III: Canea-Galatas Sector
III: Canea-Galatas Sector
To the attack in the Canea-Galatas sector the enemy planned to devote the first wave of Group Centre. The second wave was to take Retimo in the afternoon and then divert troops westwards to the support of the first wave already attacking Canea and Suda.
The plan was that the two companies of I Battalion, the Assault Regiment, should land by glider and destroy the two AA batteries which the enemy considered most dangerous to landings in the Canea area: one on the Akrotiri Peninsula and the other about a mile south of Canea.1
To carry out this attack on the two AA batteries the glider groups were organised into two detachments. One detachment, under the command of Captain Altmann, was to attack the Akrotiri battery, flying in 15 gliders. The second detachment, under the command of Lieutenant Gentz, was to attack the battery south of Canea as well as the wireless station in the same area.
The parachutists of 3 Parachute Regiment under their commander, Colonel Heidrich,2 were to land on either side of the road from Alikianou to Canea. There were four parachute battalions in all: I, II, and III Battalions of 3 Parachute Regiment and the Parachute Engineer Battalion. Of these I and II were to land south-west of the prison on the road about two miles south of Galatas, were to drive east towards Suda—bypassing Canea—and link up with Altmann's glider force. III Battalion was to land east and north-east of Galatas, to capture the ‘tented camp’ two miles west of Canea3 and the villages of Karatsos and Galatas, and then attack Canea from the west. The Engineer Battalion (three companies and a Parachute MG Company) was to land north of Alikianou, act as rearguard to the other three battalions, seize the Aghya power station and the Alikianou road-bridge, and investigate the tented camps at Fournes and Skines which were believed to contain Italian prisoners of war.
2 Lt-Gen Richard Heidrich; then aged 45; Comd 3 Para Regt; GOC 7 Air Div, 1943; GOC 1 Para Div, 1943; GOC 1 Para Corps, 1944; high award for defence of Cassino. The Division was to meet him again at Cassino and elsewhere in Italy as GOC 1 Parachute Division. His son was to achieve a certain fame as a leader of Italian partisans.
3 This was 7 General Hospital.
It may prove helpful if this plan is set out in tabular form and with slightly more detail:
|Unit||Commander||Intended landing area|
|HQ 7 Para Div||Gen Suessmann||Prison Valley|
|Coy I Bn Assault Regt||Capt Altmann||Akrotiri Peninsula|
|Coy I Bn Assault Regt||Lt Gentz||AA Bty and W/T station south of Canea|
|HQ 3 Para Regt||Col Heidrich||Prison Valley|
|I Bn (1–4 Coys)||Capt von der Heydte||Prison Valley|
|II Bn (5–7 Coys)1||Maj Derpa||Prison Valley|
|III Bn (9–12 Coys)||Maj Heilmann||East and north-east of Galatas|
|13 Coy (infantry guns)||?||Prison Valley|
|14 Coy (A-tk guns)||?||Prison Valley|
|Engineer Bn||Maj Liebach||Valley north of Alikianou|
|3 Para MG Coy||?||Valley north of Alikianou|
|4 Para AA MG Coy||Lt Matthies||South-east of Galatas.|
The working out of the plan in action—so far as it did work out in action—determined the initial pattern of the fighting in this sector, and so a beginning will be made with what happened to these forces when they reached the ground.
It was Altmann's intention to seize a number of tactically important points east of Canea (and presumably on the Akrotiri Peninsula) at the same time as he attacked the AA battery, which was his main objective. But during the approach flight his force lost its cohesion and the towing aircraft came under AA fire when they reached Akrotiri. The gliders cast off and came down dispersed and unable to find their allotted landing points. Several gliders were damaged on rocky ground, and there were heavy losses in killed and wounded from the first. The crews were too scattered to give one another support. The AA position they were to attack proved a dummy. The area was strongly held by the Northumberland Hussars. The glider troops held out as best they could in isolated groups, but after a few days the remnants were forced to surrender through lack of supplies. They had had 48 killed and 36 wounded.
The Headquarters party of Group Centre had also elected to travel by glider. The glider carrying General Suessmann, however, lost its wings early in the flight and crashed on Aegina. All its occupants were killed. The other four gliders landed according to plan something under a mile east of the Aghya reservoir.1 Command of 7 Air Division passed to Colonel Heidrich, who also retained command of 3 Parachute Regiment.
The glider attack had not therefore been notably successful, though its nuisance value was considerable for days afterwards and the fear of similar landings to follow may have played its part in holding down troops in back areas. But the main brunt of the attack lay with the parachute troops proper of 3 Parachute Regiment.
I Battalion was heavily fired on as it came down, but made a fairly successful landing in the flat country just south of the prison and east of the Canea-Alikianou road. Here the commander, Captain von der Heydte, formed up his battalion. The prison was taken at once and the battalion then thrust into the heights to the east. Though harassed by flanking fire from Galatas and without heavy weapons, the attack carried as far as Perivolia, meeting little serious opposition from the poorly armed Greeks of 6 Greek Regiment. At Perivolia the battalion found 11 Company of III Battalion, which had been wrongly put down here instead of at Galatas. Thus reinforced, the thrust was carried through to Mournies. But here strong counter-attacks, presumably by 2 Greek Regiment and the miscellaneous troops thereabouts, halted it. The Germans therefore fell back on Perivolia, having taken 200 prisoners during the morning.
The moment we left the planes we were met with extremely heavy small arms fire. From my aircraft we suffered particularly heavy casualties and only three men reached the ground unhurt. Those who had jumped first, nearer to Galatas, were practically all killed, either in the air or soon after landing. The survivors rallied to a position near the prison where we became organised, collected equipment, and formed up for an attack up the hill to the north towards Galatas. Approximately 350 men of my battalion had survived the initial landing and organising period.
III Battalion—9, 10, 11, and 12 Companies—had an unlucky start. Major Heilmann, his HQ, and 9 Company were landed wrongly along the Alikianou-Canea road south-east of Galatas instead of east of that village. Here they were in the middle of positions held by Greeks and New Zealanders. Only by a violent effort in which their machine pistols and grenades proved very useful were they able to seize one of the heights south-east of Galatas.1
Meanwhile, 10 Company which had been correctly put down north-east of Galatas ‘immediately attacked the tented camp 2 km West of Canea, seized it and hoisted the swastika flag. 500 prisoners were taken.’2 The rest of the company's adventures were known to the enemy only through the accounts of survivors. For Lieutenant Pagels, the company commander, decided in the face of counter-attacks that he must break through to his regiment; on the way he was ambushed and killed with most of his company.
The other two companies, 11 and 12, were also unlucky, but less so. No. 11 Company landed near Perivolia, where it joined I Battalion. Its commander and a few others, who had landed correctly north of Galatas, were killed in an attack towards it. No. 12 Company also landed wrongly, with I Battalion. Instead of seizing Karatsos according to plan, it had to support I Battalion.
No. 4 AA MG Company came down somewhere south-east of Galatas and under heavy fire got three or four 20-millimetre guns into action in support of the scattered operations of III Battalion. The commander of the MG battalion dropped with the company and was wounded. Four of its officers were killed. But the company managed to resist counter-attacks by tanks and even to destroy several—according to 11 Air Corps.3
The Engineer Battalion, with 3 Parachute MG Company and a platoon of anti-tank guns in support, was put down correctly north of Alikianou, south of Kirtomadho and close to Lake Aghya. They had to free themselves from their harness and the abundant cactus while under fire from Greek troops and civilians. By the time they had done so they found that the Greeks had acquired German weapons. ‘The ranges on both sides of the dropping area are held by Greek soldiers and partisans, ably led by some British officers…. Thus the battalion is surrounded in its own landing area.’ By midday, however, some semblance of order was restored and the commanders had their companies in hand. No. 2 Company then began its attack towards Alikianou. Some progress was made at first, but determined resistance by the Greeks—women and children among them and armed mainly with shotguns—halted the Germans, after heavy casualties, about half a mile from the road-bridge.1
Meanwhile 4 Company had failed to advance south of Alikianou or to capture the power station. About half past twelve it was directed to support 2 Company by attacking the ridges east of the road. In this, too, it failed and with considerable losses.
At 2 p.m. seven transport aircraft brought arms and ammunition, all of which fell into the Greek lines. But this disappointment to the enemy was mitigated by the capture of the power station which took place shortly afterwards. This and the fact of a successful landing were the only successes for the battalion that day.
Colonel Heidrich himself had landed near the prison about nine o'clock with his regimental signals. He must quickly have appreciated that the plan had gone awry and that the hills to the east and those round Galatas were vital. I Battalion could deal with the former without much alteration of plan; but it was clearly pointless to send II Battalion in the same direction. He therefore put 5 Company under III Battalion and deployed 6 Company and II Battalion HQ south of the prison to protect his right flank.2
2 7 Coy had already been destroyed. 11 Air Corps Report makes no mention of 8 Coy, but according to the operation order of 3 Para Regt it was to be landed by sea near Maleme and was to ‘reach the regiment as quickly as possible.’
3 CSM Neuhoff thus describes the attack: ‘In the afternoon between 1400 and 1500 hours we advanced to attack the hill of Galatas. We proceeded, without opposition, about half way up the hill. Suddenly we ran into heavy and very accurate rifle and machine-gun fire. The enemy had held their fire with great discipline and had allowed us to approach well within effective range before opening up. Our casualties were extremely heavy and we were forced to retire leaving many dead behind us…. This first attack on Galatas had cost us approximately 50 per cent casualties about half of whom were killed.’
With the enemy on the ground and the rough pattern of his landings apparent, the point of view can be switched to that of the defence. And on this first day General Freyberg's forces in the general area of Canea-Galatas were to be found fighting in many different places. As by the end of the day it was sufficiently clear that the Galatas area held by 10 Brigade was to be the main front, it will be convenient to dispose of the subsidiary—in some cases literally ephemeral—fronts first.
Broadly, these may be summed up as three: the area round Canea held by Suda Force and 2 Greek Regiment; the area of 18 Battalion and 7 General Hospital; and that held by 19 Battalion and 1 Light Troop RA.
The opposition on the first front came initially from the glider troops of Captain Altmann and Lieutenant Gentz. The fate of Altmann's men has already been described from enemy sources, and it remains only to add that though a few parties survived the attention of the Northumberland Hussars and the gunners in the area and lingered for a few days about the Akrotiri Peninsula, they could never be more than a nuisance and in due course ceased to be even that.
Gentz's glider company had overwhelmed the troop of 234 HAA Battery about eight o'clock. It was some time before Major H. V. Wolstenholme of the same unit was able to complete a reconnaissance and then gather a party of Royal Marines for counter-attack. But by the afternoon this had been done and about four o'clock the enemy had been driven off the guns.1 Inasmuch as this glider party had managed to keep the guns of the troop out of action while the parachutists were landing, it had done the enemy good service.
1 WD 52 LAA Regt. (Compiled after the battle from notes.)
Another parachute party had landed close to the house in which the King of Greece, guarded by B Company of 18 NZ Battalion, had been staying until the day before. This house was a little north of the transit camp and, in the course of the fighting that followed an attack by the paratroops, B Company had a busy day patrolling and fighting in general concert with the men from the transit camp. The attack was broken up, and because of their help in what was assumed to have been an attempt to capture the King the troops from the transit camp were dubbed by General Weston ‘The Royal Perivolians’.
The King had in fact moved on 19 May to a house about two miles south of the transit camp, escorted by 12 Platoon of B Company under Second-Lieutenant W. H. Ryan. His subsequent adventures fall outside the main narrative and are dealt with separately in Appendix II.
One other group on the Suda Force front saw some ground action this day. The 2nd Greek Regiment, with a party of five New Zealand instructors under Major H. G. Wooller1 attached, held a position running south from the southern exit of Mournies to the hills and then west along the northern slope of these. Most of the enemy paratroops landed outside the regimental area. In fighting with about thirty who landed inside the area, the regiment's few rounds of ammunition were used up and Wooller spent a good part of the day trying to obtain more. In the end he secured a truckload of grenades and, armed with these, the Greeks made a substantial advance from Mournies in the direction of Perivolia, where the first paratroops—presumably from 11 Company—had been despatched by civilians with axes and spades but where reinforcements from I Battalion had found their way later.
At the end of the day, therefore, in the Suda Force area there had been no serious alteration in the general position, except for the potential threat west of Mournies and the move by 2/8 Australian Battalion to help check it.
The next area in which there was fighting on any scale this first day was that of 18 Battalion, 4 Brigade HQ, and 7 General Hospital.1 The whole of 18 Battalion, except for B Company on its royal escort duty, was disposed on either side of the Canea-Maleme road about half a mile west of the turn-off from the main road that ran to Galatas. The commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Gray,2 had three companies forward and astride the main road and one in reserve.3 The positions took full advantage of the cover given by the olive groves but there were big gaps between the company areas.
For Lieutenant-Colonel Gray the first warning that this was not to be like other days was the sight of a number of gliders whose disappearance towards Canea was followed by the arrival of about a dozen Junkers 52. Corporal Howard,4 then with D Company, gives a description which is typical for what many men saw that morning:
… through the trees I saw large troop-carrying planes lumbering through the air while from their bellies dropped little dots which were steadied in their descent by the sudden billowing of parachutes. The Blitz was on. Soon the sky was full of airy mushrooms and, as they descended, ME fighter escorts roared overhead—just overhead too, for they skimmed the tree tops, the roar of their engines was intended to distract us…. I took up position at the base of a tree and opened fire with tracers on the dangling figures descending…. Shooting was general and as parachutists reached the ground, 150–200 yards away on tussocky ground and in vineyards, they provided fairly good marks. Many were shot before they got clear of their envelopes. Very few survived in our area.
1 20 Bn, in reserve to the west of 18 Bn, was too far away from the paratroop landings to be much troubled at this time.
… gathering up everybody at Bn HQ, even to the cook, we went up on the ridge in the direction of the enemy. Arrived there, one saw the parachutists still descending and the last planes just turning away to go home. The parachutists dropped from an average height of about 300 feet, and took about half-a-minute to come down. Many had reached the ground. They were dropping on a ridge about 700 yards or so away, among olive trees, and there was an intervening ridge between ours and theirs.
Down and on to the next ridge. There we stood for a few moments shooting at the last ones in the air. Then on again to get in among them. I looked round. My batman, George Andrews, the RSM, and Cpl Dick Phillips, one of the orderly room clerks were with me. I felt the others were coming. There was nothing for it but to go on and trust to the rest following.
I saw a parachute hanging in a tree and detected a movement round the left side of it. Fired quickly with my rifle—every officer in the battalion had a rifle. Then advancing very softly and quickly up to the parachute I looked round the side to see a Hun lying on the ground beside a gaily coloured container fastened to the parachute. He moved, so I shot him at once to make sure, and then moved cautiously from cover to cover.
I shot another hiding behind a tree, and wounded him. He was very frightened, but I told him to lie still and he would be looked after. Took his pistol away and gave it to Dick Phillips who was just on my right. No sooner had I handed it to him than he was shot through the knee. Two Huns about 30 yards away hiding behind a tree were shooting at the two of us. Two careful ones immediately despatched them both. There were plenty of bullets flying round but one had no time to bother about them. I saw George Andrews sitting on the ground taking careful aim at some cactus bushes behind us. “Steady on George,” I said, “You will be shooting one of our own chaps.” “No bloody fear, it's a Hun,” he said, and fired, “Got him.”1
Once Gray had satisfied himself that all was going well, he returned to his HQ. Here he was found in the middle of his morning shave by Brigadier Inglis and his Brigade Major. They told him that 7 General Hospital had been attacked and that they had ordered A Company of his battalion, which happened to be the nearest company, to clear out the enemy. Upon this Gray sent a second company and two Bren carriers to take part in this movement on the left.
1 Lt-Col Gray, letter to J. G. McLean, 24 Jul 1941.
In the morning, about the same time as the air attack broke out elsewhere, 7 General Hospital and 6 Field Ambulance were both subjected to a severe bombing and strafing attack which lasted for about an hour and a half. At the end of it, about half past nine, paratroops had been landed and suddenly appeared in the two areas.
In 6 Field Ambulance the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Plimmer,2 and his second-in-command, Captain Lovell,3 were both ordered to surrender. Unarmed, they were both shot at. Plimmer was hit and died soon afterwards. The staff, which numbered about a hundred, and the patients, of whom there were about forty, were then rounded up and put under guard in the MDS clearing with its Red Cross flag.
Meanwhile 7 General Hospital, which had had several tents destroyed in the bombing, was similarly attacked. Patients—some of whom, perhaps as many as twenty, were killed—and staff were driven out and herded over to 6 Field Ambulance. Among them were some bed patients—although a number of bad cases were allowed to remain, the choice probably depending on the temper of the individual parachutist.4
At 6 Field Ambulance patients from both places were held under guard. By this time they numbered about 300 in all. Permission was given for the burial of Lieutenant-Colonel Plimmer. Food from a small dump was distributed. Some water was also given out. Once during the morning a carrier—no doubt from 18 Battalion—appeared but, unable to effect anything in the confusion of enemy and prisoners, turned back again to report. Not long after a tank came on the scene. But it too withdrew.
The enemy must have used this pause to consider their position. It could hardly have seemed cheerful. Whether they were able or not to communicate with the rest of their battalion, they must have realised that something was wrong. They were isolated and had probably already begun to feel pressure from 18 Battalion. They had a large body of sick and wounded prisoners on their hands. In this situation their best course was to try and make their way back to the main body near Galatas, taking their prisoners.
3 Lt-Col A. A. Lovell; Tanganyika; born England, 10 Feb 1910; medical practitioner; medical officer, Fanning Island, 1940; 6 Fd Amb Aug 1940–Dec 1941; 1 Gen Hosp Dec 1941–Nov 1944; OC NZ Mil Hosp (UK) 1944–46.
4 Some orderlies managed to remain with the bed patients.
Accordingly, not long after midday, they began to shepherd their charges in the general direction of Galatas. But this was also the general direction of 19 Battalion's right flank. On the way the column was fired on. One of the guards was wounded. Three members of 6 Field Ambulance staff were killed and one wounded. A party from D Company was soon encountered and in the engagement that followed most of the guards were killed. A few patients were also wounded, but by 5 p.m. the survivors were all rescued and they spent the night with 19 Battalion.
Not all the patients and staff had gone with this party. Captain Lovell and Lieutenant Ballantyne1 and two NCOs had been escorted to 7 General Hospital to treat a wounded German. Meanwhile 18 Battalion appeared on the scene and rescued the others. A new dressing station was set up, with equipment salvaged from the old one, in a culvert under the main road. The General Hospital was also re-established by officers and orderlies who had escaped or remained hidden. The new location was in caves by the shore. Operations were carried out all night by Major Christie2 and Captain A. Gourevitch, and next day the rest of the patients and staff returned. By 23 May faith in its protection had recovered sufficiently for a Red Cross to be displayed, and the enemy did not molest either ambulance or hospital any further.
For 19 Battalion, closer to the dropping area, the day was not easy. There were only four companies—B Company had been lost at the Corinth Canal—and although the battalion was part of Force Reserve its positions were important from the first as a support to 10 Brigade. The companies were disposed south and south-east of Karatsos, between the village and the Alikianou-Canea road. Farthest west was D (Taranaki) Company; C (Hawke's Bay) Company was a little south-east of D; A (Wellington) Company adjoined C still farther to the east; and Headquarters Company held the eastern flank3
Also in the area were two troops of artillery. F Troop of 28 Battery was in A Company area about 200 yards west of Karatsos church. And on the south side of the Alikianou-Canea road was 1 Light Troop RA.
2 Col H. K. Christie, CBE, ED; Wanganui; born Invercargill, 13 Jul 1894; surgeon; surgeon 1 Gen Hosp Mar 1940–Apr 1941; OC surgical team, Greece and Crete; in charge surgical division 1 Gen Hosp, Aug 1941–Jun 1943; CO 2 Gen Hosp Jun 1943–Oct 1944.
Accounts of the numbers of parachutists landing vary from one hundred to four hundred. If we allow for double counting and the speed with which they were brought under control, 200 seems a probable maximum.1 To the commander of 14 Platoon in C Company, Lieutenant Cockerill,2 who was in a good position to observe, it seemed that the greater number landed south of the Canea-Alikianou road; and this is likely enough in view of the German story that, although III Battalion was to have landed east of Galatas and taken Karatsos, only 10 Company was correctly landed, the others being dropped too far to the south and east. We may surmise that elements of all four companies landed actually in 19 Battalion area but the main body of the battalion outside it.
Of those who were correctly put down very few must have survived the fusillade that began while the parachutes were still dropping and continued throughout the earlier part of the morning. By 10 a.m. all four companies of 19 Battalion were reporting their area clear.
For F Troop the silent passage of a glider overhead while the gunners were at their breakfast was the first intimation that this was to be no ordinary day. A party at once set off for the observation post on Cemetery Hill. It had covered only 200 yards when it was forced to ground by paratroops landing all around. The party ‘put in some fairly sporting work with their one and only rifle.’3 But when news came that the Greeks had been forced off Cemetery Hill and the observation post was therefore in enemy hands, there was nothing for it but to return to the guns. Here the rest of the gunners were found armed to the teeth with enemy weapons and busy dealing with snipers. The guns themselves, deprived of their observation post, could now be fired only over open sights at whatever tempted attention. Enemy parties visible from about half past nine on the hills to the south came under this heading. An abortive attack on the gun positions themselves yielded eleven prisoners.
1 19 Bn reported 155 killed and buried and 9 PW for this day.
The troop's position—taken up on 17 May—was a roughly rectangular clearing, bounded on the west and east by olive groves, on the north by the road, and on the south by a stream. The guns were dispersed among the trees but by 20 May were still not completely ready for action.2
As soon as he found Captain Dawney determined to keep to his position, Blackburn had offered him infantry protection. The offer was refused, however, until about six o'clock in the evening of 19 May. Blackburn thereupon ordered A Company to provide the protection and Captain Pleasants3 decided to send 8 Platoon. By this time the platoon commander, rather remissly, thought it too late to do more than reconnoitre and arrange for one section to move in at first light next day and a second to follow after breakfast.
About six o'clock next morning the first section duly arrived, and as soon as the aerial bombardment slackened the men joined the breakfast queue. The rations were in their hands but not in their mouths when the landing began. The paratroops seemed to them to land mainly along the road or north of it, and the section had quickly to alter its targets from transport planes to enemy on the ground. At first a ditch along the west side of the clearing made a useful trench; but fire from the right flank made this untenable and, after casualties, the men of the section were forced back to slit trenches in the clearing itself where they hoped to get support from the gunners.
1 Maj Duigan.
3 Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Fiji; born Halcombe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn and Armd Regt Jul 1942–Mar 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Sep–Oct 1944; 5 Bde Nov 1944–Jan 1945, May 1945–Jan 1946; twice wounded Commander Fiji Military Forces, Mar 1949–.
Meanwhile the enemy fire got heavier and the section found itself reduced to six men. When finally the enemy ‘got close enough to trundle egg grenades at us’, they decided to withdraw to the south-east corner of the clearing. Here they found the troop's GPO and a dozen or so gunners.
Attempts by reconnaissance upstream to locate any missing having run into strong crossfire, the party, gunners along with infantry— now reduced to four—made their way downstream and by about midday had managed to cross the road, hand over the gunners to Headquarters Company, and get back to A Company. Captain Dawney himself, along with another party of gunners, had already found his way to F Troop. Of the four guns three remained out of action, but the enemy seems to have been able to use the remaining one against F Troop.
News of 1 Troop's disaster could not reach 19 Battalion until the survivors began to come in. For line communications had been cut at the outset. Moreover, the men of 19 Battalion had not had long in which to congratulate themselves on their first success. Further aircraft came over between eleven o'clock and midday and dropped containers and more troops. A and D Company sent out patrols which cleared out about twenty of the enemy near Karatsos. Other parties were sent to locate and take over the dropped equipment, dealing with isolated groups of Germans as they did so. In spite of this single snipers began to give trouble, and the enemy had machine guns and mortars in action to which the battalion's three-inch mortar proved a fairly effective counter.
It was nearly four o'clock in the afternoon before communication to 4 Brigade was restored; and by this time some pattern could be discerned in the enemy's doings. The slackening air attack suggested that he was consolidating, and the flares sent up to show his aircraft what were his positions were helpful to the defending troops as well. Thus the battalion was able to conclude and report to Brigade that the main attack seemed to be directed from an east-west line roughly along the heights between the prison area and Perivolia: A smaller attack appeared to be developing towards the Canea-Alikianou road where 1 Light Troop RA had been. North of the battalion's positions patrols were clearing the enemy from between Karatsos and the sea. The battalion's own casualties were between fifteen and twenty men. This message also informed 4 Brigade of the fate of 1 Light Troop RA.
1 Pte Bishop.
A written message sent at 4 p.m. to Division summarises the situation on 19 Battalion front at what was roughly the end of the first phase of its fighting. About 100–150 enemy had been put out of action. An enemy party of perhaps 200 men was attacking the slopes held by A Company and Headquarters Company. Another group in even greater strength was attacking Cemetery Hill. But the ammunition position was satisfactory and patrols were engaging enemy north of Karatsos.1
The main enemy landings had taken place between Galatas, the Prison, and Alikianou. Here in the next few days there were to be a front and fighting second in importance only to Maleme, with 10 Brigade the front line of the defence. It will be best to dispose first of the outlying units which by reason of distance and lack of communication were virtually outside the control of the brigade commander.
The 8th Greek Regiment was in difficulties from the start, cut off from 10 Brigade by the landings in the Prison area and the eastward thrust of I Battalion, and threatened on its left and front by the Parachute Engineer Battalion. Attached to the Greeks were a party of New Zealand instructors led by Major Wilson2 of 20 Battalion. Wilson had decided beforehand that when battle began it would be best for the New Zealanders to concentrate separately; for there was reason to fear that otherwise the Greeks would disregard their own officers and, as the New Zealanders knew no Greek, the system of command would be dislocated.3
Accordingly, Wilson had his supplies dumped at the pumping station on top of a hill half a mile south of the reservoir. On the morning of 20 May all of his men hurried to this point—which we now know to have been a German objective—all, that is, except Lieutenant Brown4 and Sergeant Smith,5 who were both cut off and remained with the Greeks.
1 It was probably these patrols that dealt with 10 Coy's party withdrawing from the hospital.
2 Capt C. Wilson, m.i.d., MC (Greek); born England, 25 Aug 1907; insurance clerk; killed in action 21 May 1941.
The enemy attacks in the afternoon, at both ends of the Greek front, brought fierce fighting on either side of the road. In the battle round Aghya itself the commander of the regiment, two majors, and most of the staff were killed; and not far away the enemy managed to get possession of the pumping station hill. But when dark came the Greeks still held the ridges, the Alikianou road-bridge, and Alikianou itself.
The New Zealanders with 8 Greek Regiment were unlucky. Lieutenant Brown, who fought alongside the Greeks all day was captured next morning.1 Sergeant Smith made his way out next day. Major Wilson's party were surrounded at their rendezvous, the pumping station, and forced to spend the day and night there, unable to rejoin the Greeks or take any important part in the fighting. On 21 May Wilson attempted a sortie and was killed. Shortly afterwards his companions were captured.
It is clear from Brown's account and the developments at a later stage that 8 Greek Regiment continued to hold the main portion of the ridges. The more northerly ridges were lost during the night. For Major Liebach, commander of the Engineer Battalion, got orders to send at least a strong company to Colonel Heidrich and decided that the best way of doing this was to break through with his whole battalion. No. 1 Company, with machine pistols, grenades and flame-throwers, set out after dark and 4 Company followed. Between them they cleared the heights south of Aghya. No. 2 Company and 3 Parachute MG company disengaged and came on behind. Thus the whole battalion was able to break through to Heidrich at his HQ near Mandra.
1 Lt Brown escaped next day from a German ADS when it was attacked by Greek partisans. He could not get back to the Greeks but managed to work his way out to the south-east and eventually got back to Canea. In the hills Sgt Smith joined the platoon escorting the King of Greece to the south coast. See Appendix II.
Another outlying force was the Divisional Cavalry in the hills north of Lake Aghya. They were about 190 in number and were divided into three squadrons under Major John Russell. Colonel Kippenberger had from the first felt uneasy about their isolated position and had ordered Russell to withdraw to the main body of 10 Brigade whenever the situation seemed to warrant it.2
On the morning of 20 May the troops were about to stand down for breakfast when they saw the troop-carriers go in over Maleme and others, preceded by gliders, flying straight across the Aghya valley, emptying out their parachutists as they went. Most of these landed out of range, and when they formed up attacked east and not west. So the Divisional Cavalry had to content themselves with potshots at strays. On the plain where the main landings took place there was plenty of cover and, once grounded, the paratroops were hard to see.
To Major Russell staying where he was seemed pointless. His men had no long-range weapons and so could not damage the enemy in the valley. Still less could he support 8 Greek Regiment; for an open space strongly held by enemy lay between, even if it had been practicable to move an organised body of men over it under an enemy-thronged sky. And soon at this distance it seemed as if Greek resistance, at least at the prison end of the front, had been overcome. The telephone line to Brigade had been cut half an hour after the landing, there was no wireless, and a runner sent out returned wounded with the report that it was impossible to get through by the direct route.
Russell determined to use the discretion given him and by striking into the hills north of him to make his way round into Galatas.
In the early afternoon the force set out and, after a long and rugged climb and some unpleasant moments in the approach to the front line held by the Composite Battalion, eventually found its way into Galatas, meeting on the way a patrol sent out to bring it in.
2 General Puttick says that this was a divisional order.
North of the Canea-Alikianou road on Cemetery Hill was the regiment's HQ. Here there were about thirty Greeks being trained in field engineering by a party of New Zealand sappers, and here also was Captain Smith2 of 23 Battalion with a further party of New Zealand instructors. The Greek trainees had only about ten rounds of ammunition each, and when the parachutists began to drop this supply was quickly exhausted. For this reason an attempt by Smith to rally the Greeks and counter-attack could not be carried through. Without ammunition there was nothing that the defence could do, and Smith therefore collected all those who had not already melted away and led them back into the area of 19 Battalion. Here Major Blackburn gave them an area in which to reorganise, and they obtained some German ammunition which approximately fitted their weapons. That night, when two 19 Battalion companies went forward to counter-attack, the Greeks were able to replace them in the battalion perimeter.
Another group of Greeks made its way into Galatas, about 200 strong. Their condition may be gauged from an account by Captain Bassett,3 Brigade Major to 10 Brigade. ‘Here I found hundreds of Greeks in flight, rallied and railed at them and turned them back down the valley; but they showed that they only had three rounds each which they blazed at high-flying planes. That bloody Colonel had not issued his ammunition, and his dump was captured at once.’4
4 Letter by Capt Bassett, 3 Jun 1941.
Eventually Bassett ‘Rallied some in the village and put them under a hero, Captain Forrester, a young blond Englishman (Queen's Regiment) who had trickled in the night before to liaise and report back. He nonchalantly forgot about reporting back in person until our scrap there finished a week later.’1
Since this was the end of 6 Greek Regiment, the part played from now on by those Greeks who remained in action will be treated in relation to the main narrative of 10 Brigade.
The remainder of the 10 Brigade front was held by the Composite Battalion in its three main groups: the RMT group between the coast and the northern slopes of Red Hill; a central group which consisted of two companies formed from 4 Field Regiment and 2 Echelon of the Divisional Supply Company, and which held Red Hill and Ruin Hill; and a mixed group from 5 Field Regiment on Wheat Hill and the Divisional Petrol Company on Pink Hill.2
As it was in the sector of this last group that the main fighting of the day took place, the other two sectors may be dealt with first. A sprinkling of enemy landed in the lines of the RMT but were quickly eliminated, their weapons making a desirable addition to the defenders' fire power. The 4th Field Regiment on Red Hill acquired neither enemy nor spoil, but the Divisional Supply Company on Ruin Hill was able to enjoy some long-range shooting at paratroops in the prison area and had a few strays nearer at hand to dispose of as well. On Wheat Hill the men of 5 Field Regiment had only a few intruders to silence and, apart from some forward patrolling, spent most of the day watching the enemy form up in the prison area and expecting orders for a counter-attack.
GALATAS, COMPOSITE BATTALION, 20 MAY
Pink Hill gave such good observation that Colonel Kippenberger had established his battle HQ there. Daylight had found him in Galatas itself, shaving in his billet while an enemy fighter flew up and down the main street. As he was contemplating, the shave finished, a more than usually watery porridge, four gliders passed overhead ‘in their silence inexpressibly menacing and frightening.’1 He seized his rifle and binoculars and raced towards Battle HQ, the horizon full of falling parachutists. En route he twisted his ankle and killed a sniper. At Battle HQ he was joined by Bassett and the signallers. Bassett's letter, already quoted, describes the scene:
There were hundreds of planes in the air—low-flying Dorniers swept us with a hail of lead, Stukas dive-bombed our F.D.L.'s, gliders slid over them where the mammoth troop-carriers nosed in and then right up to the ceiling of the sky whirled the even-watchful Messerschmitts. The Condors swerved astride the Valley road and suddenly the sky was raining falling petals, tiers of planes simultaneously disgorging lines of black parachutes…. Interspersed with these were white sheets dropping stores, yellow with medical supplies and green with mortars….
It was from their observation point on Pink Hill that Kippenberger and his Brigade Major saw 6 Greek Regiment withdraw. And not long after they realised that their own HQ was too exposed and so themselves withdrew, establishing a new HQ with the Composite Battalion near Ruin Ridge and north of Galatas.
After rallying the Greeks and handing them over to Captain Forrester, Bassett then went back with a patrol of eight men to Pink Hill to see what could be done about the gap on its left made by the withdrawal of 6 Greek Regiment. Meanwhile the impetuous Lieutenant Neuhof had launched his newly-landed 7 Company against Pink Hill and Divisional Petrol Company. And probably part of 9 Company was also active in the same area. Casualties to the defence were severe as the enemy drive was backed up by mortar fire from the prison area. But German casualties appear to have been even more so, and 7 Company did not survive this day as a company.
The position was critical. The first attack by 7 Company direct on Pink Hill had been beaten off. But there was still a gap on the left of the Petrol Company where the Greeks had fallen back and the Germans were forcing their way forward. Bassett, after driving some enemy out of Battle HQ, worked his way across the gap to make contact with the right-hand post of 19 Battalion. He was in time to see a counter-attack by Forrester's reorganised Greeks. ‘But suddenly Forrester began tootling a tin whistle like the Pied Piper, and the whole motley crowd of them surged down against the Huns yelling and shouting in a mad bayonet charge which made the Jerries break and run.’5
‘This steadied what Greeks were left’, Bassett continues, ‘and we stretched a thin line of outposts across which I patrolled three times that day.’
This line of outposts consisted of one Greek party pushed out from Pink Hill by Bassett and another rallied in 19 Battalion area by Lieutenant Wildey,6 and extended from the 19 Battalion right to join up with Bassett's party. Bassett and his own patrol returned to Pink Hill to thicken up the defences there.
1 CSM C. E. James.
5 Letter by Capt Bassett, 3 Jun 1941.
The firm stand of the Petrol Company and the energy and initiative shown by Bassett, Forrester and Rowe had been the chief factors in preventing what might have been a breakthrough. But by late afternoon the flank on the left of the Petrol Company was still very weak, and it was fortunate that the enemy pitted his main attack against the Petrol Company. His opportunity was soon gone. For just before dusk, while the fight for Pink Hill was still at its height, Russell brought in his Divisional Cavalry. The three squadrons were hastily put into position between Pink Hill and Cemetery Hill, leaving the latter as a sort of no-man's-land and linking up with the Petrol Company on the right and 19 Battalion on the left. Thus a dangerous weak spot—the Greeks whom the Divisional Cavalry thus strengthened had very little ammunition left and ‘though they did not seem to mind charging were obviously incapable of holding ground’2—was eliminated and the worst of the day could be accounted over.
Before leaving 10 Brigade, however, it will be necessary to look at the day's events as they were seen from 10 Brigade HQ, now with the Composite Battalion. At 10.45 a.m. Colonel Kippenberger had reported to Division that his line of communications was cut, that 6 Greek Regiment's left flank had been severed and that the Greeks had withdrawn to reorganise, that there was no news of the Divisional Cavalry or of 8 Greek Regiment—though a Greek reported the latter to be withdrawing—and that the enemy were attacking up the Prison–Galatas road. His own intention was to clear the high ground of enemy and hold on. A message sent at the same time to 4 Brigade reported enemy parties in Galatas and the despatch of patrols to clear them out.
By midday the signalmen had cleared the line to Division, and a signal sent at 2.15 p.m. said that the brigade was holding out in all its positions except those of 6 Greek Regiment who were weak and short of ammunition. ‘A vigorous counter-attack would clear the prison.’2
By this time Kippenberger saw that the prison area was the enemy's chief point of concentration and that this was the place and now the time to counter-attack—a view that was shared by most other officers on the spot. At the same time he knew that his own poorly trained and miscellaneous force could hardly supply the kind of counter-attack required and had enough to do holding its line.
When a fresh enemy attack came in during the afternoon Kippenberger ‘pressed again for infantry with which to counterattack and was told that something would be done.’3 While he waited, all that he could do was hold on and take advantage of any such opportunity as the arrival of the Divisional Cavalry to improve his position. Meanwhile reports reached him from 19 Battalion that the enemy was making a landing ground near the prison. This report he passed on to Division, but about that time line communications to Division again broke down and he was without news of what Brigadier Puttick proposed to do. At 7 p.m. he sent off by runner or liaison officer a signal which summarises the situation at the end of this phase:
Div Cav Det arrived without loss and is in Galatos. No word of 8/Greeks. 6/Greeks have disappeared. Landing at 1700 hrs mainly stores but prisoner says many more tps will arrive tonight.
Blackburn reports position intact but small parties in rear not disposed of.
Pressure on my left has been increasing. Left Coy has retired 200 yds causing next Coy to come back. Casualties abt 60 incl 4 off and are continuing steadily. Rations & ammo alright water short. Loss all on left.
Can carry wounded to Maleme Rd if trucks can be sent up.
If no counter attack can be mounted to clear prison area where enemy are clearing landing field suggest that after dark I should withdraw to shorter line N-S astride Maleme (Coast) road retaining contact with Blackburn.
Wire to you has been down for two hours and enemy are at present within short range of exchange.
Please advise position and instruct. Don't think this line would hold against serious attack tomorrow.
Have had to thin out beach defence.1
The preceding section has shown that Colonel Kippenberger had no doubt from about midday onwards that a strong counter-attack on the prison area was called for. This view was also shared by others farther back, among them Brigadier Inglis.
On the first day of this anomalous battle a headquarters was as likely to be engaged in direct conflict with the enemy as any of the units it commanded, and after the first bombing and strafing 4 Brigade HQ received a share of parachutists. While these were being dealt with, at 10 a.m. a message came from Creforce, whose reserve 4 Brigade was, that a battalion was to be sent south of Canea to clear up enemy there—no doubt Lieutenant Gentz's glider party. This message could not be complied with, however, because 18 and 19 Battalions were already fully occupied and 1 Welch, the brigade's other battalion, was not in the immediate area.
Moreover, about this time or shortly afterwards, Inglis moved his HQ to the same position as that of 18 Battalion. The move was not due to trouble from parachutists—Inglis had himself despatched one of the last of them in a nearby vineyard—but to shortcomings in the original position. The preliminary air attack had cut the telephone lines, observation was poor, and runners and liaison officers had too far to go. By moving to 18 Battalion area Inglis could use the uncut telephone lines there, had much swifter personal contact with Division and his units, gained a good observation post on an adjoining hill, and secured immediate control over at least one of his battalions.
He was not long established in his new position and it was about eleven o'clock when Brigadier K. L. Stewart, Brigadier General Staff, visited him with the news—already given to Brigadier Puttick —that 4 Brigade, less 1 Welch, was to revert to the command of Division.
1 NZ Div WD. This last item no doubt refers to the detachment of Carson's patrol from the RMT group.
This at least was the view taken by Inglis when he had had time to appreciate the general situation. By the early afternoon he had grasped that the main landings were in the prison and Maleme areas and had learnt from Robin Miller,1 a war correspondent, who had just returned from 5 Brigade HQ, that all was not well at Maleme. He decided that the immediate necessity was to clear and secure the prison and Alikianou areas by a counter-attack with 4 Brigade. From the ground thus won he thought that if the situation at Maleme continued to degenerate he could push on that night over the hills by a route previously reconnoitred and surprise the enemy on the 5 Brigade front. Whether or not the second part of this plan proved necessary, he was prepared to attempt the first part in daylight with 18 and 20 Battalions. The 19th Battalion would have to stay where it was, being already committed, and 1 Welch—whose mortars he would borrow to compensate for the lack of artillery—could replace the two attacking battalions.
With this plan Inglis went to Puttick. Puttick did not agree with it but said that he would consult General Freyberg. This in due course he did, apparently by telephone, and some time later informed Inglis, who had returned to his own HQ, that General Freyberg did not approve the counter-attack.2
Thwarted in his larger plan Inglis turned to the local situation. About four o'clock he learnt that 1 Light Troop RA had been overcome and decided on immediate counter-attack. He ordered 18 Battalion to send a company with a 3-inch mortar detachment and a Bren carrier as escort. Three tanks from C Squadron, 3 Hussars, were to give support; but, since neither 18 Battalion war diary nor that of C Squadron mentions tanks as taking part, it may be assumed that the orders did not reach the tanks in time.
2 The foregoing is based on a letter from General Inglis to General Kippenberger, dated 12 Feb 1951. General Puttick does not recall being pressed to counter-attack the Prison Valley except by Colonels Gentry and Kippenberger and Maj Bull. It is therefore possible that General Inglis is mistaken.
Late in the afternoon C Company of 18 Battalion set off. In the lead was Lieutenant Herdman1 with two Bren carriers. The 3-inch mortar detachment brought up the rear. The company soon ran into machine-gun and mortar fire from the left of the road and Major Lynch,2 the commander, ordered deployment to the left. Herdman, who had been left to watch the road, nosed forward in a Bren carrier. An enemy heavy machine gun fired and knocked out the carrier. Herdman was killed.
The main body of the company met stiff opposition from enemy who seemed bent on advancing downstream towards Canea. A stalemate followed till dark. The company then withdrew, bringing two prisoners in exchange for two killed.
Unsatisfactory in result though this engagement was, it had been the first aggressive action shown by the defence that day, apart from merely holding positions and mopping up initial landings. It is now time to see why Puttick was so reluctant to unleash his reserve in an attack on the scale that Inglis and Kippenberger had both thought necessary, and to follow out the action that he did finally decide on.
At the beginning of the battle Puttick had under his command only 5 Brigade and 10 Brigade, 4 Brigade being in Force Reserve. The only reserve at his own disposal was 20 Battalion. About 11 a.m. this situation was radically altered by Freyberg's orders that 4 Brigade—less 1 Welch—was to revert to divisional command. True, Freyberg issued no instructions on how it was to be employed; but before the battle he had continually stressed the need for immediate counter-attack. This reduction of his Force Reserve to no more than a battalion evidently implied that he regarded the western sector as vital, whatever might still be to come in the Retimo and Heraklion sectors, but was leaving the question of how and where counter-attack was to take place to the commander on the spot, who was presumably in a better position to decide.
Thus, on the information he had, Puttick had no reason to believe that his reserve might be needed immediately by 5 Brigade. On the Canea front, too, in so far as the forces under his command were affected, Puttick could not by the end of the morning have felt there was any need for concern. The 10 Brigade front, on the other hand, presented quite a different picture. By 11 a.m. he knew that a formidable landing had been made in the Prison Valley; that the enemy had promptly begun to attack towards Galatas; that 6 Greek Regiment had crumpled; and that there was no word from 8 Greek Regiment or the Divisional Cavalry.
It was at this time that the first representations began to be made to Puttick that he should counter-attack with 4 Brigade. They were made in turn by Brigadier Stewart, Brigadier Inglis, and Colonel Kippenberger. And other officers also put forward the same point of view. As the time passed they grew stronger. At 2.15 p.m. Kippenberger, who had already put the case by telephone, again urged that ‘a vigorous counter-attack would clear the Prison.’ Yet Puttick still hesitated. What were his reasons for not launching the counter-attack?
Brigadier Puttick had three battalions—18, 19, and 20—at his disposal, almost the whole reserve to Creforce. If he committed them now he might have nothing left for the future and what he considered to be the real dangers: adverse developments at Maleme, the cutting of the coast road behind 5 Brigade, an eastward thrust to Suda Bay which might bypass 10 Brigade, and fresh landings by air or sea. The last seemed a very real danger; for, so far as Intelligence knew, by no means all the enemy's paratroops had been dropped, and if he did not keep a strong force under his hand the next landings might turn the scale at Maleme or attack his denuded rear area. And, again, an attempt at invasion by sea seemed certain, the three battalions all had a role in the defence of the coast, and it would be dangerous to commit them elsewhere till this particular threat was over.
Moreover, Puttick believed that the Galatas front was only a foundation for the real front at Maleme and that so long as 10 Brigade held fast it was doing all that was necessary. There was no need to take the ground now occupied by 3 Parachute Regiment, and if it were taken the troops engaged had not the tools with which to dig in and hold it. If the destruction of the enemy and not the seizing of the ground were the object of counter-attack it could not be compassed; for the enemy, having page 167 nothing vital to defend, could hold on long enough to inflict maximum casualties and then fall back on the hills. The attacking force would then find itself exposed to the full onslaught of the enemy air force and in a weak position to defend itself against a return attack by a reorganised and perhaps reinforced enemy.
Again, any attack, at least in daylight, requires heavy support by covering fire, and practically none was available. Nor was there any protection by AA or by the RAF against the enemy's overwhelming air strength. Thus counter-attack by day at least was certain to mean heavy casualties with no guarantee of success.1
These considerations were weighty, and it was easier for local commanders to urge the need for counter-attack than it was for Puttick to make a decision, fraught, whichever way he decided, with perilous possibilities. On the other hand, not to counterattack meant leaving the enemy with the initiative at a moment when time was his friend and not the defence's. For if the enemy was allowed to consolidate and build up in the Prison Valley without major molestation, the ultimate result could not really be in doubt, whether or not the sea invasion took place. True, the general situation had not developed and it was not yet possible to see where other emergencies might arise. Still, here in the valley was possibly an opportunity to strike hard and destroy an enemy who might not have evaded the blow as easily as Puttick believed. The fact that Colonel Heidrich himself regarded counter-attack as inevitable shows that not only the more aggressive spirits on the side of the defence considered attack the best course.
Had 4 Brigade counter-attack been decided, that afternoon could have been used for reconnaissance, the preparation of detailed orders, and the like. Instead, any chance there may have been was lost. The report of a landing ground being constructed in the Prison Valley induced Puttick to take more active measures.
This report reached Division at half past five. If true, it was clearly of vital importance. With a landing ground there the enemy would become independent even of success at Maleme and, rushing in troops by air, could build up a force strong enough to cut the coast road and isolate 5 Brigade.
1 The foregoing approximately summarises the point of view of General Puttick as expressed in discussion with the author in 1948 and in a paper written in 1951.
The immediate orders were given to Brigadier Inglis over the telephone, and no copy survives. They were probably in effect the same as the confirmatory written orders which were issued at 6.20 p.m. and reached 4 Brigade at half past eight. They ran as follows:
10 Bde reports construction of landing ground in PRISON area 0553. 4 Inf Bde will counterattack with one bn Lt tks and carriers to clear prison area of enemy. When attack completed 19 Bn will come under comd 10 Bde to hold posn on left of 1 COMP on line previously held by 6 Gk Bn down to incl rd CANEA-ALYKIANOU. 20 Bn comes under comd 4 Inf Bde forthwith except for coy protecting NZ Div which comes under comd Div.2
Puttick did not expect much from this attack beyond assistance to 10 Brigade morale and a cautionary lesson to the enemy.3 Yet the orders show that destroying the landing ground and clearing the Prison area were the objects, and it is difficult to see how Puttick could have expected a single battalion and a few light tanks to achieve them when the enemy was estimated to have 1500 troops in the valley and might be expected to defend his landing ground tenaciously.
Unfortunately, there was at this time no line communication with Colonel Kippenberger. The result was that preparations had to go forward for an attack which was not only too weak in weight but which had to be organised and launched without the knowledge of the commander on the spot, whose co-operation was essential.
1 NZ Div Intelligence log. It should be noted that the report about the landing ground appears to have been without foundation.
2 4 Bde Int log.
3 General Puttick's paper, 1951.
1 Letter from General Inglis, 12 Feb 1951.