 Bde. Those with 22 Bn had no opportunity for useful action and had to be disabled and left behind when the battalion withdrew. None seem ever to have reached 21 Bn. Those with 23 Bn were used for communical tions and transport of wounded and those with 5 Bde seem to have been similarly used.
Tenth Brigade came into existence on 14 May and grouped together under command 20 Battalion, Oakes Force, and 6 Greek Regiment.1 Artillery support was to be provided by the three 75-millimetre howitzers of F Troop 28 Battery, which were sited near Karatsos under 10 Brigade command.
The role of 10 Brigade was to hold a defensive position, facing west and running from the cape of Kolimvithra southwards via Red Hill and Pink Hill to the hill south of Cemetery Hill at 069533.2 It had also to defend the coast between grid 10 and Cape Ay Marina. The details of this position will be more closely examined with the composition of the units holding it.
Oakes Force had been formed from gunners without guns and drivers without trucks in the early days of May and organised into three battalions, commanded by Major Philp, Major Lewis, and Major Sprosen. The ground that it occupied at this period was much what it was to defend in the actual fighting. Its right flank rested on the sea about a mile and a half west of 7 General Hospital. From there it followed a ridge south-west to Red Hill, and thence to Ruin Hill. At Ruin Hill it turned east to take in Wheat Hill, and then went south again to include Pink Hill, south-east of Galatas. A continuation of the line was projected beyond Pink Hill and south-east to Cemetery Hill (also called Searchlight Hill), but on 2 May this part of the line was still unoccupied. The occupied line, in an arc to the north-west from Pink Hill, was held at this date by 3, 2, and 1 Battalions of Oakes Force, counting north in that order.
At this time 1 Battalion of Oakes Force consisted of men from 4 RMT, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 1 Survey Troop, 6 Field Regiment, and part of 5 Field Regiment; 2 Battalion of men mostly from 4 Field Regiment; and 3 Battalion of men from 5 Field Regiment and the Divisional Ammunition Company.
1 20 Bn, however, was operationally at the disposal of Division and, on 13 May, had been relieved by 6 Gk Regt, moving to a reserve position. Russell Force and 8 Gk Regt came under command of 10 Bde on 15 May.
2 The names Red Hill, Pink Hill, Cemetery Hill, Ruin Hill, Wheat Hill, and Ruin Ridge will occur frequently. They were given to the main features in 10 Bde area by Col Kippenberger and Maj F. L. H. Davis (GSO 2, NZ Div) on 14 May or by the troops on the spot. For their locations see map facing p. 133.
Reorganisation was therefore necessary and was complete by 15 May, the force—from now on officially called the Composite Battalion—being now much weaker in numbers and even more mixed in character, the subdivision into three battalions being tacitly dropped.
The command after the departure of Major Oakes devolved upon Major H. M. Lewis. The force kept its tripartite organisation, the sub-units being: RMT Group or 1 Company, commanded by Captain Veale,1 with about 270 officers and men of 4 RMT and some officers attached from 4 Field Regiment; 4 Field Regiment Group or 2 Company, commanded by Captain Bliss,2 and about 200 strong; Mixed Group or 3 Company, commanded by Major J. F. R. Sprosen, and made up of some 250 men from the Divisional Petrol Company under Captain McDonagh,3 about 140 men from 2 Echelon Divisional Supply Company, under Captain Boyce,4 and about 150 men of 5 Field Regiment under the direct command of Major Sprosen.5
The RMT Group was responsible for the sector extending from the sea to Red Hill; 4 Field Regiment Group's line carried on along the forward or west slopes of Red Hill south to Ruin Hill; the Mixed Group held Ruin Hill with 2 Echelon Divisional Supply, Wheat Hill with the group from 5 Field Regiment, and Pink Hill with the Divisional Petrol Company.6
5 This bare statement of the theoretical organisation ought not to be allowed to give an exaggerated impression of coherence: the tie between the components of Sprosen's group was very loose and he does not seem to have known that the two ASC groups were under his command. And, in general, there was not enough time before battle or any opportunity during battle for the battalion's organisation to function effectively.
On the left of the line occupied by the Composite Battalion was 6 Greek Regiment, who relieved 20 Battalion on 13 May and whose positions ran from the south of Pink Hill, south-east across Cemetery Hill to the south-east side of the Alikianou-Canea road. It seems to have moved into position in this area before 12 May; for 19 Battalion staged a demonstration company attack on 12 May to assist in its training. This training was all the more necessary in that the Greeks had seen only four weeks' service, had fired no rounds from their ancient rifles—when battle began they had three rounds per man—and were even shorter of other equipment than the Composite Battalion. Their positions cost Colonel Kippenberger a good deal of concern: he spent much time in trying to assist them, and on 15 May elements of 20 Battalion were sent over to help them with their wiring. This enabled a barrier to be put up from the junction with the Divisional Petrol Company at Pink Hill, south-east to the stream on the other side of the Alikianou-Canea road.
The supply of ammunition improved a few days before the battle but not all of it was distributed to the companies before battle began.
The position of 8 Greek Regiment in relation to the rest of 10 Brigade has already been discussed, and its tactical dispositions will be dealt with more fully when the time comes to treat of its part in the actual fighting. It will perhaps be enough here to reaffirm its isolation from the rest of the brigade, and to add that in training and equipment it was if anything worse off than the other Greek regiments.
One more unit in 10 Brigade remains to be discussed, the Divisional Cavalry. This unit had moved to the area of Lake Aghya in the first week of May and taken up positions facing south-west, with left flank on the lake and right flank to the north-west of the lake. Here Major Russell regrouped his force into three squadrons, A, B, and C. Colonel Kippenberger visited them on 17 May. Considering that they had neither the weapons nor the men to carry out their task of commanding the west end of the Alikianou valley, he told Russell that if when the attack came page 71 he found that he could not effect anything he was to fall back via the high ground and rejoin the main position of the brigade.
The account of the situation in the brigade sectors is now complete. But a word must be said about the position of 1 Greek Regiment at Kisamos Kastelli. This force was too remote from the main position to be easily knit into the main force, and it is true that the events to take place in its sector could hardly affect the battle. None the less, as the regiment had been given a party of New Zealand officers and men to help with its training as early as 5 May and as it had some heavy fighting, some brief account of it seems necessary at this point. When Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry and Colonel Kippenberger visited Kisamos Kastelli on 6 May they found the regiment some 1000 strong and Major Bedding,1 who was in charge of the New Zealand party, doing his best to get them organised—not the easiest of tasks since most of the Greeks had been soldiers for only a fortnight. Then came tentatives to move the force to positions west of the Tavronitis; but finally it was decided to leave it at Kastelli with the instruction that if it had to retire it was to go south into the hills and then east to join 6 and 8 Greek Regiments.
Bedding soon had his force organised into two battalions, A and B. A Battalion, with 500 men and 300 rifles, held the sector from the Factory as far as the Beach Road but excluding it, and from the coast to the main road, including it. B Battalion, with the same number of men and rifles, held the sector from the Petrol Dump to White Road, which it included, and from Rock Point south to the Platanos road. It was also B Battalion's task to destroy the petrol dump if a landing were successful and to hold the pass across the hills to the west.2
3 Report by Maj Bedding. Bedding wrote: ‘There was a military college at Kalembare some 18 miles away with some 400 Officer-Cadets in training for both Army and Gendarmerie. I applied through General Heywood for 34 third and fourth year cadets to act as CSMs and Platoon Sergeants. A month later I met in Prison Camp at Canea one of the Instructors who told me that although the invasion was expected within a fortnight, selection was made by written examination—he actually being engaged in marking papers when the Paratroops landed.’
Ammunition was a great difficulty, and since supplies that were obtained did not fit the rifles the troops had only three rounds a man. The same was true of the ammunition that was obtained for some antique machine guns acquired from 2 Greek Regiment. Moreover, the shortage of rifles was never made up beyond 600; for by the time more became available it was too late to collect them.
The foregoing may suffice for a general picture of the position in the brigade sectors. But how these would fare once battle was joined largely depended on the organisation in the rear. For on this they had to rely both before and during the battle for their supplies, their information, and their orders. To complete the picture of the general situation of the New Zealand Division as it developed up to the outbreak of battle, therefore, some space must be devoted to the activities not only of Divisional HQ but of its supporting troops and services and the problems with which they had to struggle.
So few were the guns that the account already given of the artillery under the various brigades need scarcely be amplified. Nor need we dwell further on the engineers with 5 Brigade. But something must be said of NZE Headquarters itself and of 5 Field Park Company. The former, under Major Hanson, MM,1 who had been appointed CRE to the Division on 29 April, was active in the early days of May carrying out a coastal reconnaissance, making a variety of mines and Molotov cocktails to help out the meagre munition supplies of the troops, and building a Battle HQ for Division. This latter was complete by 14 May, and NZE HQ itself moved from Galatas to the same neighbourhood three days later.
1 Brig F. M. H. Hanson, DSO and bar, OBE, MM, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Levin, 1896; resident engineer Main Highways Board; Wellington Regt in First World War; commanded 7 Fd Coy, NZE, Jan 1940–Aug 1941; CRE 2 NZ Div May 1941, Oct 1941–Apr 1944, Nov 1944–Jan 1946; Chief Engineer, 2 NZEF, 1943–46; wounded three times; Deputy Commissioner of Works.
For one further important task volunteers were recruited from all the New Zealand engineer units. As air raids increased in intensity it became more and more difficult to ensure sufficient unloading in Suda Bay, civilian stevedores proving inadequate in morale. Accordingly, Australian and New Zealand help was asked for and given. In this difficult and dangerous work the volunteers served with a cheerful courage and efficiency that was beyond praise.
The organisation of even an approximately efficient signals system was not the least of the problems that the Division had to face at the outset. Here the difficulty was not so much one of men as of equipment. The supply of this was so meagre that upwards of a hundred men were sent back to Egypt with the Rodi; for, had they remained, they would have had to be used as infantry, a role for which their specialised training both unfitted them and made them too valuable.
1 Col R. L. C. Grant, OBE, m.i.d.; Pakistan; born Leeston, 25 May 1906; telegraph engineer; CO 2 NZ Div Sigs Sep–Nov 1942, Jun–Dec 1943, Mar–May 1944, Jun 1944–Jan 1945; CSO NZ Corps 19–27 Mar 1944; serving in United Nations Military Observer Group, Pakistan.
This organisation was not established without struggle and to establish it at all heroic efforts had to be made at making do. Its weaknesses were considerable and serious, partly because it was so difficult to replace scarce material once it had been put out of action and partly because of the conditions in which the battle was to be fought. These things will become sufficiently evident when the time comes to treat of the fighting.
Little has been said as yet of the medical services, and this seems an appropriate place for a brief sketch of their development up to the beginning of the battle. When the first troops were being evacuated from Greece the only equipped medical units already on the island were 7 British General Hospital, on an open peninsula rather more than two miles west of Canea, and 189 British Field Ambulance at Khalepa, a suburb north-east of Canea. The 7th General Hospital had 600 beds, and as the time went on and the urgency became great 189 Field Ambulance was also fitted out by means of various improvisations as an emergency hospital. The only subsequent arrival to be reckoned more or less strictly as a hospital was 1 Tented Hospital RN, with 60 beds, which came from Egypt on 10 May and was set up at Mournies.
The evacuation of Greece brought reinforcements in the shape of field ambulances and field hygiene sections. These were: 4 Light Field Ambulance, 168 Light Field Ambulance, 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance, 2/2 Australian Field Ambulance, 2/7 Australian Field Ambulance, 5 and 6 New Zealand Field Ambulances, 48 British Field Hygiene Section, 2 Armoured Division Field Hygiene Section, and 4 New Zealand Field Hygiene Section.
It is only the New Zealand units that concern us here. But it should be remarked of the other new arrivals that they, like the New Zealand units, were all very badly off for all kinds of equipment and brought with them only what their devoted members had been able to carry out of Greece.
With the New Zealand units had come the matron and 51 nurses of 1 NZ General Hospital. As soon as they arrived they put themselves at the disposal of 7 General Hospital, which in these early days was overwhelmingly busy with the flood of wounded from the Greek campaign. But it was clear that for all their courage and usefulness Crete was too advanced a position for them, and that they might be an embarrassment in the battle to come. They were evacuated accordingly by the Ionia on 29 April and page 75 reached Egypt safely, though not without attention from enemy aircraft.
The 5th Field Ambulance soon after its arrival moved to Ay Marina and set up an MDS to serve 5 Brigade, 4 Field Hygiene Section moving with it. Here both remained until 17 May, when they moved to a more forward position at Modhion. Even in the daily superintendence of the troop's health there was much for them to do: malaria had to be guarded against and the conditions— shortage of the tools with which to dig latrines, for example—made it necessary to put even more than the usual emphasis on questions of routine hygienic discipline.
The 6th Field Ambulance had at first established two MDSs, one at Perivolia for the reception of walking wounded and the other not far from 7 General Hospital, to which it was of considerable assistance and for which by 11 May it was providing a convalescent depot.
The New Zealand force also supplied help to the higher organisation. On 7 May Colonel Kenrick1 was appointed DDMS Creforce. Colonel Bull2 took his place as DDMS NZ Division, and Major Elliott3 was made DADMS. They had much to worry them: among other things the problem of inadequate hospitalisation and inadequate supplies. But they were able to do a good deal, and the situation became somewhat easier with the departure of a hospital ship taking off wounded on 5 May and again on 16 May.
Wherever one turns, in fact, at this stage of the preparations for battle one encounters this same problem, supply. We have already seen how much it governed what could be done in the forward sectors, and it was as prominent in the perplexities of Division as it was in the minds of those at Creforce HQ and in the messages of General Freyberg to General Wavell.
1 Brig H. S. Kenrick, CB, CBE, ED, m.i.d., MC (Greek); Auckland; born Paeroa, 7 Aug 1898; consulting obstetrician; 1 NZEF 1916–19, infantry officer 4 Bn; CO 5 Fd Amb Dec 1939–May 1940; acting ADMS 2 NZEF Egypt, Jun–Sep 1940; ADMS 2 NZ Div Oct 1940–May 1942; DMS 2 NZEF May–Sep 1942, Apr 1943–May 1945; Superintendent-in-Chief, Auckland Hospital Board.
3 Lt-Col J. K. Elliott, OBE, ED; Wellington; born Wellington, 24 Aug 1908; surgeon; RMO 18 Bn Sep 1939–Dec 1940; DADMS 2 NZ Div Dec 1940–Nov 1941; surgeon 1 Gen Hosp Nov 1941–Jun 1943; CO 4 Fd Amb Jun 1943–Apr 1944; Orthopaedic Consultant (NZ) Jun 1944–Mar 1945.
As early as 30 April Creforce was able to make a stock of grenades, 3-inch mortar bombs, and small-arms ammunition available, and these were passed on as quickly as possible to battalions. To facilitate such distribution the A/Q, Major Peart,1 set up his headquarters in Galatas on 1 May, along with DADOS (E), Major Kelsey.2 Headquarters of the ASC was at Ay Marina, where also was the DID,3 the latter intent on its task of building up a dump of 60,000 rations in the area and another dump of 20,000 in the area of 22 Battalion. In this it was successful, and it had succeeded besides in dumping three days' rations with each unit by 14 May. The fact that only a very few trucks were available for these purposes makes the accomplishment all the more creditable.
The arrival of such artillery as the Division was to get has already been dealt with. On 4 May the Division received its allotment of 2800 coils of wire, 5800 pickets and 200 shovels, and these were shared out to battalions as fairly as might be, the supply to be supplemented by later allotments, of which enough did reach the various sectors for each unit to have the protection of some wiring.
Hopes were high at one stage for 35 Bren carriers for the divisional sector. But an untimely raid on Suda Bay brought the number down in actuality to ten. Supplies of machine guns and small-arms ammunition never really came up to necessity, though fortunately the weapons and ammunition captured from the enemy in the early days of battle made a useful supplement.
The weakness in transport was to some extent remedied by the allotment to the sector on 17 May of 36 15-cwt. trucks and seven motor cycles. The latter were of use mainly for despatch riders, while of the former four were retained at Divisional HQ and the others distributed. They proved of very great use at awkward moments in the battle but were, of course, too few to make the troops independent of marching.
In any battle much of what happens is explicable only if we take into account not only the strength and plans of each side but also what each side took to be the strength and plans of the other. This is the province of military intelligence. It has already been shown that in Crete the defence had appreciated with considerable success the probable landing places of the invasion and the manner of it. But it seems worth while at this point to consider how widespread among the troops before the battle was this estimate of the enemy's intentions.
In fact, if inference from unit war diaries is safe, the enemy's general intention was broadly known at a very early stage. On 30 April the war diaries of 5 Brigade, HQ NZA, and 23 Battalion all record information from Creforce that the enemy was assembling troop-carriers, bombers, and gliders for the invasion of Crete and that this invasion might be expected for 1 or 2 May. A message from General Freyberg to the troops on 1 May also warned them to ‘be ready for immediate action’, and this he reinforced in subsequent addresses to the officers and NCOs of the various brigades in which he stressed the inevitability of attack. A Creforce instruction,1 passed on by Division,2 indicated that the attack would be by both land and sea, and a similar instruction from 5 Brigade emphasized the airborne aspect of the coming assault.3
Nor was what had already been learnt about the methods of enemy paratroops neglected. Creforce sent out useful reports on this subject and typed notes, no doubt based on the Creforce reports, were issued by Division on 13 May to the brigades. These notes recommended swift counter-attacks, the rounding up of paratroops on the aerodromes before the arrival of their airborne supports, and the swift movement of troops to any threatened locality. The kinds of topographical feature that were important were enumerated and the basic principles useful for training emphasized.
So far as 5 Brigade was concerned at least, these notes were accompanied by a visit from Brigadier Puttick, who again dwelt on the probable character of the attack and warned everyone to be alert and ready to counter-attack.
2 Divisional Operation Order No. 5, 5 May.
3 Operation Instruction, No. 3, 4 May.
4 Names of enemy formations and units are in italics.
May the 17th came and went without invasion. Lest anyone become optimistically sceptical 5 Brigade warned its units next day that the enemy was nearly ready with his preparations. But 18 May also passed without attack. When on 19 May it still had not come there were some among the more sanguine, both in the front line and back in Cairo, who thought the attack would not come at all. But their doubts were not shared by General Wavell and were to have but a very short life.
It will be seen from all this that the nature and strength of the invasion was not only appreciated with remarkable accuracy, but that by the time the battle was to begin there was little chance that even the obscurest fatigue man could be ignorant of what he was about to face. Thus whatever else the enemy might have in his favour he would not be able to claim surprise; nor should the defence be able to use it as excuse. Unluckily, however, though an accurate appreciation of enemy intentions is always invaluable and was so on this occasion, its full value largely depends on the defence's having time and material with which to prepare counter-measures. And in these respects, as has already been shown and as will appear only too often in the sequel, the defence was bitterly handicapped.
Little now remains to be said of Divisional HQ itself. From its formation on 30 April with Brigadier Puttick in command and Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry as his GSO 1, it had been trying to grapple with a thousand problems and at the same time build itself out of little or nothing into the smooth-running engine needed to operate a fighting machine. The main features of this process will have already emerged from the narrative so far. The machine in action we shall see in the subsequent story. But for the sake of tidiness it will be convenient to give at this point a short account of its dealing with one of the problems that dogged its early days: that of evacuating the troops who would not be required in action.
At first it had been the understanding at Creforce that the troops from Greece would be evacuated to Egypt at the earliest opportunity and discussions were begun at Force HQ on 28 April on that assumption. Even after it became clear that this was too much to hope, so far as New Zealand Division was concerned the page 79 idea seems to have persisted that there would be a substantial reduction in the numbers remaining.1
No records of the conferences in which the problem must have been discussed are extant, however, and the underlying policy is best inferred from what in fact took place. The first step was a warning order sent out to the brigades on 1 May that all unarmed artillerymen would be under three hours' notice to move from 2 May. And on the following day most of those in this category began to make their way to Transit Camp A; while the Divisional Troops Supply Officer and a small advance party went to Suda Bay to await the first ship. At this time there were evidently expectations still of a large-scale evacuation, for one document dated 4 May gives the strength of the Division on that date as 8300, but records the New Zealand strength expected for 14 May as 4500.
On 8 May there were further movements of unarmed or specialist troops towards the transit camp, notably of the Divisional Ammunition Company from Oakes Force, HQ Divisional Supply Column, and 1 Echelon Divisional Supply and J Section. On the same day HQ ASC were also awaiting a movement order, and those of Divisional Signals who had not been allotted tasks received theirs.
Embarkation took place on the two following days on the Rodi and Belray, which sailed on 9 May, and on the City of Canterbury, which sailed on 10 May. These three vessels evacuated the unarmed men of 4 Field Regiment, 1 Survey Troop, the spare elements of Divisional Signals, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, HQ NZA, elements of Divisional Supply, and HQ ASC. They reached Egypt without major mishap. A further evacuation took place with the departure of the Nieuw Zeeland on 14 May carrying the Divisional Ammunition Company and all the remaining elements of Divisional Supply, except 1 Echelon which was left in the transit camp and 2 Echelon which had stayed with 10 Brigade. This ship also arrived safely in Egypt. As it turned out, there were to be no further evacuations, and on 19 May the men of 1 Echelon Divisional Supply were organised for defence under Captain W. S. Page of 44 RTR, along with other miscellaneous troops left in the transit camp.
1 WD A/Q 2 NZ Div.