III: Retimo, Heraklion, and Creforce
At Retimo the first day's fighting had split the enemy into two main groups, one east of the airfield and on Hill A and the other round Perivolia. Against the first of these 2/1 Australian Battalion launched its attack at first light, but was thrown back by a strong counter-attack and heavy mortar fire. The Australians soon returned, however, in a second attack which used every man they could find, and by ten o'clock they had driven the enemy off Hill A and recaptured the guns there. The enemy fell back to the oil factory at Stavromenos and formed a strongpoint, harassed by Greek troops who had moved up to support the Australians.
Against the second enemy group round Perivolia, Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell's plan was to send a Greek battalion and elements of 2/11 Australian Battalion. The Greeks, however, in the course of their attack from the south, met strong enemy fire in Wadi Perivolia and had to make a wide detour. This, and the fact that the Australians were themselves held up before Platanes by an enemy force strongly backed by machine guns, spoilt the timing of the operation. The artillery was not very effective, as our Italian guns fired too many ‘duds’.
Yet by the end of the day Campbell still had both enemy groups bottled up and the airfield was in no immediate danger. Enemy page 205 parties infiltrating from the south and west had been checked, and one of them, after overrunning an ADS at Adhele, was ambushed at Pigi. The beaches in front of Hills A and B had been cleared and the commander of 2 Parachute Regiment taken prisoner. The only dark spots were the shortage of ammunition and the fact that the concentration of enemy at Perivolia had cut off communication to the west.
Much as at Retimo, the enemy at Heraklion had been split in two. Since Heraklion was thought more valuable than Retimo, however, the enemy air force made more effort to assist the ground troops by bombing and dropping supplies. But the bombing was not intense; and an unintended share of the supplies fell to the defenders.
During the night the enemy east of the town—I Battalion and remnants of II Battalion of 1 Parachute Regiment—had assembled east of the airfield and tried to break through to the survivors of II Battalion still holding on at the airfield itself. This our artillery and I tanks played a large part in thwarting, and the day's fighting forced the enemy back to a height south-east of the airfield. Areas within the defence perimeter were cleared and surviving paratroops rounded up. Supplies were dropped during the late afternoon; but the situation on this flank was still sound when darkness came.
The second main enemy body now consisted of III Battalion of 1 Parachute Regiment and two companies of II Battalion of 2 Parachute Regiment. Colonel Brauer, who commanded the whole force, had ordered this group to attack the airfield, no doubt hoping to bring everything to bear on what was the main objective. But the message did not get through, and Major Schultz, who commanded III Battalion, renewed the attack on the town. There was some severe fighting. At one point the enemy got as far as the harbour, and the Greeks, through shortage of ammunition, were wavering. But a platoon of Leicesters and a platoon of Yorks and Lancs came to the rescue, and with their aid and captured weapons the Greeks drove the enemy back to their start line.
A signal sent by General Freyberg to General Wavell some time late on the afternoon of 21 May shows that he saw that the main danger lay in the Maleme quarter. After briefly recounting the situation at Heraklion and Retimo as he then knew it, and explaining the defence steps taken at Suda, he goes on to express doubts about Maleme. He reports the further paratroop landings page 206 of the day, says that he hopes to strengthen the position there during the night—no doubt an allusion to the projected counterattack—but says that the situation there is far from clear and perilous as well.1
This concern for Maleme was sound enough and, taken with his worry about the sea invasion of which he now had almost certain warning, probably accounts for his not pressing Puttick to launch an attack on Heidrich's 3 Parachute Regiment. He probably felt that if the main threat at Maleme could once be dealt with, the destruction of Heidrich's force would then be inevitable. No doubt it was for similar reasons that he did not press on General Weston the need for a co-ordinated front between 2/8 Australian Battalion, 2 Greek Regiment and 10 Brigade. The lack of one was to prove unfortunate; but had the attack on Maleme been successful it would never have been felt.
Another reason for not interfering with Puttick's policy at this time would be his concern for the safety of the sea coast. Here also, although it may be regretted that more confidence was not shown in the Navy or that some attempt was not made to organise the forces in Suda area in such a way as to free at least 1 Welch for aggressive action, it is not difficult to understand how a commander, who knew sea invasion was almost certain and knew how easily it could happen that the enemy flotillas might slip past the watching fleet in the dark, felt that he could not afford to leave his shores unguarded. None the less, it was at Maleme that success or failure in the defence of Crete was to be found; and it was the rival priorities of protecting the shores and counter-attacking the airfield that made failure in the latter the outcome.
Meanwhile, however, the moves had been decided and the necessary arrangements had to be put through. At 8.10 p.m. confirmatory orders went out to the formations concerned. The 19th Australian Brigade, 2/8 Field Company RAE, and B Company Australian Field Ambulance were to move into the area north of Stilos. The 2/7 Australian Battalion and one Australian MG Company were to replace 20 Battalion, coming under 4 Brigade command on arrival at Canea bridge; 2/3 Regiment RAA and a section of 106 Anti-Tank Battery RHA were to come under command of NZ Division, to which Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt was now CRA; 2/3 Regiment was to be in positions from which it could shell Maleme as soon as possible. And the head of the column was to reach Canea by 9 p.m.
These were not Freyberg's only problems. Such news as reached him by wireless from Retimo and Heraklion was not discouraging, but as each of the two places was more or less cut off, the question of replenishing their supplies and ammunition gave him great concern. Accordingly, he had to signal Middle East HQ and ask if aeroplanes operating from Egypt could help.
More unusual among the worries of an harassed commander was that caused by the presence of the King of Greece. The King had had a narrow escape the day before and this made it obvious that he would have to be evacuated. He and his Prime Minister were therefore sent overland towards the south coast under the escort of a platoon of B Company of 18 Battalion which, as Freyberg explained in a message to Wavell, he could ill spare. By this time the royal party was out of touch even by wireless, and anxiety for its safety was not to quit the background of Freyberg's mind until he had news of its safe disembarkation in Egypt.1
Even the arrival of reinforcements at Tymbaki on the south coast brought its difficulties.2 The 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had been guarding the Mesara Plain against parachute landings, but from the way the battle was going it must already have been clear that no such landings were likely. The battalion would have been useful in the Canea sector, but there was no hope of getting there now and the best that could be arranged was for it to reinforce Heraklion if it could get through.
There remained the great question of the invasion by sea. Intelligence, which had been prolific and detailed in its warnings, proved itself—as so often on the larger aspects of this battle—to be exact. Admiral Cunningham, fully apprised, had disposed his naval forces for some days beforehand so as to keep a close watch on the neighbouring waters, a task of anxiety and danger; for, like the troops on land, the ships at sea could not expect to have any air cover.3
These orders were modified at 6 p.m. on 20 May because it was feared that convoys might slip through in the darkness. Instead, Forces C and D were ordered to establish patrols north of Crete. Nothing happened during the night, however, except that Force C met with about six Italian motor torpedo boats in the Kaso Strait and forced them to retire, damaging four, while Force E bombarded Scarpanto.
Thus on 21 May Cunningham still had strong naval forces in the neighbourhood of Crete. Force A 1 was 60 miles west of the Antikithera Strait and moving east to meet Force B and Force D, which had sighted nothing on their night patrols. Force C, now joined by Calcutta, was withdrawing south through the Kaso Strait to a rendezvous with Force E. And Carlisle was on its way from Alexandria to join Force C and Force E. All these ships were to keep south during the day and repeat their sweeps that night.
The enemy's early morning reconnaissance, however, detected their presence. Bombers from Attica, Scarpanto and Rhodes went into the attack. Force A, Force C, and Force D were severely attacked in the morning and afternoon. In Force C the destroyer Juno was sunk and in Force D the cruiser Ajax was damaged. The enemy lost four aircraft certainly shot down and perhaps four more.
With our ships thus heavily engaged, the enemy decided there was little likelihood they would venture into the waters north of Crete before dark; and he calculated that 1 Motor Sailing Flotilla, carrying a mountain battalion, part of 2 AA Regiment, and heavy weapons, would be able to get from Melos to Maleme while it was still daylight. The convoy was therefore ordered to set off.
Our reconnaissance aircraft detected these craft and their torpedo-boat escort. Forces B, C, and D began to close in through the Kithera and Kaso Straits. Head winds slowed the enemy down and page 209 frustrated hopes of reaching Crete before nightfall. At 11.30 p.m. Rear-Admiral Glennie's Force D (now Dido, Orion, Ajax, Janus, Kimberley, Hasty and Hereward) met the flotilla of steamers, caiques and a torpedo boat about 18 miles north of Canea. The engagement that followed lasted for two and a half hours. As a result of it at least a dozen caiques, one or two steamers, a small pleasure steamer, and a steam yacht were sunk or left burning. The torpedo boat Lupo, escorting the flotilla, was severely damaged.1
News of this action must have reached the German Admiral after midnight. Fearing a similar fate for the second flotilla which had by this time also put to sea, perhaps in the hope of making a dawn landing, he ordered it to return at once to Piraeus. Whether not all of the ships got the order or whether some of the surviving vessels from the other flotilla had gone astray is not now clear; but the enemy's losses in his combined operation were not yet over.
At daylight Rear-Admiral King's Force C (now Naiad, Perth, Calcutta, Carlisle, Kandahar, Kingston and Nubian) was sweeping north-west from Heraklion, and at 8.30 a.m. its search was rewarded by the sight of a single caique with German troops on board. Perth sank it while Naiad took on the large number of enemy bombers which were by this time overhead. At 10.10 a.m., when the force was 25 miles south-east of Melos, the torpedo boat Sagittario with four or five sailing vessels was sighted to the north. These were engaged, but the Sagittario, though hit, managed to create a thick smoke-screen behind which a large number of caiques were glimpsed.
Some of these were sunk; but ammunition was running low and Admiral King, taking this into account and the fact that his maximum speed was 20 knots, decided it would jeopardise his whole force to go farther north. He therefore withdrew.
Thus the Navy completely frustrated the enemy's attempt to reinforce by sea, and the airborne troops had to do without the tanks and heavy weapons which would have given them overwhelming preponderance at this stage of the battle. This naval victory thus faithfully realised was won at great cost. The details of Admiral Cunningham's losses will be dealt with under the events of 22 May.
1 In his despatch Admiral Cunningham stated that the flotilla was thought to be carrying about 4000 troops, a figure that is repeated in A Sailor's Odyssey. German records, however, show that the flotilla carried III Bn 100 Mtn Regt, heavy weapons groups, and part of 2 AA Regt (total strength, 2331), of whom 320 or 324 were lost. The Lupo remained on the scene and picked up survivors.