I: The Canea-Galatas Front
I: The Canea-Galatas Front
In the course of 23 May the enemy had become still stronger. His priority had been artillery rather than infantry, and I and II Batteries of 95 Mountain Artillery Regiment, with 95 Anti-Tank Battalion (twenty 50-millimetre guns, of which eight were motorised), were brought over; 55 Motor Cycle Battalion had also arrived. And in the evening of the same day ‘the long awaited transfer of fighters to Maleme airfield could take place.’1
During 23 May, also, General Ringel had made sure that his writ would run with Colonel Heidrich by promulgating an order to the effect that from now on West and Centre Groups were both under his command and would be known collectively as Ringel Group. In spite of his gathering strength, however, his orders for 24 May, issued at 8 p.m. on 23 May, were not notably enterprising. Although in his opinion the defence had only ‘a handful of well-placed infantry in his forward line’,2 Ringel laid it down that his group would do no more than secure the positions it had already reached, pushing forward level with Platanias on the left flank and centre and on the right thrusting towards the Canea–Alikianou road and the Galatas heights in order to make a final junction with Heidrich's 3 Parachute Regiment.
Thus Ramcke Group would keep the positions it had already reached and patrol south-east towards Stalos. Colonel Utz with his three mountain battalions would advance astride the Canea– Alikianou road until he reached the high ground near Galatas. He would keep two of his battalions north of the road and one south of it, and would leave a protecting force near Alikianou. He would make contact with Heidrich's force at Stalos and south of Galatas.
In the rear, 95 Engineer Battalion was to take Kastelli1 and the newly arrived 55 Motor Cycle Battalion, with two troops from 95 Anti-Tank Battalion, was to go south through Kandanos and take Palaiokhora. The remainder of the anti-tank battery would be under divisional command.2
The support of dive-bombers for the main fronts was being asked for and Utz would also be getting a troop of heavy infantry guns. Meanwhile reconnaissance was to be carried out all over the front, and particularly on the south flank, to see if any gaps could be found in the defences.
The fact that 5 Brigade had withdrawn during the night enabled this programme to be improved upon to some extent. Patrols from Ramcke Group were sent out during the morning towards the high ground at Platanias and reported ‘weak enemy forces’ which withdrew when the patrols approached. Captain Gericke and a paratroop force then went forward through Platanias and Ay Marina to link up with any of 100 Mountain Regiment or 3 Parachute Regiment they might find there. Once this was done Colonel Ramcke was able to regroup his forces, this being his first opportunity of doing so. Reorganised, his group consisted of Gericke Battalion (three strong companies), Stentzler Battalion (four strong companies), Stolz Battalion (two strong companies), and an anti-tank troop with six 50-millimetre guns and twenty machine guns.
Meanwhile in the centre II Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, had joined up with Heilmann's battle group in Stalos, the coast road had been blocked, and patrols were being sent west towards Galatas. By the end of the day Utz had established his HQ near Lake Aghya power station; II Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, was in the area north of Troulous; and I Battalion was near Point 116 (Ruin Hill). I Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment had reverted to regimental command as Colonel Krakau, the commander of the regiment, had landed in the early morning and III Battalion during the day. A fresh battle group was to be formed from these two battalions, but meanwhile I Battalion was to remain at Episkopi and protect the south flank—a task the more necessary because patrols had reported that Alikianou was held and that advance farther south was blocked.
2 Ringel thus dispersed two battalions away from the main front. But he probably wanted to take Kastelli as soon as possible in order to land armour by sea; and the enemy had already shown symptoms of nervousness about Palaiokhora, presumably fearing that reinforcements from Egypt might be landed there and take the main attack in the rear.
While the enemy was making these cautious forward movements, the New Zealand units had been resorting themselves. When the morning came the units of 5 Brigade were back in Divisional Reserve: Brigade HQ was south of the main road about half a mile east of Evthymi, and 23 Battalion was in the same area. North of the road was 21 Battalion. The 28th Battalion had spent the last part of the night close to the main road, but moved half-way through the morning to a position between 23 Battalion and 2/7 Australian Battalion. Cheering news for Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer and his Maoris was a message from General Freyberg that he intended to inform New Zealand of ‘their splendid conduct and dash during the operations of the last few days.’1
In these new positions the battalions were to reorganise and to be ready by 8 p.m. to take up any one of four possible roles: anti-parachutist, beach protection, counter-attack, or defence in the line. The day was therefore a busy one for unit commanders and the rest the men had looked forward to only relative. It was at last possible to draw rations, but they were not plentiful and it was forbidden to light fires.2
During the morning the Engineer Detachment was savagely strafed. Shortly after this the detachment was split. By Puttick's orders 19 Army Troops Company came under command of 19 Australian Brigade and moved to the Perivolia area; 7 Field Company was put under 4 Brigade and given a reserve position in support of 20 Battalion. The going of these two units was warmly regretted by 5 Brigade which had had good reason to appreciate their fighting qualities. ‘They had been an excellent fighting unit under Ferguson. Whenever I passed through their area, which was quite often, there was no restlessness. They were solid. They went out and dealt with the enemy without asking if they had to, did the job and then reported what they had done.’3
1 NZ Div WD.
2 From the first day of battle to the last few fighting troops had a hot meal.
3 Capt Dawson.
For the remains of 27 Battery the pause meant reorganisation. After seeing his guns out of Ay Marina, Captain Snadden had been ordered to hospital by Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt to have his four wounds attended to. Lieutenant Gibson2 then took over the troop and was told to get his two guns into a position from which they could support 4 Brigade. He spent 24 May and part of the evening reconnoitring sites and getting his guns to them. One gun he placed between Galatas village and the turn-off and the other on the coast road about a mile west of the turn-off. A truck had to be borrowed to tow them in and it was late at night before all was ready. ‘Tired as they were,’ says Gibson, ‘the men did not have to be told to dig in. Experience is the best teacher and by the first streaks of daylight slit trenches had been dug and the guns had been dug in and camouflaged.’3
The battery itself was under the command of Captain Beaumont who had taken over from the wounded Major Philp. From the gunners not employed with Gibson's two guns—the only guns left in the battery—Beaumont was ordered to provide crews for six Breda heavy machine guns which were to be distributed in twos to 4, 5, and 19 Brigades. The crews were duly formed and sent off. The rest of the gunners were formed into an infantry detachment under Beaumont and put under command of 20 Battalion.
Captain Duigan of 28 Battery now took under his command C Troop 2/3 Australian Field Regiment (Captain Laybourne-Smith), and its four Italian 75s were sited that night just east of the road from Galatas to the coast, not far from one of Gibson's guns, with an observation post near that of F Troop on the right front of 18 Battalion. The three 75s of Duigan's own F Troop also moved during the night to fresh fire positions some 300 yards north of the original site, which had become exposed to the enemy's view from ground and air; a fire the previous afternoon, started by burning propellant charges, had swept the surrounding trees clear of cover.
1 In return for their services all the prisoners were pardoned when the Division reassembled in Egypt.
3 Report by Lt Gibson. It may be remarked that the enemy reports contain frequent reference to the skill with which the defence camouflaged its guns. Special sorties flown to locate them more often than not failed to do so.
Owing to the cautious character of General Ringel's plans, the enemy put in no serious attacks on 19 Australian Brigade's front on 24 May. No doubt it was felt to be imprudent to press too hard on this flank while Galatas was still held. The two Australian battalions, however, did not feel compelled to wait for an enemy initiative and they did a good deal of patrolling and had some minor skirmishes in consequence. The 2/8 Battalion was treated to some bombing and strafing and had 16 casualties. In the lulls from this the battalion commander modified his company positions to tactical advantage. And by the end of the day the battalion had acquired some home-made base-plates for its mortars and an Italian machine gun—presumably one of Beaumont's Bredas.
This battalion also provided covering fire for the local attack by 2 Greek Regiment against two hills near the Turkish fort. The attack went in at 5.30 a.m., two companies strong. The left-hand company gained the lower slopes of its objective but the right-hand company was less successful. Fighting was very fierce and many Germans were killed by Greek grenades and bayonets. Greek casualties were also severe. At five o'clock that evening there was still fighting going on; but Major Wooller and the Greek commander decided that it was too late for success any longer to be hoped for and they withdrew the two companies.1
Fourth Brigade had its new role laid down in a brigade operation order issued at 12.50 that morning. It was to be in its defensive line by 5 a.m., with 18 Battalion on the right and, under 18 Battalion command, a two-pounder from 106 RHA and six medium machine guns. In the centre were the Composite Battalion, stepped back from the front line after its relief by 18 Battalion, and the Divisional Cavalry. On the left was 19 Battalion with the other two-pounder. The 20th Battalion was in reserve and its primary task was to counter-attack in support of 19 Battalion.
GALATAS, 24 MAY
The frontage held by 18 Battalion at first light on 24 May extended from the coast to Wheat Hill and excluded, for the reason already explained, Ruin Hill. D Company held the right flank as far south as the northern slopes of Red Hill; C Company was in the centre from Red Hill to the northern slopes of Wheat Hill; Wheat Hill itself was held by A Company. B Company, which had come in from its forward patrol late the night before, was in reserve behind D Company, and Headquarters Company was also in reserve in the same area.
When daylight revealed it clearly to them, the defenders could not have relished the new situation. Wheat Hill was partly overlooked by the undefended Ruin Hill, and Red Hill completely so. This would have been bad enough even in a well-dug position. But the weapon pits which the companies inherited and which had been dug long before the evacuation from Greece were of an old-fashioned type, about six feet wide and, as the Composite Battalion had already found, very vulnerable to mortars. While it was still dark the company commanders had set their men to work trying to improve them, but what the Composite Battalion with more time had not been able to effect 18 Battalion could not do in the space of a very few hours. The position had to be accepted for what it was, although there was some resiting of section posts during the morning.
There were other shortcomings. The front, some 2500 yards, was poorly wired and in such close country it was too long even for a full-strength battalion. For a weak and partially equipped battalion, with bad communications and the slenderest artillery support, its length was a particularly serious difficulty. In addition, the area in front could not be easily swept with fire. The ground was too broken, and the frequent olive trees and vineyards gave cover for advancing infantry and restricted the defence to very short fields of fire. Nor was the length of front and the consequent opportunity for infiltration compensated for by depth; for the defence had to be stretched to cover the front even as well as it did. Finally, the fact that Ruin Hill overlooked so much of the line made it difficult for runners to keep touch between companies and platoons—although, to begin with at least, there was telephone communication between companies and Battalion HQ.
GALATAS, 25 May
The Composite Battalion was by now back on Ruin Ridge, north of Galatas. The 6th Greek Regiment, with several officers and about 360 men, was disposed about Galatas, though about sixty Greeks under Lieutenant Michel had remained in the line with the Divisional Cavalry. The 20th Battalion had moved in the early hours of the morning to a position east of the road from the coast to Karatsos and was in reserve there.
Morning on the brigade front was one of great tension and feverish preparation for what was expected to be a formidable onslaught and one that would come soon. Air attacks were frequent, mortaring and machine-gun fire increased throughout the day, and there was a good deal of movement to be seen in both the Prison area and that of the coast road. At 10.50 a.m. Division warned the brigades that the enemy had light armoured vehicles and ordered road blocks with anti-tank mines to be established. And 18 Battalion saw what seemed to be tanks, but were more probably gun tractors, coming down the road from Maleme. Enemy parties were also seen from time to time on the high ground to the front and were dispersed by artillery fire.
There were two false alarms during the morning. The Petrol Company was reported to be in trouble, and Captain Bliss's group was ordered to the rescue but found all comparatively quiet.1 A similar disturbance resulted in the Supply Company being sent out to counter-attack past Wheat Hill. Again no enemy was met with. Some of the Supply Company, seeing Ruin Hill undefended, went forward to reoccupy it but were called back. Both these alarms probably had their origins in enemy probing patrols.
Air attacks shortly after midday were so heavy that they seemed to be the prelude to the ground assault, and once an attack was thought to be developing up the road from the Prison; but the time passed and the expected did not happen.
Afternoon came and went in the same uneasy fashion. The first result of this enemy preparation was a strong probe about two o'clock at the southern end of the 18 Battalion line. No attack developed from it, however, and it was beaten off by mortar fire.
1 Bliss's men remained forward and one company—Capt Nolan's (less Lt MacLean's platoon)—was put into the line on the right of the Petrol Company.
As soon as Gray heard of this local withdrawal he at once called up a platoon of B Company from reserve and took it forward, only to find that the enemy had already withdrawn. No doubt fire from the flanks of the gap had made their situation too uncomfortable and they had recalled that their role was after all one of reconnaissance. At all events they reported back that Galatas was strongly defended and as a result, with the approval of General Ringel, Colonel Utz decided that the assault would have to be deferred till next day after ‘a thorough softening up by Stukas.’1
A second episode of a similar type took place at dusk in the same area. There is no entry in the enemy reports to account for it, but it was presumably a reconnaissance in force also and intended to amplify information already obtained.2 This time C Company again gave ground and Gray again sent in a counter-attack. The transport platoon of Headquarters Company under Second-Lieutenant Copeland3 carried this out, aiming not merely at the recapture of lost positions but at the seizure of an outlying feature of Red Hill which had not been included in the defensive system but which was now seen to be essential. The platoon was successful, and by midnight the whole of Red Hill was again in the hands of 18 Battalion.
1 5 Mtn Div WD.
When the attack on Red Hill had first begun Gray had called on Colonel Kippenberger for assistance. Kippenberger replied by sending the gunners still under Captain Bliss and Captain Boyce's Supply Company group.
Bliss's gunners had been organised into two companies, one under Captain Nolan and the other under Captain Kissel.1 Of Nolan's company only one platoon—Lieutenant MacLean's—was available, the others being in the line on the right of the Divisional Petrol Company where they had been put during the morning. Kissel had two platoons, the third—Lieutenant Dill's—being on Pink Hill between the Divisional Cavalry and the Petrol Company.
MacLean's platoon reached Lieutenant-Colonel Gray during the evening and was at first placed in the gully behind Red Hill but, when the positions were readjusted, was fitted into the right of C Company on Murray Hill and just in the rear of 5 Platoon B Company. By this time Kissel's two platoons had arrived; one of them was placed on Ruin Ridge with the Composite Battalion while the other went into reserve near 18 Battalion HQ. Bliss himself became second-in-command B Company.2
With the exception of MacLean's platoon, all these gunners arrived and had to be posted in the dark; and the same was true of Boyce's Divisional Supply Company. This also was split: a detachment of about 16 men under Lieutenant Rawle3 had already moved into position on Murray Hill at 2 a.m., an hour before they were joined by 11 Platoon of B Company; the remainder of Boyce's men reinforced C Company.
Elsewhere on the Galatas line there was no important action and the enemy contented himself with minor patrols. All was set for the next day's fighting, the enemy clear about his own plans for an attack in the 18 Battalion sector, and the defence foreseeing it but unable to do more than what has already been recounted.
To Brigadier Puttick, although the day had been got through without a major attack, the situation could not have seemed cheerful. The enemy was now at liberty to land as many men and supplies from his relatively unlimited resources in Greece as he had aircraft to carry; and his troops already on the ground west of Canea were free to join forces and to concentrate against a single front in what might prove overwhelming force. Puttick, on the other hand, was running short of ammunition—the 72 three-inch mortar bombs which were all he had left were distributed that day—and only small-arms ammunition was reasonably plentiful; he had lost two and a half troops of guns in the withdrawal; he was bedevilled by bad communications—to his rear the enemy bombing constantly cut the lines and kept the signals units busy with mend and makeshift answers to recurring emergencies, and the bridge on the coast road out of Canea had been made impassable to heavy traffic. But worst of all was the fact that his fighting units were being steadily depleted by the casualties of each day's fighting and there was no way of making good the losses. The total of killed, wounded, and missing was already 20 per cent of the divisional strength and a much higher percentage of the strength of each fighting battalion.1
In addition, the tactical situation was not one that promised much rest or relief even for units not now in the line. A message sent by Division to the three brigades at 7.45 p.m. sufficiently sets the tone:
Owing to possible difficulty of communications during an enemy attack comd Cake [4 Brigade] may call on Wuna [5 Brigade] to send Bena [23 Battalion] to replace Oggu [20 Battalion] in the event of its being necessary to employ Oggu. Bena will make the necessary recces forthwith. Kela [28 Battalion] will recce with a view to counter attack Southwards on front Ruck [19 Brigade] under orders Duke [NZ Division].2
2 NZ Div WD.
In Suda Area command the ground fighting was now over; the air attack, on the other hand, had been stepped up to a furious maximum, with heavy bombers flying over Canea in swarms and reducing the town to a flaming ruin.
The fact that the main battle was now on the Galatas line made it obvious that the defence of Suda Area must be rearranged to take account of this. That the threat was from the west was all too plain. Accordingly, a second defensive line was formed along the line of the river which runs south through Mournies. On the right of this line were the Royal Perivolians, at the confluence of the two streams north-east of Platanos; in the centre was S Searchlight Battery of the Royal Marines; round Mournies was 2/2 Australian Field Regiment; and in reserve at the W/T station was 106 RHA with 250 riflemen.1 This mixed force, about 2000 strong, was put under command of Lieutenant-Colonel A. F. Hely, RHA, and known as Suda Brigade.
At the same time it was still felt that General Freyberg should have some reserve which was not committed to any specific defensive role, and so 1 Welch, 1 Rangers, and Northumberland Hussars were withdrawn into Force Reserve.