IV: Retimo, Heraklion, and Creforce
Before we turn to consider the situation as it appeared to General Freyberg at Creforce, it will first be necessary to give a brief summary of events as they developed on the two remaining fronts, Retimo and Heraklion. It will be remembered that the German plan was to attack these two objectives in the afternoon of 20 May, when 8 Air Corps would be able to bring to the support of the landings a striking power that would have been impossible had they been carried out at the same time as those in the Galatas and Maleme sectors.
For the attack on Retimo it was thought that two battalions of 2 Parachute Regiment—I and II—would be enough, since only weak resistance was expected. The main task completed, part of this force was to turn west and attack Suda Bay. The assault on Retimo itself was to begin at 4.15 p.m.
The defence awaiting this onslaught was less negligible, however, than the plan allowed for. The 2/1 Australian Battalion was in position on Hill A,1 a strong feature immediately east of the airfield, and on the ridge which runs west from Hill A and south of the airfield. The battalion was supported by six guns and a strong platoon of machine guns. The 2/11 Australian Battalion held Hill B, at the end of the western continuation of the ridge, and was supported by two guns and a weak platoon of machine guns. From these positions the two battalions commanded the beaches, the airfield, and the coastal plain.
In addition to the two Australian battalions there were four battalions of Greek troops, some armed with American rifles and the others with an assortment of Greek. Their ammunition averaged ten rounds per man. Of the four battalions, 4 Greek Battalion was posted on the ridge. The others were in reserve south of Pigi.2
Two I tanks of 7 Royal Tank Regiment, stationed in the Wadi Pigi, completed the force. Lieutenant-Colonel I. R. Campbell, page 175 DSO, simultaneously commanded his own 2/1 Battalion and the whole force.
The German plan was to attack in three groups: I Battalion, less two companies but with an MG company and heavy weapons, was to land east of the airfield and take it; III Battalion, with two artillery troops, an MG company and heavy weapons, was to land between Perivolia and the Platanes River and capture Retimo; HQ 2 Parachute Regiment, with two companies (presumably from I Battalion) and a platoon from each of the heavy companies— 13 and 14—was to land between the airfield and the Platanes River and act as reserve.
At about quarter past four, after a heavy bombing which inflicted few casualties, the parachutists began to drop. But by bad timing the three groups did not arrive simultaneously. I Battalion was the first and seems to have attacked with three infantry companies instead of two. But of these only one, together with the MG Company and Battalion HQ, landed east of the airfield and so much so as to be temporarily out of the battle. The other two suffered an opposite error and found themselves under heavy fire on the east edge of the airfield. Major Kroh, the battalion commander, hastily gathered what troops he could east of the airfield, picking up en route two companies of III Battalion which had also been wrongly put down, and made for the airfield.
In consequence he was able to put in a strong attack and 2/1 Battalion was hard pressed. A counter-attack by the tanks failed with the ditching of them, and after dark some of the enemy forced their way onto Hill A and the east edge of the airfield, capturing the tank crews. But 2/1 Battalion was able to make good its defence.
The second enemy group had got off to a delayed start and arrived an hour late. Nos. 9 and 11 Companies were put down correctly, as were the artillery and heavy weapons. Only remnants of 10 and 12 Companies, landing in Major Kroh's area, were able to join him. But the rest of the battalion made towards Retimo according to plan, taking Perivolia en route. Advance parties got as far as Retimo itself before being driven off by Cretan police. The battalion commander thereupon decided to withdraw and form a strongpoint at Perivolia.
The third group was unfortunate. It landed on strong positions south of the main road, probably in the area of 2/11 Battalion. No. 2 Company of I Battalion and the heavy weapons were destroyed and the regimental commander found himself with a few men north of the road and surrounded.
RETIMO, 20 MAY
GEORGEOUPOLIS, 20 MAY
At Heraklion also, the day's work was by no means unsatisfactory. Here the enemy's plan was to attack with 1 Parachute Regiment, supported by II Battalion of 2 Parachute Regiment. As at Retimo, the attack was to begin at 4.15 p.m.
HERAKLION, 20 MAY
The supporting artillery was sited south-east of the airfield. There were ten Bofors guns round the airfield and an I tank hidden at each end. Six light tanks of 3 Hussars were stationed south-east of it.
The German plan was for all four attacking battalions to land simultaneously with fighter protection: I Battalion was to seize the AMES—guarded by a platoon of Black Watch—and protect the east flank of the main assault; II Battalion was to capture the airfield; III Battalion was to take Heraklion town; and II Battalion of 2 Parachute Regiment was to land west of Heraklion and protect the west flank of the battalion attacking the town.
But dust on the Greek airfields, delays in refuelling, and casualties from the morning's operations made a punctual and simultaneous start impossible. And their limited range prevented the fighters from remaining in the air long enough to give protection to latecomers. The shortage of aircraft—presumably caused at least in part by the morning's casualties—made it necessary to leave 600 of the assaulting force behind. And the bombing of the defences, here as at Retimo, inflicted few losses.
Of I Battalion, only 3 Company was put down at the right time, 4 Company did not start at all, and 1 and 2 Companies with Battalion HQ were three hours late. Even so 2 Company was put down too far east. None the less the battalion was able to take the AMES and form a protective screen—aided in both tasks by the fact that the Black Watch guard had wisely decided by first light to rejoin its main body and the fact that the landings were out of range to the defence.
II Battalion of 1 Parachute Regiment had planned to operate in two groups east and west of the airfield. They were late in arriving and did not arrive together. The east group—5 and 8 Companies —was fiercely welcomed by 2 Black Watch and by dark was reduced to 60–70 men. The west group—6 and 7 Companies and an AA MG Company—encountered even severer justice and lost over 300 killed and over 100 wounded. An immediate counter-attack by tanks and infantry was largely responsible.
The regimental commander, who had been put down late and east of the AMES, assuming that II Battalion had taken the airfield pushed forward a detachment of I Battalion to its support. By the time this reached the east edge of the airfield, however, the defence had cleared not only the airfield itself but all the main features of the area on the eastern front, except for parties of snipers. There was nothing for the new arrivals to do but collect themselves on the high ground to the east.page 180
III Battalion, attacking Heraklion, arrived late and spread out west and south of the town. Some parties got into Heraklion itself and fighting between these and the Greeks, 2 Yorks and Lancs, 2 Black Watch, and 2/4 Australian Battalion continued there throughout the night; but the main body was unable to break in and had to disengage to the south-west and dig in. II Battalion of 2 Parachute Regiment, less two companies, landed without contact and screened the western flank.
For General Freyberg the day had been anxious. Standing on the hill outside his HQ, he had watched the early morning blitz develop into a major landing operation of a kind new even to his rich military experience. Throughout the day his main problem was to try and deduce from the confused and belated evidence what the enemy's main objective was. For, though the general plan was apparent, there was no guarantee that it had not already been altered or would not alter as the attack developed. The events of the earlier part of the morning as reconstructed from the reports that did come in confirmed the impression that could be got from watching the landings: the main concentrations were west of Maleme and in the Prison Valley. And it was no doubt largely in response to this picture of the attack, and to his realisation that 4 Brigade was already in part engaged, that General Freyberg put 18 and 19 Battalions under command of Brigadier Puttick. Even so, however, he knew at this stage that there were other enemy forces still uncommitted, and prior knowledge suggested that as well as the sea invasion there were airborne attacks on Retimo and Heraklion still to come. No doubt he hoped that the forces at both places would be able to deal with any further air landings, and in any case he still had 1 Welch for dealing with the unforeseen.
It was not, in fact, until the operation order of 3 Parachute Regiment issued on 18 May had been captured and its contents translated that night that Freyberg was able to get a clear view of the enemy's intentions. This order not only gave the objectives of 3 Parachute Regiment in detail but summarised the enemy plan of attack for the whole island. And the plan it revealed was very much the one we have seen being put into action: Group Centre was to take Canea in the morning and Retimo in the afternoon; Group West was to take Maleme and join up with Group Centre; and a further group was to come by sea and land west of Maleme.
The actual course of the day's fighting had been somewhat different, and by the time that Freyberg read this enemy order it was clear enough that the German attack had misfired. Canea and, page 181 so far as he knew, Maleme were still in our hands. The enemy was by now known to be attacking at Heraklion and Retimo, but there was nothing to suggest that he had been successful.
None the less, the picture given by Freyberg towards midnight in a message to General Wavell was a sober one: the day had been hard but so far as was known the defence still held Maleme, Heraklion and Retimo aerodromes and the two harbours, though by a bare margin. Large numbers of paratroops had been killed and the fighting heavy. The air attack had been on a scale of great severity and communications were proving extremely difficult. But the troops all realised how vital was the issue and they would fight it out. The enemy had so far failed to gain any of the objectives outlined in the captured operation order.
But the inadequacy of communications was even greater than Freyberg's message indicated and, sober though his report was, the true situation if he had been able to know it he would have found more sobering still. For at the very time he was sending this message 22 Battalion was making its withdrawal from Maleme and leaving it open for occupation by the enemy. With no knowledge of this Freyberg could feel reasonable confidence that the situation was still in the balance and that, provided the Navy did its part in smashing the invasion by sea, his forces were disposed as well as their numbers made possible for whatever assaults the enemy might launch next day. Had he known that there was already this gaping hole at the most vulnerable point of his defence, it can hardly be doubted that already that night he would have tried to use the hours of darkness to save Maleme while there was still time.
2 Correctly Piyi, although called Pigi by the Australians. The error arose because of defective printing in the maps used.