II: Other Fronts and Creforce
II: Other Fronts and Creforce
May the 24th was to be the last day of the defence of Kastelli, and so it seems proper to resume here the account of the isolated force of 1 Greek Regiment and Major Bedding's party of New Zealanders, whom we left on 20 May triumphant over Lieutenant Muerbe's detachment of parachutists and in full control of the immediate front.2
At the end of that first day's fighting Bedding had 28 prisoners on his hands, 15 of them wounded. Because of the angry bearing of the Greeks he had to place guards from his own men over the Germans, whom he put in the local jail, and make careful arrangements that they got fed.
KASTELLI, 20–26 MAY
Till now the enemy had been mainly interested in clearing the road to Palaiokhora against the possibility of reinforcement reaching that port; so far as Kastelli was concerned he seems to have felt that he was not strong enough to try to clear it and must in any case concentrate against Maleme. The responsibility of covering the road from Kastelli to Maleme had been left to a company of 95 Engineer Battalion and some paratroops about 70 strong. And these forces were too weak to attempt an assault.
By 23 May, however, it had become plain that if a port was to be got for landing armour it would have to be Kastelli. By this time, too, the enemy felt himself able to divert a force strong enough to take it. The 95th Engineer Battalion was therefore ordered to go to a point about seven kilometres east of the town and join the paratroops there. A troop of anti-tank guns would be sent to reinforce them as soon as 95 Anti-Tank Battalion arrived. Some heavy machine guns would also be sent. The attack would begin on 24 May and would be preceded by a dive-bombing at 9.30 a.m.
The dive-bombing duly occurred and was lucky enough to hit Major Bedding's HQ. In the excitement of the raid the Greek guards, who had by now relieved the New Zealanders, took cover and the German prisoners escaped and procured weapons. As Bedding and Second-Lieutenant Baigent1 were leaving their HQ to rally the Greek troops against the attack to which they guessed this bombing was a prelude, they were surprised and captured by the escaped prisoners. When this was discovered by Lieutenants Campbell2 and Yorke3 they organised a rescue attempt. The attempt failed and Campbell was killed.
The enemy on the ground had followed up the dive-bombing. By midday they had reached the outskirts of the town and by the middle of the afternoon had taken it, thus thwarting an attempt on the part of Bedding to persuade his present captors and former prisoners that their best course was to surrender.
1 Capt L. R. Baigent, MBE; Linton MC; born Wakefield, 23 Nov 1906; Regular soldier; p.w. 24 May 1941; wounded (Germany) 9 Apr 1945. Bedding had given Baigent the acting rank of second-lieutenant as he was ‘the best fitted to command the group of Greeks covering the road.’ This appointment was officially confirmed after the war as being from 20 May 1941.
Fighting continued just beyond the town, according to German sources, for at least two more days, denying the enemy the use of the jetty, and fierce and fiercely resented guerrilla warfare was maintained in the neighbourhood until even later. The Germans concentrated on getting the port clear for shipping but it was not until 27 May that they were able to land some light tanks. The importance of this delay for the defence of Crete is obvious.
May the 24th brought no major change on the Retimo front. For the defence it was a disappointing day. A company of Rangers, which General Freyberg had sent the day before from Canea in an attempt to make contact, attacked the German forces round Perivolia from the west at dawn but, being few and without heavy weapons, failed to break through, and finally returned to Canea. The 2/11 Battalion and the Greeks had planned to attack these same positions from the east in the afternoon with the support of a tank. But the tank was used in the morning to hold back an enemy move south-west from the oil factory and the driver was wounded. Without its support an infantry attack seemed useless, and so there was nothing for it but to postpone action till the following day.
At Retimo the enemy air force had done no more than drop supplies and strafe. But Heraklion was thought important enough for more active measures. The appearance of the Hurricanes the previous day had caused some alarm, and further steps were now taken to deny us the use of the aerodrome. A battalion was organised from the parties of 7 Air Division which had for one reason or another not so far been sent to Crete. It consisted of two heavy companies and two rifle companies. Heraklion town was bombed in the early morning and intermittently throughout the day—no doubt in reprisal for the rejected ultimatum. After the bombing began the fresh troops which had been raised, along with their supplies, began dropping west of the town about eight o'clock in the morning. The main body arrived just as 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were trying to fight their way in from the south. In consequence the Highlanders failed to get to the garrison and had to withdraw.
In his main object the enemy was frustrated. The new arrivals had been intended to reinforce the enemy west of the town and then close on the group to the east of the airfield. But the junction could not be effected.
Freyberg's messages to Middle East Headquarters for 24 May show that in spite of bad communications Creforce was still in a position to give a fairly accurate picture of the situation in the various sectors. He was still in touch with Heraklion by cable and so was able to report the fresh landings and the failure of 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to get through. To Retimo there was only communication by wireless and this was handicapped by the absence of codes; but his report to Middle East on the day's operations shows that the wireless was still operating well enough for him to be kept informed of the difficulties there. With the western/sector he was naturally in more immediate touch and his reports to General Wavell make it clear that, while the day's operations had brought no major change, he was well aware of the trial to come. And all his messages stress the ferocity of air attack on the front line and on Canea and its environs.
One message in particular sets out to give Wavell a clear idea of the whole position.1 It assesses the total casualties of the defence in all sectors at 1909 and explains that three-quarters of these had been inflicted on the New Zealand Division. The total of enemy losses he calculated at 3340, more than a thousand being killed. But, though the enemy's losses were thus so much higher, he pointed out that his own men were very tired and that the scale of air attack was far greater than anything he had ever visualised. He did not believe that the enemy would ever again use his parachutists in a similar operation.2 But the battle continued and a further attack was to be expected in which the enemy would use heavy bombs to try and blast his way through. Tired though they were, the troops could be counted on to do their best; but the result would be in the balance and any help that could be given to reduce the enemy's air superiority would be of the greatest value.
Some help in the air did come and on that day. Five Hurricanes operating from North Africa with extra fuel tanks attacked enemy positions at Heraklion, and that night an attack was made on Maleme by eight Wellingtons. But, however successful such attacks might be, they were on too small a scale to affect the enemy's control of the air or to interfere seriously with his plans.
2 A prediction that the rest of the war vindicated.
Freyberg's private view of the situation at this time was even grimmer than these sober messages suggest. ‘At this stage I was quite clear in my own mind that the troops would not be able to last much longer against a continuation of the air attacks which they had had during the previous five days. The enemy bombing was accurate and it was only a question of time before our now shaken troops must be driven out of positions they occupied. The danger was quite clear. We were gradually being driven back on our Base areas, the loss of which would deprive us of our food and ammunition. If this heavy air attack continued it would not be long before we were driven right off our meagre food and ammunition resources. I really knew at this time that there were two alternatives, defeat in the field and capture or withdrawal. Without tools, artillery and transport we could not readjust our rearward defences.’1
To the Chiefs of Staff in London, waiting for a general appreciation from Wavell, it was still possible to take a rosier view, and they telegraphed to the Commanders-in-Chief that if only we could hold out the enemy's drive might yet drag to a halt. They therefore urged the sending of the maximum amount of reinforcement.2
2 COS 115 to Cs-in-C, ME and Med, 24 May.
The administrative situation also was unsatisfactory. There was only about ten day's supply left of standard rations, though of some items there was supply for a longer period. And there were similar shortages in ammunition, tools, and medical supplies. So long as the enemy's control of the air remained what it was, these supplies could be replenished only by fast ships at night.
On the other hand the enemy was also in administrative difficulties. He had little or no land transport and had lost a good many of his transport aircraft. Unless he could take Suda Bay and use it as a supply base, his situation was bound to become very awkward. If he took it, however, we should ourselves be deprived of our chief supply port and, although it would be possible for us to withdraw on to Retimo and Heraklion, we should in the end run out of supplies and ammunition and be forced to the difficult and dangerous resort of evacuation.
Meanwhile the Navy could not operate in the Aegean by day and the RAF could hardly hope, if the enemy began to supply his forces by sea, to stop him doing so. We should be able to continue the defence only if we could prevent the enemy exploiting our situation by making other landings, if we could reinforce our troops already there, and if we could avoid giving further ground. At least the vital importance of the island was realised and the Commanders-in-Chief thought themselves justified in using forces from elsewhere, not excepting the Western Desert, in its defence.2
The fact that in the contest between the German Air Force and the Navy the ships had been worsted and had had heavy losses was reflected in the reduced scale of the Fleet's Aegean activities. The only ships abroad on 24 May on business connected with Crete were Abdiel, Isis, Hero and Nizam. And of these only the first succeeded, as we have seen, in landing her quota of troops, supplies, and ammunition. If the Commander-in-Chief was right in thinking that the defence depended on our ability to reinforce, the situation was far from promising. But already, in fact, events in Crete itself were moving at too fast a pace. If a large enough body of reinforcements had been available on this night, if there had been ships to transport them and the harbour to take them, it might still have been possible to rush them up to the line. It was the last opportunity.
2 O. 67118 and O.67119, C-in-C to WO, 24 May.