I: The Line East of Galatas
I: The Line East of Galatas
AT 9 p.m. on 25 May General Ringel issued his orders for the next day. The attack was to continue. Ramcke's paratroops in the north, 100 Mountain Regiment in the centre, and 3 Parachute Regiment south of Galatas would advance ‘slowly and methodically’ eastward. The 85th Mountain Regiment would be joined by II Battalion, which had arrived during the day, and would also have under its command I Battalion of 141 Mountain Regiment, borrowed from 6 Mountain Division. Thus reinforced, Colonel Krakau was to renew the attempt to cut through by way of Alikianou.
Considerable importance was now attached to this flanking movement. General Student says that the order for it was the only one he gave Ringel during the operation,1 though nothing could have accorded better with Ringel's own temperament and the training of his troops. No doubt both commanders thought that the final outcome was no longer uncertain, that the flanking technique might save further heavy losses and might prove a quick means to the relief of Retimo. To ensure good progress 85 Mountain Regiment would bypass Alikianou and seize the high ground east of it, while to intimidate any opposition in Alikianou itself, the village would be dive-bombed during the morning.
These orders were issued before the counter-attack on Galatas; but they had been generally phrased and no local events on the front were likely to disturb them.
Because the enemy was advancing cautiously the morning began quietly. It was half past ten before 100 Mountain Regiment reported Karatsos clear and about 11 a.m. before Ramcke's paratroops were at Evthymi. From this latter quarter the first action came, on the front of 21 Battalion.
That battalion was in no very cheerful position. The front was bare of cover and the ground stony. It was already getting light when most of the troops got into position, and there was little time to dig in even had there been tools to do it with. A merciless pounding from the air could be expected to begin almost at once, and the men scraped what holes for themselves they could with bayonets and helmets or built up low sangars with stones.
Headquarters Company and 7 Field Company held the right between the coast road and the sea; A, B, C and D Companies, now organised into one company, and C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry held the left, covering the road and the area immediately south of it. In reserve to the right flank were A and B Squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry and in reserve to the left was A Company 20 Battalion. To the right front was the former 7 General Hospital, outside the line and tenanted only by those patients for whom evacuation had been impossible.2
3 Lt G. A. Lindell. Battle Report of 11 Air Corps says that Group Ramcke contrary to orders penetrated ‘the defended tented camp 2 km. west of Chania [Canea].’ Evidently the belief still officially prevailed with the enemy that the hospital was an encampment.
CANEA, 26 MAY
Shortly after this, about half past nine, the enemy tried to get round the right flank by way of the beach. The Divisional Cavalry from their reserve positions frustrated this, though one enemy machine gun remained in position and was an annoyance throughout the day.
Meanwhile action began to develop along the axis of the road as well. A platoon of Headquarters Company which appears to have been badly briefed withdrew without orders and before fighting had really begun. One man, however, Sergeant Bellamy,1 grasped the importance of defending the road and refused to follow the others. Instead, he mounted his Bren gun in a rough sangar, kept up fire on all enemy movements, and undismayed by his solitude and the fierce fire he received in return, stayed at his post till he was killed.
Dive-bombers had not been long in appearing, their attentions supported by a growing volume of mortar fire from the paratroops. This was difficult for the men to endure in their exposed positions and about 11.30 a.m. Captain Ferguson of 7 Field Company decided that his men on the forward slope of the ridge were suffering unreasonable casualties. He therefore brought them back to the reverse slope. This move isolated the other forward platoon of Headquarters Company, whose left flank had already been opened by the earlier withdrawal. Sergeant W. J. Gorrie, the platoon commander, decided to stay on; but eventually enemy air attack became so troublesome and the threat of a full-scale attack so imminent that Gorrie also moved his men to the reverse slope.2
This minor withdrawal was thought by Lieutenant-Colonel Allen to have been the result of an attack and he at once came forward with reserves to counter-attack. It is not clear whether he found it necessary to do so and the probability is that he did not. At all events the situation was stable again by a quarter past one.
2 One aircraft came over so low and cheekily that the crew dropped hand grenades on the platoon positions.’—Sgt Gorrie.
In fact the enemy planned to put in his main attack in the late afternoon when the sun would be behind him and Stuka support would be available. For some reason the attack did not come in full force, however, and 5 Mountain Division war diary records that at 5.45 p.m. the forward area was ordered to be left clear till nightfall to prevent German bombs falling on German troops. This precaution was probably taken because a battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment had been heavily bombed by mistake this same day.1
Such attack as there was tried the forward battalions sorely enough. Mortar and shell fire was severe all afternoon and at 1.45 p.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Allen reinforced the forward ridge with a section from A Company 20 Battalion and a squadron of Divisional Cavalry. The rest of the 20 Battalion company he held in reserve for counter-attack. Meanwhile a large number of enemy had been observed emerging from Galatas and Allen went over to his left flank. He was held up there by severe air attack till 5 p.m.
While he was away wounded men had been filtering back through the reserve positions of 23 Battalion and, as often in war, brought alarming rumours. According to one, the enemy had broken through 7 Field Company. Major Thomason passed this report to 5 Brigade with the information that he had sent two companies forward on either side of the road and that the remainder were standing by. Brigade HQ endorsed his action and added: ‘Restore the line at all costs.’ To make sure that this was done Brigade also ordered 22 Battalion to move north-east across the main road and help counter the enemy advance.
The consequences illustrate the dangers of moving bodies of troops by daylight in this battle. Both units were caught by low-flying aircraft. The 22nd Battalion had ten casualties; and C Company of 23 Battalion, with thirty casualties, was so severely hit that it had to be replaced by Headquarters 2 Company. The recollections of a private from Headquarters 2 Company give a vivid impression:
Meanwhile Allen had returned to his HQ, where he found Thomason and was able to reassure him that the right flank was holding and the rumour false. His message to 5 Brigade at 5.45 p.m. sums up the situation:
Right flank has caused me considerable anxiety all day. Have had to counter attack once and regained lost ground. Since then have reinforced once; and am standing by to reinforce again. If I have to do so I shall have used all my reserves, but at present line is holding. Left flank position all right but a good deal of Mortar fire coming over. 19th Bn have withdrawn Coy from ridge in front of me.
J. M. Allen, Lt-Col.
Unnecessary though the move of the reserves had turned out to be, such are the chances of war that it might easily have proved providential. For had the enemy attack been full-strength, Allen's thin screen could hardly have stood it unaided.
South of 21 Battalion also the afternoon had proved more exciting than the morning. The 19th Battalion's mortars got a good target when the enemy moved out of Galatas, no doubt to put in the late-afternoon attack. Although the mortars broke up the grouping of these troops some did manage to get to close quarters by using the cover of trees; and a shower of grenades forced 5 and 6 Platoons of Headquarters Company to withdraw from their inadequate trenches to a new line about 150 yards back. The territory thus temporarily abandoned was made uncomfortable for the enemy by fire from D Company.
Then at 2.45 p.m. 14 Platoon of C Company counter-attacked and regained part of the lost ground. A quotation from a report by the platoon commander, Lieutenant Cockerill, gives an idea of the conditions:
At 4.45 p.m. Headquarters Company reoccupied the whole position. ‘From then on it was just a case of sitting and taking it as long as possible. We were mortared heavily and had a good few casualties.’1
At half past six 19 Battalion was able to report to 5 Brigade:
Hill SOUTH of EFTHYMI has been re-taken and is now occupied by us. Forward Coys report enemy formations with mortars and field pieces moving EAST along road and in direction our left forward Coy. Am using Reserve Coy which I understand is coming forward; also one PI at present with Div. Cav. Casualties estimated 30.
No serious attack developed, however, and the probability is that the enemy was using the rest of the day to get forward his troops and guns for a big attack on the morrow.
For 28 Battalion the day was fairly quiet, so far as actual fighting went, until about eight o'clock. Here on the extreme left of the battalion front where B Company, the reserve company, had been put in to fill a gap, mortar fire suddenly became very heavy and the forward platoons of B Company—10 and 12—had to retire. As soon as the fire slackened, however, Captain Rangi Royal sent in his reserve platoon, together with the sections that had retired, and this counter-attack restored the line.
The tanks of 3 Hussars had had their share in the day's activities. As well as supporting the move forward of 23 Battalion, one tank had helped 19 Battalion from the north side of the main road until it was located by aircraft and ‘retired along the road hotly pursued by ME 110.’2 At 5.5 p.m., from the rear HQ of 23 Battalion, the OC of the tank troop concerned reported to 5 Brigade:
1705 hrs. Have advanced down road as far as cutting with road block. Shot up Bosche patrol far side of cutting could see nothing else. Light tanks can accomplish very little on this road. I was unable to get off it and aircraft fire was very heavy. At the moment one tank is missing.
A. J. Crewdson.
Twice during the remainder of the day Brigade asked that the tanks should continue to cover the road until further orders, using all available cover.
1 Report by Capt Pleasants.
2 19 Bn WD.
So long as Galatas held, the enemy had attempted no serious attack on the positions held by 19 Australian Brigade and 2 Greek Regiment. But, now that Galatas no longer offered a threat to the flank of any advance, there was a chance that a strong push by 3 Parachute Regiment might break through and endanger all defending troops to the north of the breakthrough. Accordingly, at half past nine on the morning of 26 May, General Ringel ordered Colonel Heidrich to advance his right wing and try to make contact, to find out just where the southern flank of the defence was, and to go forward in close touch with 100 Mountain Regiment.
A heavy bombing and machine-gunning of the front in the morning heralded the impending attack, and at half past ten, supported by mortar fire, in it came. The point was well chosen. It was at the junction, or rather at the failure to join, between 2/8 Battalion and 2 Greek Regiment. The enemy worked his way through the gap with machine guns and so managed to pin down the two Australian platoons in Pirgos.1 The threat to these two platoons increased and at midday Captain C. J. A. Coombes, commanding B Company on this flank, ordered them to withdraw across the stream behind them and guard the rear of 11 Platoon, stationed between Pirgos and Perivolia. Enemy fire intensified and parties infiltrating behind B Company threatened the whole position, but the Australians held on.
2 19 Aust Bde WD.
Of 2 Greek Regiment no more was heard. This was probably its last day as an organised force, though some speculation about its doings may be founded on German reports. During the day, however, nothing much besides mortar fire seems to have troubled it. Towards evening Major Wooller was warned by Colonel Fiprakis, the commanding officer, that it would be better for him to withdraw with his New Zealand party as the regiment would disband next day.
It remains to give an account of the artillery, now reduced to a total of eight guns: three belonging to F Troop 28 Battery, which had withdrawn the night before; one to C Troop 27 Battery, which had been got out finally with F Troop; and four to C Troop of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment. By dawn these eight guns were ready for action once more in new positions, this time on the east bank of the Mournies River and not far south of the junction between the main coast road and the road from the Prison to Canea.
Owing to persistent attack by low-flying planes, it was impossible for F Troop 28 Battery to set up an OP on the west bank of the stream. There was telephone communication with the Australian troop which did have an OP. But the guns did not have a very satisfactory day: close support to the battalions was too difficult as firing had to be mostly by map reference; ammunition was scarce; and enemy aircraft were very troublesome. Moreover, dysentery was afflicting some of the officers and men, while all alike had begun to feel the effects of nights spent in hard work and no sleep, days when the urgency of battle and the ceaseless worrying of aircraft had denied the sleep lost by night. Food, too, had been very short for a long time now and a man who had had a cup of hot tea since the first day of battle could count himself fortunate.
To make matters worse, as it grew towards evening and the enemy began to work his way in closer, machine-gun fire at long range was added to the trials of the gunners. And so things continued until darkness came.
The troubles beginning to make themselves felt with the gunners were by no means peculiar to them. The infantry were no better off. It is all the more credit therefore to the forward troops that the fight they were putting up made a strong impression on the enemy. Thus CSM Karl Neuhoff of 3 Parachute Regiment says:
At 1400 hours we ran into trouble once again when we were held up by an enemy strongpoint just east of the British hospital. For two hours page 339 we attacked with everything we had, including mortars and machine-guns but could make no progress in the face of a very determined defence. At 1600 hours after having suffered further heavy casualties we desisted in our efforts to dislodge the stubborn defenders and no further progress was made until after dark when the enemy appeared to disengage….
And a report in 5 Mountain Division war diary for this day describes the ‘enemy’ in these terms:
The enemy is offering fierce resistance everywhere. He makes very skilful use of the country and of every method of warfare. Mainly snipers, MG nests, and positions partially wired and mined. Shellfire has so far come only from the western outskirts of Canea for the most part. Armed bands are fighting fiercely in the mountains, using great cunning, and are cruelly mutilating dead and wounded. This inhuman method of making war is making our advance infinitely more difficult.1
But, though throughout 26 May the enemy was thus being held, the front could not be expected to stand up indefinitely to the weight of men and weapons now put against it. And, while the forward troops were busy dealing with the enemy to their front, in the rear hard decisions which had to reckon with the larger situation were being taken.