I: The Attack on Galatas
I: The Attack on Galatas
Although General Ringel had not felt strong enough to launch a general assault on 24 May, the day had not been wasted. More mountain troops landed at Maleme, among them III Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment and RHQ. The 95th Mountain Reconnaissance Battalion, an AA MG company, a signals unit, and a cycle company made up the rest. III Battalion was apparently at once hurried off to Alikianou, where the opposition seemed formidable enough to hold up for the time being a planned drive through the mountains to relieve the Retimo paratroops and cut off Suda Bay.
On the main front the paratroop artillery and 95 Artillery Regiment had taken up positions near Platanias and Ay Marina from which to support the general assault on the Galatas line; and the infantry units had completed their preliminary reconnaissance.
At 7.15 p.m. on 24 May Ringel issued his orders for the next day. The attack was to be twofold. Krakau Group—I and III Battalions of 85 Mountain Regiment—would take Alikianou and the area east of it. It would then push on south of Suda Bay and ultimately cut the road from Canea to Retimo. But the main thrust would be carried out by 100 Mountain Regiment1 and Ramcke's paratroops. The first would capture Galatas and the high ground south of it. The second would attack simultaneously on the front north of Galatas but would leave a strong force in reserve. Heidrich's paratroops would advance south of the Prison-Canea road, keeping contact with 100 Mountain Regiment on the left and 85 Mountain Regiment on the right.2 The 95th Artillery Regiment would support Ramcke's paratroops and the left of 100 Mountain Regiment, though ready to support the right flank of the Division as well if necessary. The 95th Reconnaissance Battalion and 95 Anti-Tank Battalion would be in position to follow up the attack.
2 Ringel apparently expected Heidrich to do no more than pin down 19 Bde and prevent it attacking 100 Mtn Regt in flank.—5 Mtn Div WD.
The orders also provided for the clearance of the areas west and south of Maleme. The 95th Engineer Battalion was to look after Kolimbari, Kastelli, Platanos and Topolia, while 55 Motor Cycle Battalion took Palaiokhora and held it against any attack.
The units in the main attack were recommended to avoid frontal assaults wherever possible and to bypass Canea in favour of a swift onward drive to Retimo. The latter provision indicates the enemy's concern for his troops at Retimo; the former suggests that Student's criticism of Ringel's tendency to prefer encircling movements which would save blood but not time may have had some substance.1
Air support, which 100 Mountain Regiment had already said would be necessary, was also arranged. There were to be heavy attacks on Alikianou and Galatas at 8 a.m., and again on Galatas at 12.45 and 1.15 p.m.
Zero hour for the attack on Alikianou was to be 8 a.m. and for that on Galatas 1.20 p.m. This latter was left so late in order to ensure that artillery support and co-operation with the flanks would not be lacking.2
These orders set the stage for the day of 25 May. And as progress now warranted his presence Student himself arrived at Ringel's HQ early that morning. The attack was not likely to lack élan with him to spur it, and shortly after his arrival he visited the Assault Regiment, his chosen favourites.3
Among the defenders of the Galatas line no one deluded himself that the day would be anything less than a grinding test. Brigades were warned, and in turn warned their battalions, that a determined attack was to be expected. Fourth Brigade already had its authority to call direct on 5 Brigade for support and at 6.20 a.m. was warning Brigadier Hargest that 23 Battalion might be wanted that morning. And the remaining tanks of C Squadron, 3 Hussars, had come under command at 3 a.m.
Indeed there were good grounds for uneasiness. On the main front the opposition consisted of two relatively fresh battalions of mountain troops, the remains of the Assault Regiment—reorganised and strengthened with artillery—and what was left of 3 Parachute Regiment, perhaps two battalions. In addition the enemy had the support of an artillery regiment and all the air attack the sky could find room for. And he had reserve troops to follow up.
1 Proceedings at trial of General Student.
2 100 Mtn Regt to 5 Mtn Div, 6 p.m., 24 May.—5 Mtn Div WD.
3 ‘In all planning, the greatly diminished fighting strength of the paratroops had to be taken into consideration.’—5 Mtn Div WD.
Against this powerful force the New Zealand Division had in the front line where the blow was to fall only one reasonably fresh battalion, 18 Battalion; and this was down to a strength of about 400. The rest of the line was patched up with non-infantry ad hoc formations; and, although the men in these units were of excellent human material, they were untrained as infantry and had already been in the line ever since the battle began six days before. The 19th Battalion, although not in the main path of the assault, could not be moved without creating a gap, and the same was true of the two Australian battalions—of which one, it should be remembered, was only two companies strong. In immediate reserve there were only the ‘infantillery’ of 5 Field Regiment and the RMT group from the Composite Battalion; for the rest of that battalion were by now part of the front line. The 20th Battalion, much under strength and tired from severe fighting near Maleme, was in second reserve near the Galatas turn-off. The 23rd Battalion and the 28th could be called on from 5 Brigade; but both had had days of heavy fighting and their share of casualties.
There would be no air support. And the artillery, few in guns and low in ammunition, suffered from bad communications and poor observation. Finally, as has already been seen, there were dangerous weaknesses in the dispositions of 18 Battalion.
The enemy had probably spent a good part of the night in getting his guns, mortars, and machine guns into position. Even before daylight there had been desultory concentrations of fire from the machine guns against the front line, and some idea of their number may be gained from the fact that a patrol sent out at 4 a.m. from B Company of 18 Battalion met fire from 18 counted machine guns.1
1 Report by Lt R. F. Lambie, OC 5 Platoon. The patrol, led by L-Cpl Harrison, returned with all four members wounded, after putting out of action two or possibly three MGs.
There was no lack of good cover for the enemy's mortars and machine guns, however, in the olives, on Ruin Hill, on reverse slopes, and in the network of gullies to the west. And as the day went on their fire moved towards a peak which coincided with the first probing attacks by the infantry. Pressure began to develop, and it became apparent that the main thrust could be expected anywhere between the right flank of Russell Force—which had been having trouble near Pink Hill—and the right flank of 18 Battalion, the positions held by D Company. In fact, by about two o'clock in the afternoon, if not earlier, all the forward companies of 18 Battalion and the Petrol Company were under attack.
In this early stage the Petrol Company, aided by enfilade fire from the Divisional Cavalry, was able to prevent enemy progress in the Pink Hill area. The attack against A Company 18 Battalion, to the right of the Petrol Company, occasioned some stern fighting. The enemy's design was probably to get possession of Wheat Hill so as to bring fire to bear on 18 Battalion's positions on Murray Hill and those of the Composite Battalion on Ruin Ridge. For the time being their thrust was held, but as the afternoon wore on it grew dangerous enough to make Gray send Captain Bliss with a detachment of men from the Supply Company to A Company's support.
Although some approach was also made against the front of C Company in the centre of the line it was beaten off by 15 Platoon, and it may have been no more than an attempt to pin the company down while the more serious attack on Wheat Hill was going in. For if the latter were effective, C Company's position could be made untenable by a drive in from its southern flank.
The attack in the northern section of 18 Battalion's line, like that on Wheat Hill in the south, was pushed hard and may have had the same object of isolating the centre. On the other hand, the fact that the fighting here was very fierce may merely be attributed to the presence of Ramcke's paratroops. At all events the attack was serious enough during its first hour for Gray to send up a reserve platoon of gunners under Captain Kissel. As this platoon came forward it ran into trouble on its own account and lost casualties to a machine-gun fusillade. But meanwhile D Company seemed to have beaten the enemy off temporarily and Kissel's platoon installed itself on the forward slopes of Murray Hill, to the left rear of D Company.page 300
All was not really well, however, on the D Company front. The assault had begun with a sudden intensification of machine-gun fire and an equally sudden cessation of air attack. The front positions were on forward slopes, and as the enemy had also begun to use Bofors against them, Captain Sinclair,1 who commanded the company, went out to see how it was with his men. ‘I could shout and then get a man to hear me and see him turn his head round and signal he was all right.’ If we add to the intensity of small-arms fire necessary to produce such a storm of sound the fact that shells and mortar bombs were bursting at the rate of perhaps twenty a minute on the battalion front,2 we get some conception of the volume of fire.
At 3 p.m. Sinclair observed enemy moving in a re-entrant near Red Hill but, as he attempted to have fire brought down on them, was himself wounded. From this point he was succeeded in command by Second-Lieutenant Robinson.3 Robinson, finding his forward platoons hard pressed, attempted to reinforce them with his reserve platoon and men from Company HQ. But before he could finish doing so he was killed by a grenade and the attempt broke down.
It must by now have been about four in the afternoon and the enemy had begun to throw in his full weight. A frontal attack on the D Company positions coincided with the attack from Red Hill towards the left rear. A runner with the news reached Gray almost at once. He hastily collected some twenty to thirty men— military police, batmen, intelligence staff, clerks, storemen, gunners and men from the Supply Company. The scene is well described by R. T. Bishop,4 a corporal in the carrier platoon which, about twelve men strong, was holding a forward slope behind D Company. Some D Company posts at the seaward end of the line had just been overrun and had surrendered when Gray ‘hove in sight armed with rifle and bayonet and leading perhaps 20 men and yelling to Don Company “No surrender. No surrender.” Sergeant Scott asked if we were to join in but was told to wait for the second wave. However, he took half a dozen men with him and left almost immediately, the rest of us following. We had just got to the top of the ridge when we met the CO coming back, Sgt Scott and others having been killed.’
2 ‘I estimated the mortar bursts at six a minute on one company sector alone.’—Infantry Brigadier, pp. 63–4. No doubt some of these bursts were from shellfire.
The gallant and hopeless counter-attack had failed. Its members were few and motley, the enemy numerous and better armed. All it may have done was to hold the enemy back a little longer. The greater part of D Company was already beyond rescue. Only eleven men under the quartermaster-sergeant got away.
Captain Bassett gives a good impression of the scene:
In the afternoon he came again in full blast against Gray's right and as our wire to him was cut by bombs I offered to go through and check up. It seemed an easy job, but I was no sooner out than flights of dive-bombers made the ground a continuous earthquake and Dorniers swarmed over with guns blazing incessantly. It was like a nightmare race dodging falling branches, and I made for the right Company and got on their ridge, only to find myself in a hive of grey-green figures so beat a hasty retreat sideways until I reached Gray's HQ just as he was pulling out. I had to admire the precise way he was handling the withdrawal—he greeted me with ‘Thank God Bassett, my right flank's gone, can you give us a vigorous counterattack at once’, and I promised to put in the two 20th Companies and he insisted on my taking a signaller with me in case I got hit. A bomb landed amongst us and after the scatter I couldn't find his hide-out, so set [off] back alone, all the time feeling a bullet drilling me in the back from the ground or through the head from the air. My way led through the town, and I found all our sectors undergoing the same massed attack.
A nest of snipers penetrated into the houses, pelted at me and a Stuka keeping a baleful eye on me only (or so it seemed), cratered the road as I scuttled. I reached Kip breathless, the officers were with him, and within a minute rushed off to lead their companies in.1
Before Bassett's return Colonel Kippenberger had heard that D Company was in difficulties and had ordered Gray to counterattack with Headquarters Company and Bliss's gunners. But there had been no time for Gray to do more than organise the emergency counter-attack already described, and the only chance now lay in the two companies which had been organised from the remnants of 20 Battalion's B, C, and D Companies. These two companies, commanded by Captain Fountaine2 and Lieutenant O'Callaghan,3 had been sent up that morning by Brigadier Inglis and were in reserve, about 140 men strong, under the olives just north of Galatas.4 They had been bombed and strafed during the afternoon for the best part of an hour but had had no casualties.
1 Letter from Capt Bassett, 3 Jun 1941.
2 Col D. J. Fountaine, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Westport; born Westport, 4 Jul 1914; company secretary; CO 20 Bn 21 Jul–16 Aug 1942; 26 Bn Sep 1942–Dec 1943, Jun–Oct 1944; comd NZ Adv Base Oct 1944–Sep 1945; wounded 19 Nov 1941.
4 This left only A Coy, part of HQ Coy, and the attached NZE still free in 20 Bn.
This move left Kippenberger without further reserves. And reserves were already needed. For a determined attack on A Company had now begun to make headway. Twice runners had been sent from Wheat Hill to get permission to withdraw. Twice the permission was refused.2 But finally the pressure was too great: A Company and its attached troops began to fall back. This left C Company and the supporting platoons of B Company alone.
Soon Major Russell reported that he, too, was hard pressed. The flanking fire his men and also Lieutenant Dill's platoon on Pink Hill had been bringing down on the main German attack had been so successful that special artillery concentrations had been called for by the enemy to deal with them. And I Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment was also trying to force a way to Galatas through his positions.
The telephone system had been almost destroyed by bombing and there was no line to 4 Brigade. So, as soon as Bassett had given his message about D Company, Kippenberger sent him on to report to Brigadier Inglis and urge all possible reinforcement.
1 Infantry Brigadier, p. 64. The passage quoted is perhaps unjust to the Composite Bn. Only 5 Fd Regt ‘infantillery’ and the RMT group had been on Ruin Ridge, and mortar bombs and shells were landing so thickly that one wounded man was wounded twice more as he went back. Unluckily, Maj Sprosen—whom General Kippenberger describes as ‘brisk, cheerful and resolute throughout’—had been wounded and was not there to grip the men together. Even had he been there he would probably have withdrawn once A and C Coys of 18 Bn fell back, as was already happening. Moreover, the 20 Bn companies went to the right of Ruin Ridge and would not have encountered most of the Comp Bn in any case.
2 Ibid. A description of the situation in this area may be quoted from the same page. ‘I went a few hundred yards forward to get a view of Wheat hill, and for a few minutes watched, fascinated, the rain of mortar bursts. In a hollow, nearly covered by undergrowth, I came on a party of women and children huddled together like little birds. They looked at me silently, with black, terrified eyes.’
Meanwhile the enemy had also got behind the B Company positions. No. 11 Platoon was almost wiped out and the survivors of 5 and 10 Platoons had no choice but to retire, with mortar bombs bursting about them and machine-gun fire all around.1 The various detachments of gunners and Divisional Supply in the same area, in similar danger, had to do the same.
By holding on so long there is little doubt that these resolute troops prevented a breakthrough in the centre which would have overwhelmed Battalion HQ and might have carried on with even more serious results. Even so the position was bad enough. The withdrawal was now general and in danger of becoming a rout. Some found their way back towards Galatas. Others fell back on Ruin Ridge and were rallied by Gray near a stone wall that ran alongside the road north from Galatas. As some of C Company came up Colonel Gray halted them: ‘“Ah, C Company, we'll make a stand.” And make a stand we did.’2 As soon as this was organised Gray went off to find Colonel Kippenberger.
2 Report by E. T. Pritchard.
While Kippenberger was intent on rallying the troops who had fallen back, the reinforcements called for through Captain Bassett and swiftly sent by Brigadier Inglis had begun to come on the scene. Already at 7 p.m. 4 Brigade had warned 5 Brigade that the line was being heavily attacked. By half past seven 23 Battalion had been ordered forward from 5 Brigade to take over in the former 20 Battalion area, near the Galatas turn-off. The 21st Battalion then came forward into the former 23 Battalion positions, and 28 Battalion was ordered to stand by ready to help at dusk. About the same time Brigadier Hargest's HQ staff were posted along the main coast road to collect and reorganise stragglers.
While he was waiting for 23 Battalion to arrive Inglis considered the situation. The line was temporarily gone, in so far as it had been held by 18 Battalion and the Composite Battalion. His reserve was already in use, except for about a company of 20 Battalion and such reinforcing parties as could be scraped together from his own Brigade HQ. He at once set to work having these latter organised, and as a result an officer and 14 men from J Section Signals were hastily sent forward, the Brigade Band, the pioneer platoon of 20 Battalion, and the Kiwi Concert Party. All these were promptly put into an improvised line along the stone walls north of Galatas, at the western edges of which there were already snipers. The 20th Battalion's A Company with its attached gunners, under Captain Washbourn,2 took up a position on the right of Fountaine's and O'Callaghan's two 20 Battalion companies, which had been pulled back some distance from Ruin Ridge to straighten the line.
Soon A Company of 23 Battalion was also on the spot and it took over the gap between the odd detachments—which also included 20–25 men from 5 Field Regiment under Captain Cowie3 —just to the north of Galatas and the 20 Battalion companies. There was once more a continuous front from Galatas to the sea.
No such pause occurred, however, farther to the south, where II Battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment seems to have been attacking on the main part of 18 Battalion front and that of the Petrol Company, while I Battalion attacked from the south-west towards Pink Hill and the Divisional Cavalry front.
Once the attacks on Russell Force front began to gather weight it became difficult, and indeed impossible, for Major Russell to command it as a whole. Telephone lines began to be cut and control could not extend at best much beyond the range of a runner and at worst beyond that of a commander's own voice. As a result, in the later part of the day's fighting, the assortment of units and detachments in Russell Force had to function more or less independently.
Foreseeing that Pink Hill was going to be important and how dangerous it would be if the enemy were to get hold of it, Russell had decided in the early afternoon that the Greeks he held in reserve under Captains Forrester and Smith would not be enough to supply the counter-attacks that would probably be necessary and had asked for two platoons to be sent up from 19 Battalion. Accordingly 7 Platoon of A (Wellington) Company, under Lieutenant Scales,1 and 15 Platoon of C (Hawke's Bay) Company under Lieutenant Carryer,2 were sent up to him. These two platoons Russell held in reserve for some time, and about four o'clock they were heavily dive-bombed and suffered eight casualties. Then, either believing that Pink Hill was already in enemy hands or that an attack on it was about to make dangerous headway, Russell decided to commit his reserve. He therefore ordered 7 Platoon to go through Galatas and establish itself on Pink Hill, while 15 Platoon went forward to the right flank positions of the Divisional Cavalry and worked its way onto Pink Hill from there. The Greek detachments were to co-operate with 7 Platoon.
Meanwhile Lieutenant Scales' 7 Platoon had divided into two parties, one—under Scales—going round the western slope of Pink Hill and the other—under Sergeant Rench1—the eastern. This second party ran into difficulties with enemy machine guns, but eventually the platoon collected near the brow of the ridge and settled down to hold the position, in conjunction with Lieutenant Dill's platoon of gunners whom they had found still in occupation. There was no sign of the Greek detachment whose help Scales had been led to expect.
At this time the Petrol Company with the various supporting detachments was still holding on to the west of Pink Hill. About the middle of the afternoon Carson's patrol had come forward to help stiffen the line. Hardly had it arrived when there was an attack by thirty Stukas which weakened the right flank badly.2 Into the gap Lieutenant Carson took his patrol and the whole force stayed grimly put against attacks of increasing intensity. Even after 18 Battalion had withdrawn they stayed on, the runner sent to warn them of the retirement having been killed on the way.
The consequence of 18 Battalion's withdrawal was that the Petrol Company was now coming under heavy fire from the right as well as the front. But Captain Rowe and his men battled stoutly on in defence of their positions until a message came by telephone— this line must have been one of the few that remained uncut— from Major Russell to the effect that 18 Battalion had withdrawn and that he himself was so hard pressed that he would have to withdraw also; but he would try to hold on for a time so that the Petrol Company could withdraw first. About the same time men who had been sent out earlier to try and make contact with 18 Battalion returned with confirmation of Russell's news. And Carson's patrol, who had found the wounded runner from 18 Battalion, also brought in the burden of his message. They found the Petrol Company ‘virtually surrounded, with fire seeming to come from all sides.3
This move had been carried out in co-operation with Captain Nolan's two platoons of gunners and Carson's patrol, and the troops involved mostly managed to make their way back safely through Galatas or round its outskirts.
Already before this had happened the Greek detachment under Forrester and Smith, which had been broken up by machine-gun fire before it could come to the support of Scales' platoon on Pink Hill, had been ordered to form a screen across the western front of Galatas; but reports reached Captain Smith that the Germans were in the northern outskirts of Galatas, and accordingly Major Russell ordered the Greeks to fall back on 19 Battalion.
As Colonel Kippenberger had by now realised that this threat of outflanking was also endangering the whole of Russell Force he ordered Russell to withdraw, and it was no doubt in consequence of this that Russell telephoned Rowe. Soon after this conversation Russell evidently felt that it would be too risky to keep his companies forward any longer, and so the Divisional Cavalry also made their way back towards Karatsos and 19 Battalion.
This left only Dill's gunner platoon and Scale's 7 Platoon still forward. Dill himself had gone out to the furthest point of a spur to watch the attack developing and in this exposed position remained with machine-gun fire landing all around him. Sergeant Norman Hill1 who had gone forward with him expostulated. ‘Even though he was my superior officer I could not resist swearing at him and telling him what a damned fool he was. As a matter of fact he turned to me and stated, “If a man believes he will be hit, he will.” (I think he believed this as his conduct throughout the campaign bore this out.) It was then that he actually was hit.
Finally the Divisional Cavalry were observed to have withdrawn and Scales saw that he must get his men away from what was now a hopelessly isolated position. Dill had already been dragged down to the road by Sergeant Hill and then, with the help of the crew of one of the 106 RHA two-pounders, carried to the outskirts of Galatas. Hill went on to get help from the RAP and found it evacuated. He returned to Dill, found he had been wounded a second time, and again went for help. He was followed by Scale's platoon and Dill's surviving gunners. As they went through Galatas the Germans came in behind them. It was now impossible for Sergeant Hill to get back. The survivors of the defence of Pink Hill—out of 23 men in 7 Platoon only 12 came off Pink Hill—made their way towards 19 Battalion. There seems little doubt that the remainder of the brigade owed much to the stubborn bravery with which they had defended the key feature entrusted to them. For by now the defence had had a chance to reorganise, it was approaching dark, and the enemy effort for the day was almost spent.
It remains to describe the fate of the guns. Of the two guns in C Troop, the more northerly had been about a mile west of the Galatas turn-off under the command of Lieutenant Gibson. When most of the withdrawing infantry had passed his position Gibson decided he must save his gunners also; to save the gun was impossible without transport. He therefore disabled the gun and went back with his crew until he met Captain Beaumont and the gunners with 20 Battalion. These he joined in their position on the right of the new line.
The other gun, commanded by Lieutenant A. H. Boyce, was half-way between Galatas and the turn-off. About the time of the withdrawal Boyce had gone to discuss the situation with C Troop 2/3 Field Regiment RAA. He returned to find that a passing officer had ordered his men to spike the gun and withdraw. Assuming Boyce himself to have become a casualty, they had obeyed. He therefore took them to the Australian position, where they joined a defence platoon Major Bull1 was organising, and he himself took command of an Australian gun.
…. I got instructions to report to 4 Bde HQ near the Galatos turn-off. There was heavy air activity and going alone across country even was difficult. As I went Jerry started to shell—not bomb—Galatos. The bursts were—believe it or not—a brilliant peach colour. I never saw anything like it before or since. It was crumbling some of the houses about the NW corner, but not collecting any military target. I got my instructions, and then it appeared clear by the row that something was going on in Galatos itself, so I bolted up to the guns to see if they were all right. When I got to C Troop RAA, stragglers were starting to come through them and from the ridge you could see Germans on the outskirts of Galatos. The only thing to do was to protect ourselves so we hauled the guns up to the ridge. It wasn't very difficult to persuade the stragglers to lie down along the ridge to form a sort of firing line on each side of the guns. It was all very primitive but it seemed the only thing to do. There was a little potting but no one in the position got hit. Our gun fire was gloriously accurate using the open sights and gun control, and very soon all Jerries hastened out of sight.1
F Troop, 28 Battery, though it was unable to bring down fire on the right flank, had also had plenty to do all day. Its telephone line to Galatas exchange was continually being cut and the signalmen under Bombardier Khull2 had a difficult time trying to keep it in repair. But whenever they had communication to the observation post, they fired by its reports and, when they had not, they relied on registered targets. Finally, darkness came and the guns of both troops had to fall silent.
1 Report by Maj Bull.