I: The Withdrawal of 5 Brigade
I: The Withdrawal of 5 Brigade
About four o'clock on the afternoon of 22 May General Ringel had received his orders to take command of all forces in Crete and fly to Maleme at once. His instructions from General Löhr, commander of 4 Air Fleet, were to secure Maleme airfield, to clear Suda Bay, to relieve the paratroops at Retimo, to make contact with Heraklion, and to occupy the whole island.
About 8 p.m. he and his HQ landed on the beach west of Maleme —Maleme airfield itself still being under shellfire. He made himself acquainted with the general position and found that I Battalion, 85 Mountain Regiment, had been advancing since 4 p.m. from Point 197 (about four miles south of Point 107) in an easterly direction, with Mount Monodhendri (Point 259) as the ultimate objective. It was expected to reach Point 229 (Mount Psathoyiannos) about ten o'clock. I Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment was following up. The main body of II Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, was in the area of Kamisiana and Point 295, but elements of it were also engaged on protective duties.
Since effective contact could not yet be made with any of the other groups under his command, Ringel's orders issued that evening confined their scope to the reorganisation of the reinforced Group West and preliminary preparations for an intensified drive towards Canea. He defined the task of his force as first of all to secure the airfield and by neutralising the defence's guns to permit further troops to land unhampered.
For this purpose he formed three battle groups. The first consisted of 95 Engineer Battalion under Major Schaette. It was to relieve II Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment of all protective duties and to cover Maleme from the west and south by clearing Kastelli and Palaiokhora. The second group consisted of all the paratroops and was under Colonel Ramcke, who now reverted to the command of the Assault Regiment. His task was to assemble the paratroops and form them into a strong battalion under regimental command. With this he would cover the airfield page 250 against attack from the east and co-operate with the third group in the attack towards Canea.
The third group consisted of Colonel Utz's I and II Battalions of 100 Mountain Regiment and I Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment. On it the enemy's main hopes now rested. Its task was to drive east in conjunction with Ramcke Group, and to continue the enveloping movement round the south flank that had already begun. By this manoeuvre Ringel hoped to eliminate the New Zealand artillery, join up with Heidrich's Group Centre, and cut the coast road near Ay Marina.
Had 5 Brigade remained in its forward positions another twenty-four hours it seems likely that the enemy plan might have brought about the result which Brigadier Hargest feared and cut off the brigade. And if the second counter-attack had been carried out the net would have had a still larger yield. But, as we have seen, orders were already on the way that night for 5 Brigade to withdraw. They reached Hargest about 1 a.m. At roughly the same time Captain Dawson got back over the hills from 23 Battalion. This was fortunate; for, owing to the destruction of the last No. 18 set, there was no wireless communication forward. The route was dangerous and familiar to few; no one had a better chance than the resolute Dawson—weary though he was—of getting through in the dark. So, while the Brigadier arranged transport for the evacuation of 5 Field Ambulance, Dawson drew up the withdrawal orders.
3 This is based on Dawson's report. 3 Hussars WD says: ‘Farran and Childs sent fwd a mile to hold a bridge while leading bns withdrew. This left two tanks in hand as another had been ditched and SL's tank not returned.’ According to the same source the squadron's task for 23 May was to prevent infiltration down the main road or between the road and the beach.
His arrival is described by Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie:
… Capt. Dawson arrived at 23 Bn HQ very exhausted. It was full daylight. He said he had some ‘very surprising news’ for me. My remark was, ‘What! Have they tossed it in?’ (Wishful thinking, I'm afraid; but I did feel that we had made a mess of them the day before. And the morning was so quiet and peaceful with not even a plane in the sky, as yet.) Dawson said, ‘We are to retire to the Platanias R line. Will you get in touch with all Bns. The withdrawal was supposed to start half-an-hour ago.’ I gave Dawson my blanket and told him to have a sleep. I would wake him up in good time. We had phone communication to Jim Burrows and John Allen. Jim said he would inform Dittmer.2
By about 5 a.m. all the battalion commanders except Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer had reached 23 Battalion HQ for a conference.3 The orders were bald enough. The battalions were to withdraw at 5.30 a.m.,4 each providing its own protection. The route was to be over the hills south of the coast road, and defensive positions were to be taken up by 10 a.m. The 28th Battalion was to hold its original front. The other units were all allotted new positions in the same general area—except for 20 Battalion which was to move back to the Canea area and come once more under the command of 4 Brigade.
The order to withdraw came as a surprise to the battalion commanders. ‘None of the unit representatives present considered they would have any difficulty in disengaging, as the enemy was so quiet at this stage. All were of opinion that we could hold the position.’5 Yet the withdrawal was necessary. The last chance of counter-attack was already gone. For 5 Brigade to be left where it was would have been to invite disaster. And the enemy quiescence on which Leckie comments was deceptive; for the move round the south flank was already under way.
It remained now to carry out the orders. Among those present had been the commander of 1 Company 27 MG Battalion, and he set off at once with all except Lieutenant MacDonald's platoon to take up a new position at Ay Marina.
3 Maj Burrows had sent a sergeant, before leaving his own HQ, to warn Dittmer of the conference. For some unexplained reason this message did not reach him in time.
4 If Dawson was right and the withdrawal should already have begun, this must have been a fresh time arranged on the spot.
5 Letter from Col Leckie.
Meanwhile Dittmer had learned from one of his officers that the 23 Battalion companies on his right were about to withdraw. Leaving orders for his company commanders to report to his HQ he hurried to 23 Battalion HQ, about a thousand yards away. Here he discovered that not only was the withdrawal to take place but that 28 Battalion was to be rearguard. ‘I went extremely rude about being left in such a manner but had little time to go into the reason for it. I knew that enemy would see other units going over high ground to East and then 28 Bn would catch it.’1
It is not difficult to sympathise. A daylight withdrawal was an extremely disagreeable thing to have to contemplate, and withdrawal was not temperamentally congenial to a man of Dittmer's fighting spirit. But it was necessary none the less, and the unfortunate failure of the news to reach him in good time was the sort of mishap that, although it never fails to infuriate its victim, is inevitable in the haste of battle.
Time was needed for the orders to get down to companies and platoons. But about 6.30 a.m. the main body of 23 Battalion, led by Major Thomason2 and accompanied by Captain Dawson, left the area. C Company under Lieutenant W. B. Thomas followed half an hour later, acting as rearguard to the battalion. A platoon of D Company came out separately and Headquarters Company 2 withdrew with 21 Battalion. Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie, who had stayed behind to see that all his men got safely away, buried the battalion's payroll and finally came out alone, overtaking a platoon of 21 Battalion near Modhion.
Leckie left without his Medical Officer, Captain Stewart,3 however. For, although the walking wounded in 23 Battalion RAP had gone back before full daylight, Stewart still had some sixty stretcher cases under his charge. These men came from 20, 22, 23, and 28 Battalions. The Medical Officer of 22 Battalion, Captain Longmore, had been taken prisoner along with the rest of his RAP on 21 May; Captain Gilmour4 of 20 Battalion had no facilities; Captain Mules5 of 28 Battalion had been wounded; and Captain Moody, who had come back with the survivors of 22 Battalion, belonged to 5 Field Ambulance.
THE CHURCH AT
German graves in foreground
A BRITISH DESTROYER HIT BY A BOMB
Askifou Plain from the north
INSIDE THE CAVE Pte T. Hall, General Freyberg (centre), Capt J. A. V. Morse, RN
HMAS NIZAM RETURNS TO ALEXANDRIA WITH TROOPS FROM CRETE
Vice-Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, C-in-C Mediterranean, and Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, Prime Minister of New Zealand, meet returning troops
Brigadier E. Puttick and Brigadier L. M. Inglis (Photograph taken shortly after Crete campaign)
The cover where the Royal Navy picked up Moir's party
1 Statement by Brig Dittmer, 1950.
Captain Griffiths,1 the 23 Battalion chaplain, decided for similar reasons to remain with Stewart. And their two orderlies, Privates Walsh2 and Buchanan,3 also elected to stay, as did Corporal Collie,4 a medical orderly from 20 Battalion. To the two officers fell the grim task of explaining to the wounded that capture was inevitable.
Meanwhile 23 Battalion had gone on its way and, after some casualties from air attack en route, reached the Platanias area about eight o'clock. It was at once put into line west of Platanias ridge and ordered to hold it until the other battalions passed through. C Company, the battalion rearguard, came back by a different route, along the line of the canal, and was in time to assist at an engagement near Platanias bridge.
Shortly after 23 Battalion, 22 Battalion moved out and went through Kondomari over the hills towards Platanias. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew and his adjutant checked the men through as they set off in two groups. There were some casualties on the way, but the battalion reached the Platanias area without major mishap and Andrew reported to Brigade HQ at 8.27 a.m. From here he went on to Division, where he received his orders: the battalion, now rather more than 200 strong and divided into two companies under Captains Hanton and Campbell (who had been with 21 Battalion but had brought his group out separately), was to take up a position east of the Engineer Detachment—now in new positions near Ay Marina.
The three companies of 20 Battalion had not had time to reform as a unit, and Major Burrows ordered the platoons to march with the units to which they were attached and to reorganise when they had reached their destination. This they did; but only A Company was sent on to join 4 Brigade again, the remainder being held back to help defend the Platanias line. Of those already in Platanias since falling back the day before—Headquarters Company and D Company—it will be more convenient to speak later.2
Dittmer had gone back to his battalion from 23 Battalion HQ meditating his plans for the withdrawal and rearguard. When he reached his own HQ and found his company commanders waiting he issued his orders carefully. The main body was to move out, guided by the Intelligence Officer, Captain Bennett,3 as soon as possible. Their departure would be covered by a rearguard party, consisting of an officer and section from each company, the whole group being commanded by Major Dyer.4
It was some time after six o'clock when the main body left. It met no opposition and reached the Platanias area about half past eight. As orders were to occupy the old position with whatever assistance could be found, the Intelligence Officer used the troops he had as well as he could and, within a quarter of an hour, had them manning a line.5
The rear party, meanwhile, was having a more difficult time. Major Dyer's orders had been to keep the enemy off until the troops had time to reach Platanias and man the line. He resolved to take about three hours over his task and to reach Platanias between half past nine and ten o'clock.
4 According to some sources 18 Platoon of 23 Bn, under Lt G. H. Cunningham, came out with the Maori rearguard. Dittmer has no recollection of this. Lt MacDonald's MG detachment—with the German MG—did, however, travel with 28 Bn.
5 5 Bde's plan seems to have envisaged 28 Bn as moving out first and taking up positions through which the other battalions could pass. But delays in starting and the absence of Lt-Col Dittmer from the conference no doubt caused the change in plan.
At the third pause—which seems to have been on the high ground between Kondomari and Modhion—Dyer found Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer who, with a platoon of about thirty men, had halted there to support the rear party. ‘It looked as though we were likely to be cut off, and under the circumstances, we felt the greatest admiration for our C.O. who had given us a tough task and then stayed back to see the job through.’1
The party made two more stages, encountering en route much less machine-gun fire than before. At the last stage they found themselves getting covering fire from their comrades at Platanias. But by this time the enemy had advanced level with them along the axis of the coast road and had brought up guns with him— perhaps Bofors—as well as machine guns, and these proved very troublesome. The rear party were forced to wade south along the river for some distance. Then one last dash was made up a slope almost destitute of cover and, although seven or eight men were hit, the greater number got over the crest and back inside their own front line. The time is difficult to establish but may have been as late as 2 p.m.
While the forward battalions were making this withdrawal, the troops east of them had also had to be on the move. The Engineer Detachment and the Field Punishment Centre had been able to make their way out before daylight and had gone on to the area of Ay Marina. One outlying picket of 19 Army Troops Company failed to get the order but, finding the others gone, managed to extricate itself and, moving south through the hills, rejoined its unit at Sfakia—a considerable feat.
1 Report by Maj Dyer, the main source of this part of the account.
The story of the artillery is less fortunate. Major Philp had got his orders from 5 Brigade at 4 a.m. This did not leave him time to organise the removal of his guns, even had there been transport to get them out in the dark. Thus A Troop had to leave both its 3·7 howitzers and B Troop its three Italian 75s. A few men from each troop stayed behind to disable them. C Troop had less distance to go and had four trucks to assist in towing its four guns. But one truck went over a steep bank and the other was found to have no towing attachment. Two guns had therefore to be ‘spiked’ and left behind. The remaining two were got safely to positions at Ay Marina chosen by Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt.
Without artillery, the gunners of A and B Troops and HQ 27 Battery now became infantrymen and went into line alongside the Maori Battalion. At this stage, it is worth noting, Strutt had in support of 5 Brigade the following guns: two French 75s from C Troop; his own four 75s (Italian) from 2/3 RAA Regiment; two Bofors from 156 LAA Regiment; two two-pounders from 106 RHA; and perhaps two French 75s from 2/3 RAA Regiment. All these were in position round Platanias and Ay Marina at this time.
By ten o'clock that morning the new line had been established just west of Platanias and the main bodies of the battalions were all settled in. The Maori Battalion had taken over its old positions —from Platanias bridge south-east in a curve covering Platanias— as it came in; and on the high ground to its east were 21 and 23 Battalions. Farther east, in the Ay Marina area, were the Engineer Detachment with the remnants of 1 MG Company and the guns. And 22 Battalion was a little farther to the east of the engineers.
1 Pte L. G. J. Follas.
But meanwhile the enemy had been moving fast. Using captured RAF trucks from Maleme and bringing with them mortars, they had come along the road; and no doubt it was this advance that had given the Maori rearguard so much worry about being outflanked.
1 It is odd that no arrangements seem to have been made for the demolition of the bridge. Perhaps hope of moving westward across it once more had not been entirely given up.
In this interval which left the bridge uncovered the enemy had kept coming forward, and while Baker was still organising his force to occupy the area word reached him that there were about 200 enemy already in the old D Company positions and that they were getting mortars ready to open fire. It is not clear at what time this happened. The 28th Battalion war diary reports that at 11.5 a.m. about 100 Germans approached the bridge bringing up what looked like a mortar; that five minutes later they attempted to cross the river south of the bridge dragging a field gun; and that at 11.30 the gun was set up on the east side of the bridge but was withdrawn owing to attentions from our artillery.2
It seems likely, however, that these reports refer to later enemy concentrations than the one reported to Captain Baker. At all events, Baker at once decided to attack, though he was short of automatic weapons and had no supporting arms. He began to filter his force forward under such cover as there was. His men had not gone far and were about 900 yards from the river in low, flat open ground when they came under mortar fire and concentrated fire from machine guns. None the less they managed to reduce the gap to about 500 yards before the fire became intolerably intense.
Baker decided that to go on would be suicidal. He therefore ordered a withdrawal to the positions formerly prepared by D Company's reserve platoon. The order was passed forward section by section and, when he thought all ranks had safely withdrawn, including the wounded Captain Garriock3 who had commanded one of the ad hoc platoons, he himself followed under cover of the smoke from houses which had been set on fire by mortars.
But the attack had been more successful than Baker knew. Lieutenant Markham3 managed to get a detachment within 100 yards of the bridge, where the enemy had a gun in the middle of the road and busy mortars and machine guns on both sides. ‘My section had no dug positions and they brought very heavy Mortar fire to bear on us. We were able to put the gun temporarily out of action by killing or disposing of the crew…. ‘4 Lieutenant P. Maxwell also got a section as far forward as the riverbed and captured a Bofors. He then got in touch with Markham, who pointed out a column of enemy coming up the road with more field guns. The two officers considered their position: they had few men with them and among those few casualties were steadily occurring; ammunition was short; and the enemy was reinforcing. They decided to withdraw and were confirmed in this by the arrival of Baker's message. In falling back they failed to find Baker and appear to have helped the Maori Headquarters Company in the outskirts of Platanias.
This probably happened late in the morning. The enemy was cautious from now on, and it is not till 2.20 p.m. that 28 Battalion war diary mentions him again. At that time enemy parties were reported to be digging gun emplacements along the main road about 500 yards west of the bridge. A quarter of an hour later concentrations were reported in the stream bed and at five minutes to three enemy were seen laying wire between the bridge area and a house on the beach, probably a local HQ. Then at 3.22 a gun from Maleme began to shell A Company and trucks brought up infantry and material. An assault seemed imminent.
It was about this time that the defence were heartened by their first sight of the RAF. At five minutes to four a bomber was seen to attack the airfield and five minutes later three more. Six planes at least were observed to be on fire and transport aircraft appeared to be leaving the airfield.
2 Lt-Col E. TeW. Love, m.i.d.; born Picton, 18 May 1905; interpreter; CO 28 (Maori) Bn May–Jul 1942; died of wounds 12 Jul 1942.
4 Report in 20 Bn war diary, probably by Lt Markham.
Meanwhile our own artillery had begun to shell the German concentrations at the bridge. Already during the early morning the retiring gunners of 27 Battery had been delighted to hear two six-inch naval guns at Suda Bay shelling Stalos as a likely enemy headquarters. As soon as they themselves were in position they set about getting their two surviving guns into action, their difficulty being that they had no way of calculating where their shells were likely to land. But early in the afternoon an Australian troop went into position nearby and, correcting the elevation of his own guns by means of the Australian OP, Lieutenant Boyce1 was able to come into action.2 Soon after, however, an enemy mortar scored a direct hit on one gun and set fire to the ammunition. In spite of the danger Corporal Buchanan,3 a newcomer from 4 Field Regiment, shovelled earth over the flames and put out the fire. But from then on the Australian OP was too busy serving its own guns and the second gun had to remain silent.
Counter-battery fire was not the only danger to the artillery. By this time enemy parties were filtering in from the south and at one time during the morning a sudden enemy sally took the two Bofors in Strutt's little group. But they were successfully retaken.
The Australian guns continued to work hard all afternoon. At one stage a message to 5 Mountain Division records that the parachute artillery battery had fired three times its ammunition establishment. Even so it had not been able to silence the Australians who, besides shelling Pirgos, drove an enemy party in company strength out of the bridge area, silenced two enemy guns that came into action in the same neighbourhood, and destroyed one of two motor cycles that came to rescue them. In fact it seems likely that the enemy's failure to mount a full-scale assault on the front that day may in large measure be due to the guns.
2 Capt Snadden, the commander of the gunners, had gone away temporarily to get orders and medical attention for his four wounds. He came back later.
South of the road and in the hills there was less direct contact but—as everywhere else that day—much trouble from enemy mortars, captured Bofors and enemy aircraft. The 23rd Battalion alone had 35 wounded, who were cared for in an improvised RAP by the RQMS, W. H. Dalton.1
As the day wore on it became apparent that the enemy was preparing an outflanking attack from the south in addition to the frontal attack that had been threatening all afternoon.2 Parties of enemy were seen making their way south-east from Pirgos into the hills, and A Company of 28 Battalion during the afternoon ‘carried on snap-shooting practice with occasional good grenade throwing against small parties of enemy who had moved up on the southern and south-western side of the Company area and finally took cover in caves below our position.’3 The 23rd Battalion felt similar pressure on the left flank and was forced to strengthen it with an additional company; while farther to the east the Engineer Detachment found its positions threatened from the south, where an enemy party had established itself in a farmhouse not far away and caused 14 or 15 casualties.
It was clear to both Brigadiers Hargest and Puttick that 5 Brigade was in a dangerous position. Its withdrawal and a move forward by the Composite Battalion of 10 Brigade4 had improved the situation from that of the day before. None the less, the enemy was obviously stronger and more aggressive, and 5 Brigade was still too far forward to be proof against a strong attack from the south at its point of juncture with 10 Brigade. Already at eleven o'clock that morning Puttick was discussing the situation with General Freyberg, and the upshot was his decision to withdraw 5 Brigade after dark into Divisional Reserve.
3 Report by Capt Baker.
To this—and perhaps later unrecorded messages—Puttick replied by special despatch rider at 3.15 p.m.: 5 Brigade was to withdraw that night but not, except for reconnaissance parties, before 8.45 p.m. Detailed orders reached 5 Brigade at 5 p.m. Their substance was as follows: the New Zealand Division would hold a line running from the coast at Staliana Khania south to Point 98·4, from there south-east to Ruin Hill, and thence south-east again via Cemetery Hill and the feature immediately west of the Prison to the Turkish fort.3
The right of this line would be held by 4 Brigade with the Composite Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry under command and, also under command, two 75s from 5 Brigade and a machine-gun detachment of six guns from 10 Brigade. The left of the line would be held by 19 Australian Brigade. The boundary between the brigades, inclusive to 4 Brigade, would be the Prison–Canea road. Fifth Brigade was to go into reserve east of Karatsos in much the same area as that originally held by 18 and 20 Battalions.
To this Hargest in an untimed message replied that the order would be carried out at 10 p.m. The Brigadier pointed out that his units would need a day to reorganise, that some of 20 Battalion had been kept in the line instead of returning to 4 Brigade, and that he would like to keep the Engineer Detachment for at least another day. And since he speaks of 22 Battalion as being with 4 Brigade, he was evidently unaware that Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew had returned on Puttick's orders to support the Engineer Detachment near Ay Marina.
1 NZ Div WD.
The estimate of unit strengths given in this message shows as well as any figures can the hard fighting the brigade had had: 21 Battalion was down to 170, 22 to 110, 23 to 250, and the Engineer Detachment to 300.1 No statement is made about the number of wounded but they must have been numerous, and Hargest was anxious that at least one or two medical officers should be sent up together with medical equipment. And in a message at 7.15 p.m. he asked for ambulances to be sent up at nine o'clock.
No copy of Hargest's order to his units for the withdrawal is available, but no doubt it went out to the battalions by runner soon after the divisional order was received, and there must have been further communication between the two commanders since arrangements were made by which the six-inch guns at Suda Bay were to begin firing on enemy-held territory from midnight on.2 The tanks of 3 Hussars were to act as rearguard.3
Both 20 and 28 Battalions effected their withdrawal safely and were settled in their new areas before daylight. The 21st Battalion followed them, and after it came 23 Battalion. The atmosphere of the move is well conveyed in the narrative of Lieutenant Thomas, then commanding C Company 23 Battalion:
We withdrew under orders soon after midnight, carrying our wounded on improvised stretchers down the steep cliff face and then along a difficult clay creek bed to the road. Then we marched until nearly dawn. I was very impressed by the continued discipline of the men. Mile after mile we trudged. Everyone was tired. All were vaguely resentful, although none of us could have put a finger on the reason. Those who could bear the strain better carried the rifles and bren guns of those who were fatigued. Len Diamond, a rough and lovable West Coast miner with a difficult stammer, raised a smile whenever things seemed a bit much.4
Difficulties for the wounded did not end with arrival at the road. Two of the three trucks assigned to 23 Battalion had been shot up and the last had to be crammed. ‘This delayed the move, and C Company 23 Battalion, which was co-operating with two tanks and some 28 Battalion Bren carriers in doing the rearguard, had some worried moments when the enemy began to follow up. But the company put up road blocks and was safely back in its allotted area by 4 a.m.
3 C Sqn WD. According to this, withdrawal was to begin at 9 p.m.
4 Report by Lt W. B. Thomas.
While these units were on the move the Engineer Detachment also withdrew, and got back without trouble. Captain Snadden— back again in spite of his wounds—got out the two guns of C Troop and parked them for the night near the point where the road to Galatas branches from the coast road—the Galatas turn-off, as it was usually called. Moreover Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt was able to report to Divisional HQ at 10.30 p.m. that he had brought back a total of four French 75s, four Italian 75s, two Bofors, and two two-pounders, a feat the more satisfactory as most of these had been reported lost at one stage or another of the day.
Perhaps the most difficult task of the evening fell to 5 Field Ambulance. It waited for ambulances until 3 a.m., when two arrived. These were loaded with wounded, and a party of those able to walk set off about this time also. Of the eight trucks which were to have come up, some were destroyed when the road was shelled by the enemy and others were appropriated by marching troops in the absence of the drivers who had abandoned them. Volunteer drivers had to be fetched from 5 Field Ambulance and found only three trucks that could be used. These three took off a full load at 4 a.m.; at half past five, as dawn was breaking, Captain Coutts1 arrived with fresh trucks, which were enough to take the rest of the patients and the skeleton staff which had been left with them. In all 135 patients were brought out. A new position was established for the MDS in that vacated by 6 Field Ambulance.
For the time being, and for the first time since the battle began, Brigadier Hargest and his battalions were out of the fighting. It was not to be for long.