II: The Canea-Galatas Front
II: The Canea-Galatas Front
For 10 Brigade 23 May was relatively quiet. Colonel Heidrich's men were very short of ammunition;2 and no doubt he felt there was little point in launching further attacks when help was on the way, and when he had detached a large part of his force under Heilmann to try and cut the coast road.
The danger was in fact acute. Battle Group Heilmann—about 150 officers and men—had seized Stalos shortly after dawn and handed it over to 1 Engineer Company to hold; and the three battalions of 100 and 85 Mountain Regiments which had begun their right hook the evening before had made substantial progress. II Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment was, as we have seen, operating well to the north in conjunction with Ramcke Group and by midday was about two kilometres south-west of Platanias. The outflanking threat therefore came less from it than from I Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment, which by ten o'clock in the morning was not far from Padhelari.
Although Brigadier Puttick had no detailed knowledge of the enemy intention it was a fair inference that some such movement would be attempted, and he had ordered Colonel Kippenberger to advance the right flank of the Composite Battalion by a thousand yards.1 Even so there was still a dangerous gap between the rear of 5 Brigade and the right of 10 Brigade. Accordingly Puttick arranged for 4 Brigade to release B Company of 18 Battalion and send it to clear out a strong enemy pocket reported near Ay Marina and, by establishing a line of posts on the high ground south of the coast road, to cover the line of withdrawal for 5 Brigade.2 And, later on, when Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew reported to Division, he was ordered to take the two companies that now constituted his battalion into the Ay Marina area for a similar purpose.
Kippenberger told the two right-hand groups of the Composite Battalion to push forward and cover the ridges south of Ay Marina. Major Veale on the right therefore sent out Lieutenant Coleman3 with a company. As this advanced westwards it learnt from Greek civilians that the enemy was in Stalos. Coleman then decided to go ahead with an advance party of 15 men. He was soon pinned down by enemy fire. He therefore told his main body to fall back and took cover with his own party behind a stone wall. Ahead on a forward slope were two enemy machine guns, and for the best part of an hour he and his men engaged these with rifles and a captured spandau, eventually accounting for both.
1 NZ Div Report, para 109.
2 Ibid, paras 109–11.
The attack went very well and the enemy was driven out of the village, leaving behind at least five dead and two machine guns.2 One house, however, kept on holding out with a machine-gun post. As the platoon was about to deal with this one also, an order came forward from Major Evans for the platoon to withdraw; for Evans had by now come to the conclusion that the enemy in the area was about 200 strong and so too much for his force. The platoon therefore reluctantly let go its grip and fell back to its original positions.
The German 1 Engineer Company in Stalos makes much of the fighting it had that day and 11 Platoon must have given the enemy a sharp shock with its spirited assault. Nor, although he had thought it prudent to bring the platoon back, did Evans take too static a view of his role from now on. He sent a patrol round to the north-west of Stalos which had some contact with enemy parties, and it was doubtless the presence and activity of his vigorous company that made the enemy chary of any serious attempt at carrying out the original plan and cutting the coast road.
At the same time as Coleman's party, another little force under Captain Nolan had set out from the centre group of the Composite Battalion. It met no enemy and remained forward all day, thus making a second link in the chain of outposts. The south terminal was supplied by Lieutenant Carson's patrol, which did a good deal of skirmishing with enemy machine-gun posts before it met heavy opposition from the direction of Signal Hill, and eventually crossed the front northwards to come out on the coast road near Ay Marina. At the end of the day it returned to Composite Battalion HQ.
Kippenberger reported this state of affairs to Puttick at midday and it was decided to relieve the Composite Battalion that evening with 18 Battalion. The new arrangements were part of Operation Order No. 6 which we have already encountered in connection with the withdrawal of 5 Brigade.2 Their result was that 10 Brigade now came under 4 Brigade, although Kippenberger remained in command of all the forward troops defending the Galatas line. The Composite Battalion was to withdraw to Ruin Ridge, just north-west of Galatas, and 18 Battalion was to take over the positions it vacated. South of Galatas Russell Force—the Divisional Cavalry and the Petrol Company—were to remain where they were and, with them, the Greeks under command. But the Petrol Company, which had lost many men by this time, was reinforced by a platoon of 4 Field Regiment under Lieutenant Dill—till now employed on the front of the Divisional Supply Company. Dill's was to be a difficult assignment; for he was given the task of holding the crest of Pink Hill, which after the first day's savage fighting had been allowed to become a no-man's-land.
1 By no means all; and in conjunction with trained infantry most of the separate detachments fought extremely well, as will become apparent in the accounts of the subsequent fighting.
2 See p. 262. It may be remarked that NZ Div OO No. 6 envisaged considerable forward adjustment of 4 Brigade and 19 Brigade positions from those held on the Galatas line on 23 May. In the event the line was to remain more or less unchanged. The new ground would probably have had to be fought for and there was neither time nor strength for the task.
None of the new adjustments could be carried out till after dark. Till then there was the usual mortaring and strafing on the front, with an ominous increase in the former. In the south Russell Force was often engaged with enemy patrols from the Prison area and the machine guns and artillery were busy taking on enemy parties in the Prison Valley and near Signal Hill. These activities stepped up as the day went on and, in a signal from 10 Brigade to Division at 7.50 p.m., were interpreted as boding an attack next day.1
But, although 18 Battalion would not be able to relieve the Composite Battalion till after dark, preliminary reconnaissance was possible; and so during the late afternoon Brigadier Inglis and Lieutenant-Colonel Gray came forward. ‘… Inglis came up with his dispassionate, calm efficiency, and we sat under an olive tree with cannon and machine-gun bullets and planes flying all around us, and coolly summarised the situation.’2 Inglis foresaw that there were bound to be gaps in the defence of the long new frontage that 18 Battalion would have to hold, but thought that these could be covered by the Composite Battalion on Ruin Ridge. It could counter-attack any enemy who got through the gaps and restore the position.
Gray was disturbed about the length of his front, none the less— it was about twice the normal front of a battalion—and seems to have decided to shorten it by leaving out Ruin Hill. The result was that, when 18 Battalion moved forward at 9.45 p.m. and took over from the Composite Battalion, Ruin Hill was not included in the line. The withdrawal of the Supply Company with the rest of the Composite Battalion to Ruin Ridge left it undefended. Now that the junction of Group West and Group Centre could be no more than a matter of hours and would enable the enemy to launch a far more formidable infantry assault on the Galatas line than anything experienced so far, the consequences of leaving a vital feature unmanned were bound to be serious.
1 NZ Div WD.
2 Letter from Capt Bassett, 3 Jun 1941.
Now that there was a prospect of the main battle coming closer to the sector held by 2/8 Australian Battalion and 2 Greek Regiment, it was felt that a more serious effort must be made to co-ordinate the activities of the troops in this area, and during 23 May a conference took place at the headquarters of the Greeks with this object. Major-General Weston, under whose command 19 Australian Brigade still was, Brigadier Vasey, Major A. S. Key, the commander of 2/8 Battalion, and presumably the Greek commander, were all present. The plan was that 2/7 Battalion, which was to return that night from Divisional Reserve to Vasey's command, would move in on the right of 2/8 Battalion and link up with 19 NZ Battalion; 2/8 Battalion was to move forward about 1500 yards from Mournies and take up a new position, with its left flank on the northern outskirts of Pirgos and its right flank linking with 2/7 Battalion at the junction of the Prison-Canea road and the creek that ran through Pirgos. The 2nd Greek Regiment, by moving into the area of Perivolia, would extend the line south to the hills.
Clearly these new arrangements for the sector were an improvement; yet it may be regretted that they came so late and still bore a somewhat passive stamp. The sea invasion was known to have been defeated the previous morning and, although it may have been thought necessary to keep 2/7 Battalion in reserve to assist or renew the counter-attack at Maleme, a perhaps better course would have been to transfer it to the left of the Galatas-Perivolia line then. If this had been done a determined effort could have been made to clear the enemy from the general area of the Turkish fort and establish a continuous front from the left of the Divisional Cavalry.
The two Australian units duly carried out their moves, 2/8 Battalion in the late afternoon and 2/7 Battalion beginning after dark and ending after midnight. For some reason, however, 2 Greek Regiment did not move into Perivolia, perhaps because the Greeks were more intent on destroying an enemy post on their left, a task they successfully carried out during the day. For them the day closed with the return of Major Wooller from Canea, where he had been able to collect 100 rifles and 12 machine guns. In what daylight was left, the company which was to use these weapons was formed up to train for an attack next day in co-operation with the Australians on an enemy-occupied hill.page 270
All enemy pockets round Canea itself had by now been wiped out and so there was no fighting for the infantry under Weston. For the AA forces, however, there was plenty to do. All the guns were regrouped so as to produce an umbrella defence over Suda harbour and special arrangements were made to render concealment and surprise more effective. The enemy bombing which enforced these arrangements continued, setting fire to part of Canea and to an oil tanker in Suda Bay. Its present severity and worse to come decided Weston to move his headquarters to the area of the Sanatorium near Suda.