I: The Counter-attack at Maleme
I: The Counter-attack at Maleme
‘When on the 21st of May all the reserves had jumped and conquered the aerodrome of Maleme, from that time the battle of Crete was won for Germany.’ This summary statement, made by General Student at his trial, is true enough in so far as it fixes on the capture of the airfield as the vital stage in the conquest of the island. But even one so sanguine as Student would hardly have expressed himself so categorically at the time of which he speaks.1 Rather he must have felt on this evening of the second day's fighting that a most important gain had been made and that, if it were exploited with energy and without serious mistakes, the odds in favour of victory were high. Moreover, even the limited optimism legitimate to a clear-headed commander whose prestige was deeply engaged does not seem to have been shared by Hitler, Goering, or the commander of 4 Air Fleet in Athens. For Löhr refused to let Student go to Crete on 22 May and quoted an order from Goering to stop him; while Student himself says that Hitler and Goering, much disturbed by the heavy losses on 20 May, thought that he must be suffering still from an old head wound.2
The differences of view extended further. Fourth Air Fleet was uneasy about troop concentrations reported at Palaiokhora by reconnaissance aircraft and thought to be directed on Maleme, and was worried also about Kastelli. Student, with a truer grasp of the essential, scouted both anxieties.3
1 See 5 Mtn Div WD for this day: ‘On the evening of the second day of the invasion the situation seemed to be balanced on a knife-edge. If II/100 Mtn. Regt. had landed with light casualties the defences of Maleme airfield would be considerably strengthened. A heavy concentrated British counter-attack would force the defenders to fight for their lives’.
2 Proceedings at trial.
This was the background of the orders laid down for 22 May. Eleventh Air Corps would continue landing 5 Mountain Division on Maleme and would consolidate possession of the airfield itself. Preparations would be made for attacks against Canea and Suda Bay, and supplies of weapons, ammunition, and other necessities were to be got forward.
Eighth Air Corps was to attack the British fleet, especially north of Crete, from dawn onwards and to patrol the sea between Crete and North Africa. It would also support 11 Air Corps, especially in the west, by attacking gun positions, tanks, and centres of resistance; by keeping watch over the whole island to prevent troop movements and the bringing up of reserves; and by denying the use of all airfields to the RAF. Operations by fighters and Stukas from Maleme itself would have to be considered.
Admiral South-East was to try to reinforce Melos with AA so that it could be used as a supply base, and was to investigate the potentialities of Kithera for the same purpose; and he was to prepare for the transport of tanks by sea to Maleme.
These orders lay little stress on Retimo and Heraklion. Evidently 4 Air Fleet and 11 Air Corps realised that the main effort must now go to Maleme. The eastern sectors must be counted on to do no more than hold their ground. Indeed, 11 Air Corps expressly states that the plan to land part of 5 Mountain Division at Heraklion now lapsed and that the role of the forces here and at Retimo was ‘to hold down the opposing enemy forces by fire and so prevent the use of the airfields’. The 3rd Parachute Regiment, moreover, at Galatas was ‘to pin down the enemy and later join in the attack by Group West.’
The Italians were by now more forthcoming. An offer by the commander in the Dodecanese—anxious to follow the example set by the Duce in the battle of France—to share in the assault was accepted after reference to Goering. The Italians were asked to deal with the east end of the island which, being undefended, was no doubt thought within their military capacity.1page 212
The orders indicate reasonable optimism but no great expectation of immediate progress. Student's views, however, were more enterprising. He himself wanted to move his Battle HQ at once to Maleme, but permission was refused on the ground that this would unbalance his command of the ground forces as a whole. Instead, General Ringel,1 commander of 5 Mountain Division, was given Group West and plans were made for him to arrive during the day.2
Though unable himself to be present, Student ordered the attack towards Canea to begin on 22 May and at the same time provided for the protection of the airfield. His zeal was due for disappointment. He had made the mistake of assuming that because the counter-attack had not come yet it would not come at all. ‘The hope of Corps H.Q. to gain ground rapidly, on 22.5, in direction Chania, was not fulfilled. On 22.5. at 0600 hrs. the enemy attacked unexpectedly from Pyrgos towards Maleme, with the support of tanks.’3
After Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry had left 5 Brigade HQ about 11.30 p.m. on 21 May and set off back towards Division, Brigadier Hargest went down to the schoolhouse at Platanias, there to meet his attacking battalions. Here Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer, who had meanwhile sent his B Company under Captain Rangi Royal to sweep the Platanias valley and then strengthen the flank of the attack by joining the Engineer Detachment on the high ground south of the main road, reported for orders. Having got these, he formed up his men and shortly before midnight they were waiting on their start line.
1 Gen Julius Ringel; then aged 52; GOC 5 Mtn Div; GOC 69 Corps, Apr 1944; GOC 18 Corps and 18 Military District, Jun 1944.
2 He had been intended to arrive on 21 May but aircraft were not available in time. —5 Mtn Div WD.
Gentry on his way back to Division also saw the signs of the naval action and, like everyone else watching that night from the shore, did not doubt that the Navy would carry out its undertakings. But like Hargest he also felt concern over the non-appearance of 20 Battalion, which he had expected to meet along the road. Accordingly, when he reached Division he rang 4 Brigade. Brigadier Inglis then told him that Puttick's orders were that 20 Battalion was not to move until the Australian battalion arrived; and it had not arrived. Gentry at once stressed the importance of getting 20 Battalion forward as close as possible to the starting time.
There was little need, however, to impress this point on Inglis who, like Gentry, felt that the naval battle which had taken place lessened the need to wait for the Australians. Indeed, two requests for permission to move 20 Battalion had already been put to the Divisional Commander that evening to the same effect. But Puttick had received his instructions from Freyberg that 20 Battalion was to wait for relief and so he would not be budged.2
Meanwhile all those who were watching the fight at sea and were rightly exultant at the likelihood of naval victory were not to know that, although the invasion had been successfully intercepted, the threat of it, by detaining 20 Battalion so long, had served the enemy well. To trace precisely how this came about it will be necessary to turn to the adventures of the Australians who were to carry out the relief.
Brigadier Vasey had got his orders verbally from Creforce during the afternoon and they had been subsequently confirmed by written orders. The relieving force was to reach Canea about 9 p.m. and was expected to take over from 20 Battalion about ten o'clock.
1 In his narrative Hargest says: ‘I did not know that the 20th had to be relieved by Australians, then embus and come 6 miles to me. I was not told till very late.’ But he gives no times and the explanation given above is probably substantially correct.
While waiting for relief Burrows had asked for permission to move off before the Australians arrived, since they were late. This permission was refused by Division for the reasons already explained. And so, for fear of an invasion that the Navy was even then engaged in frustrating, precious time was lost.
When the two Australian companies arrived Burrows sought Brigadier Inglis' approval to go to 5 Brigade, leaving the companies of 20 Battalion to follow him as relieved. This Inglis readily granted; for 20 Battalion had had no time to reconnoitre the ground over which it was to attack, and both officers were anxious that at least Major Burrows should get his orders from Brigadier Hargest in time for him to consider them carefully before the battalion arrived.
Evidence for the time at which Burrows reached 5 Brigade HQ varies. Fifth Brigade war diary says 1.30 a.m., but Burrows says 2.15 a.m. and this seems the more likely. On his arrival he got his orders. The 20th Battalion was to attack along the north side of the main road and there were to be two definite stages in the counterattack: the first being the attack on the airfield, which involved an advance of three miles on an average frontage of about 500 yards, and cleaning up all the enemy posts between the forming-up point and the airfield; the second was the move to the high ground which the Maoris were to have taken.
About a quarter to three the first two companies of 20 Battalion, C and D, arrived. As there was still no sign of the rest and it was impossible to wait longer if the attack was to get anywhere before daylight, ‘there was no option but to put in the attack with the 2 Coys only’.2 Burrows conferred briefly with Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer of 28 Battalion, issued his orders to C and D Companies, and left instructions for the other companies to follow on behind in a mopping-up role. Up till this time 28 Battalion, still waiting for 20 Battalion, was just west of the Platanias River; for opposition was expected almost from the outset and both battalions would have to move together.
1 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Greek); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn Dec 1941–Jun 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942–Jul 1943; commanded 4 Bde 27–29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul–15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul–Aug 1944; Rector Waitaki BHS 1945–49; Commandant Southern Military District Nov 1951–.
2 Report by Maj Burrows.
Meanwhile Brigadier Hargest, seeing that his plan was likely to be thrown out by the delays, felt doubtful whether it could be carried through at all. ‘I rang Div HQ and asked must the attack go on— “It must” was the reply, and on it went—Too late.’1
In making this suggestion Hargest was probably looking at the situation solely from the point of view in his own sector. He does not seem to have realised that Maleme was now the vital point for the defence of the whole island; and indeed it may be that Creforce and Division are to blame for not having made this clear to him. It was one of the misfortunes of the battle consequent on the lack of an efficient divisional Intelligence organisation and the inadequate direct personal contact between commanders, that officers were often without a general picture of the battle of which their own engagements were part.
At all events Puttick was right in insisting that the attack go on, although it is perhaps a pity that even at this late hour he did not compensate for the lateness of the attack by adding another battalion to its weight. However slender the chances of success now, those chances still existed. To cancel the attack would have ensured that there was nothing next day to prevent the enemy pouring in further reinforcements and perhaps breaking through the front of the weary forward battalions. To go on meant that there was still a hope of success; and even if Puttick did not gain all he hoped, he would at least have done something to blunt the enemy's appetite for immediate battle and to reinforce the front line. And this was in fact to be the main result.
The only real point for argument, therefore, is whether or not Freyberg and Puttick should have released 20 Battalion before the relief. As events turned out it was disastrous not to do so. But in a fair view it will be remembered how much importance naturally attached itself to the invasion by sea, and how difficult it must have been for a commander responsible for the defence of the coast to assume confidently that the Navy would be able to find and destroy the convoys sneaking across in the dark from the mainland.
1 Brig Hargest, Narrative, p. 7.
South of the road went 28 Battalion, D Company leading on the right and A Company on the left. In the second wave were Headquarters Company and Battalion HQ behind D Company, and C Company behind A Company. B Company, with Captain Royal, had already and unwittingly gone ahead of the attacking force and was by this time holding positions in a reserve area of 23 Battalion.2
On the road itself were Farran's troop of three tanks, with a section of Maoris from C Company to help them keep pace and protect them from Molotov cocktails. And touch between the battalions was maintained by the inner flanks meeting at this point.
The advancing force soon found that its progress would have to consist of a series of actions. Along its whole front 20 Battalion kept meeting pockets of enemy armed with machine guns, no doubt survivors from those dropped the day before. There was no time to organise set attacks against these, and for the most part the New Zealanders dealt with them by headlong charges. Thus D Company within half an hour of starting came up against a strongpoint in a house. A sharp grenade fight followed and ended with the taking of some prisoners. And as the battalion got closer to Pirgos and the aerodrome the opposition became denser and the volume of machine-gun fire greater. For this stage we may take the account of Captain Upham3 of C Company as typical:
Went on meeting resistance in depth—in ditches, behind hedges, in the top and bottom stories of village buildings, fields and gardens on road beside drome. The wire of 5 Bde hindered our advance. There were also mines and booby traps which got a few of us. We did not know that they were there.
There was T.G. and pistol fire and plenty of grenades and a lot of bayonet work which you don't often get in war. The amount of MG fire was never equalled. Fortunately a lot of it was high and the tracer bullets enabled us to pick our way up and throw in grenades. We had heavy casualties but the Germans had much heavier. They were unprepared. Some were without trousers, some had no boots on. The Germans were helpless in the dark. With another hour we could have reached the far side of the ‘drome. We captured, as it was, a lot of MGs, 2 Bofors pits were overrun and the guns destroyed. The PWs went back to 5 Bde.
Meanwhile the remaining hours of darkness had been swiftly passing. It was already daylight when the tanks and leading elements of 28 Battalion (which Royal's B Company had by now joined) reached the crossroads north of Dhaskaliana, where Captain Dawson was waiting in a Bren carrier. ‘The tanks were one behind the other on the rd just East of rd junc and to my mind at the time were very dubious about the whole show. They halted. They appeared to have been fired on from the same area as I had been in the afternoon.’1
Dawson decided at this point to go and see if he could find 20 Battalion. He was unable to do so and decided instead to go back and report to Brigadier Hargest. ‘It was well after daylight by then and my impression was that we could not accomplish much with the attack from then on—because of the strafing from the air that was going on. Situation seemed unstable and unsatisfactory.’2
It must have been shortly after Dawson's departure that the tanks ran into trouble, apparently in the outskirts of Pirgos. Daylight found the troop, according to Lieutenant Farran, on the outskirts of ‘Maleme village’—no doubt a confusion with Pirgos. There were now hundreds of enemy aircraft overhead. The leading tank got too far ahead of the other two and was fired on by two ‘anti-tank guns’.3 One of these guns the tank was able to knock out. In the interchange of fire, however, it was itself holed and set on fire. Sergeant Skedgewell, who commanded the tank, his gunner, and his driver were all wounded—Skedgewell and the gunner mortally. But, hit though he was, the driver managed to get the tank away and put out the fire.
Meanwhile the other two tanks had been beset by enemy fighters and Farran's tank, in trying to take cover in some bamboo, broke a bogey. Moreover, the guns in this tank appear to have jammed and he was unwilling to let his third tank go on alone. He talked with Major Burrows, who said the infantry would carry on. The tanks were to follow when ready.4
1 Report by Capt Dawson.
4 Report by Maj Burrows.
While this was going on C Company of 20 Battalion entered Pirgos and fought a bitter series of house-to-house actions there. In the course of the fighting they destroyed two Bofors guns. This engagement slowed them up and put them out of alinement with D Company on their right, which was closely followed now by B Company. By daylight, in spite of steadily increasing opposition, D Company was closing on the aerodrome. There was only one officer by now who was not a casualty—Lieutenant Maxwell.2 When he realised this he decided to contact Battalion HQ for information and further orders. He did so and was told by the Adjutant to carry on with the advance. He returned to the company and overtook it near the edge of the airfield:
We reached the clear part of the ‘drome all right—there were stacks of aircraft, some crashed, some not—I remember P. Amos saying ‘I've carried this anti tank rifle all this way and I am going to have one shot.’ He fired two shots into one aircraft and made a mess of it.
Broad daylight—at this time we had come under most intense mortar and MG fire with the clear ground of the ‘drome in front of us. I pulled the Coy back about 100x [yards] back into the cover of some bamboos.3
1 According to the Intelligence sergeant of 20 Bn, J. Sullivan, a Bren carrier had been sent back by Maj Burrows to ask for tank support when the tanks stopped.
3 Report by Capt Maxwell.
He therefore correctly appreciated that it would be impossible to carry the first phase of the original plan any further, since it would involve crossing the open ground of the airfield in broad daylight. He decided that his only course was to carry out a modified form of the second phase: to try to get what remained of the battalion in behind 28 Battalion and eventually, if the Maoris had taken it, to get on to the high ground overlooking the aerodrome.
Burrows therefore sent out runners to order the various companies to carry out this movement. The message did not reach all of them, however, as they had become too scattered in the fighting. It did reach Maxwell but in a garbled form, so that he understood he was to withdraw towards the start line and did so with all of D Company he could find. Parts of Headquarters Company joined them on the way.
While Maxwell was withdrawing, Lieutenant Upham of C Company and Sergeant Kirk1 were on the way to warn him of the new plan. On the airfield they found some New Zealand dead. ‘The mortar and MG fire on the open ground was heavy and we were lucky to get back alive. When we reached the drome, the planes were landing (some leaving drome too) and the parachutists were jumping out and getting straight into the battle for the Germans were counter-attacking on the right flank.’2
But though they found no D Company they did find some of B Company, who had missed the orders, and were able to bring them in. The main body of B Company got back also, covered by A Company, one of whose platoons had reached the airfield; but Captain Rice was killed.
Major Burrows, with the remains of his three companies, now set about putting himself in position behind the Maoris. In doing so he found himself in 23 Battalion territory.
2 Report by Capt Upham.
We must get forward and get above and round the Germans whose bullets and mortar bombs were cracking round us. We could at times see German machine gunners running up through the trees. We collected in small groups and worked forward. Men were hit, men were maimed. The din of the fight was incessant. There seemed to be German machine guns behind all the trees. If we could silence one or two immediately in front we might break through.1
In the desperate fighting that went on about this time Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer was himself conspicuous. At one point he came across some of his men whom the heavy enemy fire had forced to ground. ‘Call yourselves bloody soldiers,’ he said and went forward. His example was not lost. The men got to their feet and the attack went on.2
All the élan and gallantry of the Maoris and their commander could not get them to the final objective, in spite of charges like that described in the following words of Major Dyer:
The rcd Nazi banners erected on poles before they came at us. The Maoris in a scattered meb under the trees going forward crying ‘Ah! Ah!’ and firing at the hip. The huns with their fat behinds to us going for their lives down the gully and then our job to hold the Maoris in. When one considers what the Maoris had been through and the position and state we were all in and think of the spontaneous nature of that charge—the ancestral fighting urge was a truly magnificent thing.3
Here, to get a complete picture of the attack, we must leave the Maoris at the furthest point of their thrust—a line from east of Pirgos, southward across the canal, to a point west of 23 Battalion's front line—and turn to 21 Battalion.4
2 Report by Capt C. M. Bennett.
3 From a letter to Lt-Col Bennett, 3 Jun 1949.
The orders of 21 Battalion were to hold a line from Point 107 to the AMES. Although ‘Notes for C.O.'s’ is not clear on the point, Brigadier Hargest seems to have intended that 21 Battalion should carry out the necessary movement when 20 Battalion and 28 Battalion had taken their objectives.1 Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, however, either misunderstood the orders or decided—correctly— that he would not be able to reach the line without fighting for it. He therefore drew up a careful plan. Headquarters Company was to take the first objective, the AMES and the approaches to Xamoudhokhori; A Company was to take the second objective, Xamoudhokhori and the junction of a road and stream north-west of it; B Company's was the third objective, the ridge at the north end of the Xamoudhokhori–Vlakheronitissa road; C Company would take the fourth, Vlakheronitissa itself and the slopes north-west of it; and D Company was to complete the assault by carrying it to the final objective, the valley of the Tavronitis.2 Zero hour was to be 7 a.m.
Duly at 7 a.m. the leading company set off. By half past eight it had seized the AMES. A Company then took over and by 10 a.m. had captured Xamoudhokhori against strong opposition. By mounting a machine gun in the clock tower Lieutenant Yeoman3 gave the company a chance to reorganise and it moved forward on the left of the road, losing its commander, Captain McClymont.4 It was then held up, and a patrol sent round to the south-west in an attempt to outflank the enemy had its commander, Lieutenant Southworth,5 killed.
It was now B Company's turn. It tried to advance along the right of the road but, after clearing out one enemy pocket, was held up by machine-gun fire from the commanding ridges to the north. C Company then took over and tried to get through on the left. It failed to make much progress, and so D Company, the only one still uncommitted, was sent in on the left. After its main body had made substantial progress, passing through Vlakheronitissa but not clearing it, the forward elements of D Company 22 Battalion, which was attached to D Company of 21 Battalion, got as far as their old positions overlooking the Tavronitis.
1 Brig Dittmer believes that this was the intention.
2 The order itself is somewhat obscurely phrased and was probably amplified in verbal discussion. The above is a probable interpretation.
For an ambitious attack by a weak battalion against an enemy strongly established on high ground this was good progress; the more so as it was daylight and the enemy had complete air superiority. But when, at 11.30 a.m., Allen learned that 20 and 28 Battalions were held up, he was obviously right in deciding to push his attack no further but to stabilise where he was. He therefore withdrew D Company to the battalion's original positions and ordered A and B Companies to hold where they were unless a strong counter-attack developed, in which case they were to withdraw south-east of the AMES.
Two hours later he had further news of the situation on his right. The 23rd Battalion had been forced to give some ground.1 He therefore consolidated by using C Company to close the gap between Headquarters Company at the AMES and D Company in its original area. He hoped to hold Xamoudhokhori and the ground won beyond it as a suitable jumping-off place for any further attacks towards Point 107.
But about 3.30 p.m., as he came back from arranging this with D Company, he met A, B, and Headquarters Companies retiring. The first two had been attacked and had withdrawn according to orders. Headquarters Company had decided to come also, leaving a platoon at the AMES.
At this point occurred an odd interlude. A German in British battle dress appeared, bearing a white flag. His reception may be gathered from Allen's terse comment: ‘Sent a Hun with a flag of truce about his business. He was demanding surrender!’
It was now about a quarter to four. The day's gains could not be retaken now that the forward companies had withdrawn and the whole plan been thrown out by the blocking of the other two battalions. This new enemy pressure might well be the prelude to a full-scale attack. Allen therefore reformed his battalion on Vineyard Ridge from which it had set out that morning. Had he known that II Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, fresh troops who had arrived the day before, was on his front he might have felt that his troops had done well. And had he known that I Battalion of the same regiment, arrived that same day, was to begin that afternoon a thrust round to the south, he would have seen even better reasons for caution.
1 This was probably only some temporary setback.
In fact, 20 and 28 Battalions progressed so short a distance beyond the 23 Battalion front line that there was little mopping up to be done. There remains the question of whether it would not have been wiser for Hargest to have added 23 Battalion's strength to that of the other two. On the whole it may be regretted that he did not. The extra weight given to the attack might have given it the force to break through during the morning when opposition first began to harden. Alternatively, had 23 and 28 Battalions been sent in together there would not have been the same compulsion to delay attack until 20 Battalion arrived, that battalion could have followed up as reserve battalion, and the attack itself could have got off to an earlier start and had the advantage of a longer period of darkness.
However that may be, such operations as 23 Battalion did carry out this day were local affairs intended to prevent enemy encroachments or regain areas already lost. The only exception recorded is the part played by elements of A Company (and of C Company 22 Battalion) in the advance of 28 Battalion.
The first of the day's tasks was the recapture of the machine-gun and mortar area evacuated the previous day. This was carried out at daybreak by 17 and 18 Platoons of D Company. By now only two of the machine guns were able to fire and both were damaged. There was a good deal of trouble from enemy mortars and ‘too many Huns crawling about in the vines.’2 But the morning passed well enough, no doubt because the enemy was still fully occupied in holding back the Maoris. The afternoon was to be busier.
In the afternoon it became clear that no further progress could be made by the counter-attack. A and D Companies of 28 Battalion were held up at the eastern outskirts of Pirgos; and B and C Companies, which had swerved left to try to bypass the village, had not been able to advance more than about half a mile before being pinned down by machine-gun fire from the eastern slopes of Point 107 and from the area west of Pirgos. In 20 Battalion the bulk of A, B, and C Companies had crossed to the south of the road and taken up positions behind the Maoris and inside 23 Battalion's perimeter.
1 Leckie's recollection is that the battalion's actions this day were on its own initiative. But Brig Hargest in a lecture said that the battalion was ‘to come in behind and do the mopping up’. And this accords with Dawson's account.
Already during the morning a message from 23 Battalion HQ had been sent to acquaint Brigadier Hargest with the situation. According to this 21 Battalion was still making progress towards Point 107, 28 Battalion was roughly speaking in the position already described, and 20 Battalion had been forced to pull back from its forward positions. Enemy pressure on the right flank was heavy and with enemy guns ranged on the road junction it was impossible to get into Pirgos. The RAP was overworked with wounded from both sides and the supply of medical dressings exhausted. In the opinion of Lieutenant-Colonels Leckie and Andrew the counterattack could not succeed without more infantry, artillery, and air support.1
No such support was of course forthcoming. Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer, who had gone forward with the companies trying to outflank Pirgos, remained with them until he thought he sufficiently understood the enemy position. He then came back to 23 Battalion HQ,2 hoping to be able to get help from 22 and 23 Battalions in the launching of a further attack. He found, however, that there was little that could be done. Artillery support was very thin, and the two other battalion commanders felt that with the failure of the organised counter-attack the best course now was to hold on to what ground they had and stop the enemy infiltration that was constantly going on.
A little before or shortly after this informal conference, the two Maori companies before Pirgos found the fire on their positions too heavy and so moved farther south towards the 23 Battalion area. The ultimate position seems to have been that 28 Battalion held the gap between 21 Battalion on the left and 23 Battalion on the right, getting there in time to launch a counter-attack which cleared up an ugly situation on 21 Battalion's right flank. And the three companies of 20 Battalion stiffened the right of 23 Battalion. This is a rather schematic account since there was a good deal of intermixture of sub-units, but if due allowance is made for this fact it will serve to give a picture of the front as it now stabilised.
1 The entry in 5 Bde WD is timed 3.5 p.m.; but the context suggests that the message was sent off during the morning and no doubt the runner carrying it was late getting through.
2 Dittmer does not remember the time, but it seems to have been in the late afternoon.
The enemy did not stop at recovering lost ground, but pressed forward. Developments on 21 Battalion front have already been recounted. In the area of D Company 23 Battalion some penetration was made, but the RSM of the Maori Battalion, Ace Wood,2 rushed one enemy post at the head of a bayonet charge. ‘This happened about 10–15 yards from the most easterly post of my platoon, unknown to two of my men until they heard the yells of the Maoris as they rushed.’3 And other parties in the same area were driven off by Captain Mark Harvey,4 commanding 23 Battalion's D Company, with some of his men.5
Farther to the right the enemy attacked the road junction north of the 23 Battalion area and held by B Company but were driven off. Enemy machine-gun posts had also been established on the ridge west of the road from Pirgos south to Xamoudhokhori, and all the Maori efforts to silence them proved vain. Mortar fire soon came to reinforce the machine guns. The machine-gun fire of the defence had been weakened by direct hits which destroyed Lieutenant MacDonald's last two guns, but he withdrew his men to the reverse slope of his ridge and still kept going with a captured spandau. Here, along with a party of Maoris, he awaited an attack which the enemy were evidently preparing under cover of their machine guns. Two Maoris were posted at the top of the ridge to observe. The rest fixed bayonets.
The attack began with a bursting mass of flame from the grenades the Huns threw on to the top—shook us up a bit. Then they came over.
3 Statement by Lt G. H. Cunningham, OC 18 Platoon, 23 Bn.
5 ‘Mark Harvey was on my right; a brave officer, collecting his men and encouraging them under fire.’—Maj Dyer.
All the battalions engaged had their taste of hand-to-hand fighting that day, and there were several affrays as sharp as the one that MacDonald describes; but neither the historian scanning the reports long after the event they describe nor the survivors to whom those events are still a vivid memory would hesitate to award to the Maoris of 28 Battalion the credit for the most conspicuous élan and valour shown on that hard day.
Finally the darkness came, the infiltrating enemy parties fell back to a line which occasional soaring signal lights roughly indicated, and the battalions settled down where they were to wait for daylight and the renewal of battle, the newcomers of 20 and 28 Battalions grimly solacing themselves for their own losses by the sight of all the enemy dead.2
Behind the main fighting the day had not been without its excitements. Captain Baker of D Company 28 Battalion had found himself at daylight in the Engineer area with a sergeant and about eight men. The others of his company, who had been with him the day before and like him had been cut off by the descending paratroops, had made contact with their battalion as it passed through and had joined in the counter-attack. Baker now set about following but met elements of 20 Battalion returning and gathered from these that 28 Battalion would also be coming back. He therefore returned to his original D Company position. Here he learned that there was an enemy concentration on his south flank and he set about attacking it. The 19th Army Troops joined him and the engagement ended with the enemy's surrender. ‘There were 65 live ones, mostly wounded, and 9 Spandaus besides a lot of Tommy Guns etc.’3
1 Report by Capt MacDonald, 27 MG Bn.
3 Report by Capt J. N. Anderson, NZE.
The Field Punishment Centre spent the day cleaning up isolated posts in its area and co-operating with C Troop of 27 Battery. ‘When we put a shot in there, you get everyone who runs out’, an order from Captain Snadden, gives the keynote of their activities.
The guns themselves had done their best to support the counterattack. But A, B, and C Troops of 27 Battery were without communications to the attacking battalions, had no forward observation officers and, since the timetable had been upset from the start, could not do much to help. ‘A and B Troops bashed the aerodrome once more but were in the dark re our own troops after a while and so held fire until a definite location of our troops was supplied.’1 Moreover, stocks of ammunition were very low, and of the three trucks of ammunition got forward to 5 Brigade by Lieutenant Dyson,2 DAQMG to Division, one was set on fire. C Troop got one load which had to be manhandled up the hill by the exhausted gunners. A and B Troops had to go without.
Somehow or other, however, the guns managed to keep up their pounding of the airfield, and by this time the enemy, intent on landing his mountain troops, was desperately anxious to silence them. A and B Troops were still unlocated by the Luftwaffe, but the enemy's planes kept up a continual bombing and machine-gunning of suspected areas. The 27th Battery HQ had hardly moved from its schoolhouse when this received a direct hit. B Troop had managed, by the devotion of Lieutenant Cade and Sergeant McLeay, to keep an OP going on the open hillside. By the end of the day casualties from ground and air fire had reduced the strength of C Troop by half. A and B Troops had suffered less, but as ammunition grew scarcer the three troops had begun to consider whether they would not have to destroy their guns and fight as infantry.
It is doubtful whether the four 75-millimetre guns of C Troop 2/3 Regiment—all that was available to reinforce the Maleme front —got far enough forward in time to support the counter-attack. The detachment of the Australian MG Company came up safely to 5 Brigade during the day but met with disaster when going forward that night to reinforce the front. ‘They ran clean into a Hun attack and in five minutes lost everything they had—vehicles, guns, ammunition.’3
1 Report by Maj Philp.
3 Narrative of Brig Hargest.
A characteristic feature of war is notoriously the difficulty a commander has in knowing what is happening once battle is joined. In Crete, because of the cutting of telephone wires and the shortage of wireless sets, this was more pronounced even than usual. Once a commander had committed his forces he could do little but wait, dependent for news on the imperfect reports of wounded and stragglers and unable for lack of reserves and transport to strengthen weak points or pursue an advantage. Nor did he have the guns, the tanks, or the aircraft to remedy the lack of other resources. This was true in some degree at every level of command. Thus, for example, on 20 May Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew had virtually to leave his companies to command themselves, while the company commanders in their turn could do little to co-ordinate the fighting of their platoons. On the higher levels, Brigadier Hargest, Brigadier Puttick and General Freyberg, in default of leaving their HQs and the apparatus of command to seek information for themselves, had to suffer the same helpless impatience.
This counter-attack of 22 May was no exception. Success was the only hope for a prolonged defence of Crete; failure would confirm the enemy in the possession of the airfield and make ultimate defeat inevitable. Yet, once the two battalions had crossed the start line, there was almost nothing Hargest could do to help them. Day found him anxiously waiting for news, and some news there was, though not as yet from his own front. At 7.30 a.m. he learnt that the seaborne invasion had been defeated at sea. Cheering though this news was, it must also have had an ironic ring. The delay at the start had not proved necessary, then. Its importance, however, would have been underlined shortly afterwards. For Captain Dawson next came in to report that the tanks and 28 Battalion were still short of Pirgos. He did not think much could be accomplished now that the enemy aircraft were strafing in such numbers.
It was this news which probably lay behind a message sent to Division about this time: the attack had passed the crossroads and was going on, the RAF had not bombed Maleme according to promise, and the artillery reinforcements—2/3 Regiment RAA—had not yet passed Platanias.
The return of Farran's tanks would have strengthened forebodings of failure. And the fact that the Brigadier did not send them back and did not call upon the remaining three tanks of the squadron indicates that it was now too light and seemed too late for him to help the infantry with armour.page 229
For a while there were other distractions. Not long before eight o'clock Brigade HQ was severely attacked by Messerschmitts and an ammunition truck was set alight. Then aircraft could be seen landing on the airfield, and this would have been enough to suggest that it was not in our hands, even without reports from returning troops that the attack had met with only partial success. Yet there was still hope and at 10 a.m. Hargest reported to Division that some forward progress was being made but that resistance was getting stronger.
But Hargest was a man of buoyant spirit, and the fact that progress was being made at all after such a late and confused beginning tempted him to dally with the idea that the air traffic at Maleme might indicate not further landings but evacuation. It is difficult otherwise to explain his message to Division of 10.42 a.m.: ‘Steady flow of enemy planes landing and taking off. May be trying to take troops off. Investigating.’1 Although about this very time the enemy were observed to land two AFVs and some motor cycles, wishful thinking died hard and at 11 a.m. another signal to Division said: ‘From general quietness and because eleven fires have been lit on drome it appears as though enemy might be preparing evacuation. Am having further investigations made. Do any other reports from other sources show further evidence of this?’2
The reply from Division was non-committal. ‘No other indications as you suggest but it is possible.’ Whether to give the evidence for what was already considered to have been over-optimism or with a last flicker of the same tendency, Brigade HQ reported at half past twelve that men had been seen to run towards planes before they took off.3 And it may be that Brigade still flirted with the idea that the counter-attack, the victory at sea, and the heavy losses of planes in landing—the wrecked aircraft strewn about the airfield and beaches were visible from Brigade HQ— had reduced the enemy to despair of success.
1 NZ Div WD. Capt Dawson and others disagreed with Brig Hargest on this interpretation.
3 5 Bde WD. The men seen running towards the planes were no doubt unloading parties.
4 NZ Div WD.
Meanwhile Division had been testing the possibility of an enemy withdrawal by sending out fighting patrols on 10 Brigade front. The patrols found no sign of any such intention, and men from 20 Battalion who had made their way back, when interrogated on the point, showed themselves convinced that the enemy so far from evacuating was landing men and stores.1
Perhaps the main interest of this confusion, however, is as an illustration of the weakness of the divisional Intelligence organisation at this time. In later battles the commander's staff would have been able to tell at once, from the general framework of their information about the enemy and his intentions, that this was a canard and ought to be ignored.
At Brigade HQ Hargest's exasperation at the paucity of reliable news and the confusion thus made possible decided him to send Captain Dawson forward once more in a Bren carrier with the last available No. 18 set. His message to Division of 1.25 p.m. reports this and indicates that optimism was now on the wane: ‘Recent messages make position confused. M [the Brigade Major] going to investigate. Tps NOT so far forward on left as believed. Officers on ground believe enemy preparing for attack and take serious view. I disagree but of course they have closer view. Will visit your HQ when M returns.’2
No better idea of the kind of difficulty Hargest was up against can be given than Dawson's own account of what followed:
Left Bde in Bren Carrier with last W/T set and wireless operator and driver. Also some rations and amn. We were caught in Platanias village by Messerschmits. The set was riddled and was useless; bailed out into coast side of road onto open ground but planes strafed us there also snipers from direction of coast. We then dashed for North side of road into a wheat field. Planes then strafed us there, and set fire to the wheat field which we had to vacate. This lasted approx. 40 mins. Then inspected carrier—it would go—found driver but couldn't find W/T operator—looked for him for a short while and shouted for him but no luck. Then as set was no good decided to get on up to 23 Bn.
The driver and I then went on in a series of dashes and bail outs to 23 Bn with ammunition and some rations. We turned the corner at the rd junction at about 40 mph much to the amusement of some 23 Bn people who could see us. It was then 1600 hrs.
After this things became very confused round that rd junction. 23 Bn were reporting that motor-cycles tps were about there also an A-Tk gun and possibly one bofor gun trained down the rd. The carrier had one half broken track already so I decided to return to Bde by foot after dark.
1 NZ Div Intelligence log. Entry at 2.40 p.m.
2 NZ Div WD.
As the afternoon wore on Hargest must have been able to form a clearer picture. Thus at 3.5 p.m. he got the message—itself several hours out of date—to the effect that 20 Battalion had withdrawn owing to pressure on the right flank, that 28 Battalion was holding positions from Pirgos across the front of 23 Battalion, and that 21 Battalion was still attacking and making progress. Again, the despatch of elements of the returned companies of 20 Battalion to hold the right of the road east of Pirgos indicates that he was aware of the existence of a dangerous gap there. But at this stage of the battle we can only guess at the degree of knowledge he had about the whole situation.
One other concern of the Brigadier's must be mentioned before we leave him in the middle of his perplexities and turn to the other sectors. Enemy parties which were filtering through from the south, and which had been sent by Heidrich to try and cut the coast road, had already begun to establish themselves in the hills round and south of Ay Marina. This was a most serious threat. Hargest therefore asked Division to have 10 Brigade make an attack westward to check this development. At 5.50 p.m. Division told him that the attack had been ordered and would go in between 6.45 and 7.15 p.m.