III: The Withdrawal of the Brigades and the Movement of Force Reserve
III: The Withdrawal of the Brigades and the Movement of Force Reserve
Although much of the movement that resulted from the order to withdraw took place after midnight, it will be more easily followed if it is treated as part of the story for 26 May. We shall begin with the right flank, 5 Brigade.
The story is tangled and the most that can be attempted is a probable reconstruction of orders and events. Much of the tangle is due to the fact that, in circumstances considered at Brigade HQ to be of great urgency, there were really three different courses of action mooted during the day, that they were discussed for the most part with Brigadier Puttick over the telephone, and that they could not have been easy for Brigadier Hargest to keep clearly separate in his mind.
Thus Puttick's message of 2.45 a.m. had spoken of the possibility of withdrawal towards Suda Bay and had envisaged in that event a ‘covering force’ to be arranged by Brigadier Stewart. This covering force, as we now know but as was not known to Hargest, would have consisted of the commandos already arrived and of those due to arrive that night.
A second course of action became likely when Brigadier Inglis returned from Force HQ to Division and reported that General Freyberg was organising Force Reserve as a brigade and intended it to relieve 5 Brigade that night, leaving 19 Brigade in position.
But a third possibility arose when the two brigadiers found the situation worsening and began to urge on Puttick withdrawal that night to the Suda Bay area. This was in effect the first plan, with page 350 the difference that while the brigadiers seem to have continued to assume the presence of a covering force, the divisional commander did not, but was rather thinking of a defensive line. This would have become clear to the brigade commanders when they got their final orders at 10.30 p.m.; but by this time warning orders would have gone out to battalion commanders, and they seem to have withdrawn still under the impression that they could look forward to a day out of the line.
In the morning Hargest called a conference for nine o'clock. No record of what passed survives but the probability is that he mentioned the possibility of withdrawal that night. If so, an entry in 22 Battalion war diary for 10.15 that evening—that withdrawal began on the lines of the plan ‘considered that morning’—would be explained. An earlier entry—for 11 a.m.—in the same diary also suggests that withdrawal was discussed. The entry states that the unit had received orders to be ready to withdraw that evening and company officers had begun to reconnoitre routes. None of the other battalion war diaries has any similar entry for this time.
At 2.20 p.m., however, a fresh message went out to the battalions on Hargest's instructions, calling a conference for three o'clock. The message to 19 Battalion is probably typical:
Conference of COs at Bde HQ at 1500 hrs. Note: We are working with the Australians and a British Covering Force—the night's operation should be an easy one. R. B. Dawson, Capt.1
It is possible that when this message was sent out Brigadier Inglis had already returned to Division, and the news he brought with him of General Freyberg's intentions had been passed by telephone to Brigadier Hargest. Whether this is the case or not, it seems likely that Puttick at this time was reasonably confident he could convince Creforce of the necessity for withdrawal to the Suda area, that he had told Hargest, and that Hargest was now calling a conference to find out what his commanders thought of the forward situation and whether they could hold on till dark and to explain the probable withdrawal.2 No record exists of what took place at the conference; but 21 Battalion war diary records that the Intelligence Officer left to reconnoitre the route back to Suda at 3 p.m. and, if we allow a certain approximateness about the time, this would seem to have been a consequence of the conference.
1 5 Bde WD.
2 Brig Hargest was evidently very sure there would be withdrawal. And he seems to have envisaged, no doubt after discussion with Brig Puttick, an operation in which Force Reserve, instead of relieving 5 Bde in its present positions, would hold a line near Suda through which 5 Bde and 19 Bde would pass.
The general feeling in 5 Brigade HQ that withdrawal was likely must have increased as a result of Brigadier Vasey's visit at 5 p.m. For the Australian commander's earlier optimism had changed. He was now certain that he would be forced to withdraw—not so much because of the fighting on his actual front, one may infer, as because of the threat to his left flank. Hargest replied that he himself was still without orders; but his expectation of orders must have remained. For 5 Brigade war diary records that at 6.50 p.m. 19 Battalion was told that withdrawal was probable. The battalion was told to hold on till further instructions. The 21st Battalion was also told to hold on.1
The main events at Brigade HQ for the remainder of the evening are clear enough in spite of some minor confusions about time, probably due to the fact that war diaries were for the most part compiled a good while after the events with which they deal. At 9.30 p.m., if we accept Hargest's time, but perhaps an hour earlier, Major Peart called at Brigade HQ and apparently explained that withdrawal was very likely but that Division was still without firm orders. No doubt he discussed various administrative arrangements. Captain Dawson then drew up a warning order which gave the general setting of the coming operation:
A line is being formed two miles West of SOUDA at approx the junct of two converging roads. Beyond this line all tps must go. Units will keep close together, liaise where possible to guard against sniper attack. 5 Bde units in general will hide up in area along road between SOUDA and STYLOS turn-off. Hide up areas for units will be allotted by ‘G’ staff on side of road after passing through SOUDA. Bde HQ will close present location 2300 hrs and travel at head of column. Will then set up adjacent to STYLOS turn-off. A dump of rations boxes already opened is situated near the main bridge on main CANEA road also some still at DID. Help yourself. It is regretted that NO further tpt is available for evacuation of wounded. It is desirable that MOs should travel with tps. There is possibility of a dump of amn being on roadside near Main Ordnance dump. Take supplies as you pass.
R. B. Dawson TOO 22152
1 Taken literally, the entry would show that only 19 Bn was told that withdrawal was probable. But whoever made the entry may have unintentionally omitted to record the giving of the same information to 21 Bn.
2 21 Bn WD. 5 Bde also has an interesting entry for 8 p.m. to the effect that runners advised bns that the Bde would be withdrawing through two English bns to a line at 42nd Street. If this time is correct—5 Bde WD is unreliable in times—it might mean that Capt Dawson had sent out an earlier warning order. In substance, even if the time is wrong, it can hardly be a summary of the order above. More likely, it is wrongly timed and summarises the final order to withdraw.
This misunderstanding, so far as 5 Brigade HQ was concerned, must have been cleared up when Puttick issued his orders by telephone at 10.30 p.m. The withdrawal was to take place at 11.30 and the destination was the line at 42nd Street.1
It was inevitable, however, that there should be some confusion among the battalion commanders between a warning order which envisaged hiding up along the road between Suda and Stilos with other troops holding a covering line, and an order which called for the line itself to be held. And this will account for some misunderstanding in the sequel.
Brigade HQ probably moved off at 11 p.m., the time given in the warning order.2 The first battalion to move was 22 Battalion, which followed Brigade HQ, leaving one of its companies under Major Leggat to guard the bridge at the junction of the main road and the Prison–Canea road.3 The 23rd Battalion followed shortly afterwards, having been told off to guard the main bridge while the troops passed through. Presumably, as soon as it arrived Leggat's company was able to leave.4
For the forward battalions disengagement was a trickier matter. The 28th Battalion started to thin out at half past ten, immediately after getting the warning order. By 11.30 p.m., when it would have had the final order, all companies had checked in at a central assembly point. The battalion had been instructed to bypass Canea and keep off the roads leading west and south-west from it. Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer therefore took his unit across country and reached 42nd Street without incident.
The 19th Battalion also left at half past eleven and made for a point approximately two miles west of Suda. The 21st Battalion Group was the last to leave. With a heterogeneous group Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, a meticulous commander, was leaving nothing to chance and had worked out a careful schedule which took a longer time to operate. The battalion seems to have used the main road at least part of the way, for the Divisional Cavalry passed through 23 Battalion, no doubt at the bridge, at 1 a.m.5
1 No record of the order survives but this was clearly its main content.
2 5 Bde WD says 9.30 p.m., which is plainly wrong.
3 22 Bn WD, also unreliable about times, says 10.15 p.m.
5 Div Cav WD.
C Squadron, 3 Hussars, covered the withdrawal and, missing the route, found themselves in Canea. There they were put on the right road and came safely on to Suda, arriving at 5.15 a.m. The 23rd Battalion had probably preceded them from the bridge, once all the infantry were through; on reaching Suda it got orders to go to 42nd Street.
With 3 Hussars had gone Captain Dutton,1 Adjutant of 21 Battalion, who had found a truck. He alone of the brigade records meeting Force Reserve: ‘On my way back thro’ Canea I met a Coy Welch Bn going fwd—uncertain about the situation but going fwd.’
A quotation from Brigadier Hargest may suggest something of the atmosphere of the withdrawal.
All arrangements had been made and at about 10.30 we moved each Bn on its route with the Australians on our flanks to the south. The going was terribly hard, the roads had been torn up, vehicles burned across them, huge holes everywhere—walking was a nightmare. Our guide lost us with result that we went through Canea itself, transformed from a pleasant little town to a smouldering dust heap with fires burning but otherwise dead.2
Brigadier Vasey had received authority from Brigadier Puttick to issue a warning order for withdrawal to Suda Bay and he did so about 9 p.m. Then came the final order by telephone.3 Vasey then warned not only the battalions but 2 Greek Regiment on his flank and Suda Brigade in his rear.
Then, a quarter of an hour later, came the order from General Freyberg already mentioned, the discussion with Brigadier Puttick, and the decision to carry on with the withdrawal. Clearly, no other course was by this time possible.
Accordingly, the battalions carried on with the plan already arranged in consultation with 5 Brigade and reached the Suda area about 3 a.m. Here they settled down for the time being to rest.
Fourth Brigade had gone into reserve when 5 Brigade took over the front on the night of 25–26 May. It now consisted of 18 Battalion, 20 Battalion (less the company forward with 21 Battalion Group), and the remains of the Composite Battalion. All three were in a battered state.
2 Letter from Brig Hargest, 1941.
Moreover, a double confusion arose over the whereabouts of the units of the brigade and over the question of command. The night before Brigadier Inglis had agreed to stay forward and assist Hargest with the take-over of the front line. To prevent the troops of 4 Brigade from getting too widely dispersed while he was thus preoccupied, he asked Major Peart to sort out the men of the three battalions as they crossed the bridge west of Canea and concentrate them in an area where he would be able to find them next morning. When he came back to Division next morning to look for 4 Brigade, he got orders at once to report to Force HQ and so was not able to locate his units. It was afternoon before he could get a message to his Brigade Major, warning him that he and the 4 Brigade staff might have to take over Force Reserve and ordering him to arrange for Colonel Kippenberger to take command of 4 Brigade.
The 18th Battalion, presumably on orders from Division, had at first assembled in the area behind 5 Brigade. It was soon found that this was overcrowded and the battalion was ordered to move to the old transit camp area. But this again was unsatisfactory, for the new area was just behind the front line of 19 Brigade. Accordingly, Division ordered the battalion to yet a third area south-east of the wireless station.
The Composite Battalion, in spite of having been employed piecemeal over so many parts of the front on 25 May, and in spite of lacking the trained unity of an infantry battalion, was surprisingly successful in reforming during the morning at the transit camp. Small parties attached to other battalions or independent kept coming in most of the night and early morning.
Somewhere about midday Lieutenant-Colonel Gray and Major Lewis had reported to Colonel Kippenberger and pointed out the location of their two units. He ordered them to send him liaison officers and to stay where they were.1
1 At this time the two units were presumably still in the transit camp area and had not yet received the Divisional order to move to the area of the wireless station.
Moreover, the new move had to take place in broad daylight at a time when the enemy's aircraft were more active than ever. One enemy air attack killed the commander of A Company 18 Battalion, Captain Lyon,1 and caused about a dozen casualties among his men. These air attacks broke up the unity of the march and in consequence B Company and part of D Company overshot the new assembly area and continued westward towards Kalivia.
Still later 18 Battalion was ordered to continue to withdraw to the east of Suda Bay. Thus most of the day was spent in a cheerless, harassed and dispirited trudge, brightened only by a glimpse of General Freyberg on the back of a motor cycle:
… Andy Provan driving the cycle flat out and Tiny on the back holding tight with one hand and the other holding his hat on his head.2
He stopped and gave the men an encouraging word—‘told us to be careful to keep our rifles and keep together and things…. I know the mere sight of him pulled me together a hang of a lot.’3
The Composite Battalion, having followed 18 Battalion, was similarly plagued by enemy aircraft, and in the resulting confusion tended to break up into small groups under individual officers and NCOs, most of whom were to do good work in the hard days that followed ensuring that the men for whom they were responsible held together.
Colonel Kippenberger continued the vain search for his two missing units by runners and expeditions on his own account. The 20th Battalion itself spent the day resting and preparing for whatever might next be expected of it. By early afternoon it looked battleworthy once more and had been reinforced by the arrival of two of its members who had just reached Canea that day from Greece by rowing boat.
2 Lt C. A. Borman, Div Sigs.
This day of general withdrawal is perhaps a favourable point to take up the story of the medical services, whose difficulties increased with every day of the battle and had been made particularly acute by the loss of most of the RMOs of 5 Brigade.
The 5th Field Ambulance had been evacuated from Modhion in the early hours of 23 May and had proceeded thence to the former site of 6 Field Ambulance. In the same move its stretcher cases were taken on to the improvised hospital being run by 189 Field Ambulance in Khalepa, a suburb of Canea. The 5th Field Ambulance itself made a further move the same day to the original site of 7 General Hospital. On 24 May about 200 further wounded who had come in during the interval were cleared to 7 General Hospital, 189 Field Ambulance, 1 Tented Hospital RN at Mournies,1 and 6 Field Ambulance.
Towards evening of 25 May casualties from the heavy fighting at Galatas began to pour back, most of them going to 6 Field Ambulance. For by this time machine-gun and mortar fire were striking in the 5 Field Ambulance area, and at 7 p.m. the ADMS of Division (Lt-Col Bull) arrived and ordered a withdrawal to Nerokourou. This order applied also to 7 General Hospital.
The staff and more lightly wounded were to walk. All the remaining patients of 5 Field Ambulance were to be taken back during the night by the four trucks available, which would make three trips. Delays made only two trips possible before daylight. This meant that there were still about twenty stretcher cases left, together with Major S. G. de Clive Lowe,2 Lieutenant R. F. Moody, Padre Hiddlestone,3 and 14 orderlies. Three truck drivers volunteered early on 26 May to try and get them out. Only one driver got through and an enemy motor-cycle patrol arrived about the same time. The driver, Jenkins,4 escaped by climbing down a cliff. Patients and staff were captured.
1 This small 60-bed hospital found accommodation for over 400 patients.
2 Maj S. G. de Clive Lowe, m.i.d.; England; born NZ 27 Feb 1904; medical practitioner; medical officer 5 Fd Amb Mar–May 1941; p.w. May 1941.
No. 7 General Hospital, unable to evacuate its 300 stretcher cases, had to leave them in the caves under the care of a small medical staff. The walking wounded and the rest of the staff went off to Nerokourou on foot.
At Nerokourou an MDS was established and worked through the day of 26 May, with both field ambulances and the surgical team from 7 General Hospital all assisting. Then DDMS Creforce (Col Kenrick) ordered 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance to establish a temporary hospital at Kalivia, and as the medical units at Nerokourou were to move back as part of the general withdrawal, they were ordered to send their patients to Kalivia. The seriously wounded were sent there in trucks while the walking wounded went on foot. Eventually some 530 patients collected there, and when next night it was obvious that further withdrawal was inevitable, some of these were taken south in trucks while some set out on foot. About 300 had to be left behind, many of them New Zealanders, in the charge of an Australian medical officer and some orderlies.
1 Col W. B. Fisher, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; born New Plymouth, 21 Jan 1898; Superintendent, Waipukurau Hospital; RMO 28 (Maori) Bn Dec 1939–Aug 1940; 2 i/c 5 Fd Amb Aug 1940–May 1941; actg CO 6 Fd Amb, May 1941; CO 21 Lt Fd Amb (NZ) Nov 1941–Dec 1942; 6 Fd Amb Feb 1943–Aug 1944; CO 1 Gen Hosp Aug 1944–Feb 1945.
General Weston's report states that he learnt of the relief role intended for Force Reserve at 9 a.m. when he saw General Freyberg.1 At Creforce it was evidently understood that Brigadier Inglis would command this relief, and as we have seen he spent the afternoon waiting for the unit commanders to appear at the rendezvous, Divisional HQ. According to Brigadier Wills, line communication to 1 Rangers and Northumberland Hussars from Suda Area HQ was established for only a short time that morning, then cut. Runners had difficulty in locating them and both units were busy with infiltrating enemy. Thus only Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan got the order to go to NZ Division.
Duncan returned to his unit about dusk. The battalion had been concentrated, ready for a move, about half past three by his orders. He now told his officers that there were two possible roles in store: either withdrawal to a defensive position at 42nd Street; or an advance to defensive positions west of the Canea crossroads bridge. Major J. T. Gibson of 1 Welch, who was present and who supplies this information, says that Duncan told him that ‘it was being strongly urged that we should carry out the first task.’ From this it seems a reasonable inference that Duncan had learnt at Division of Puttick's belief that nothing short of complete withdrawal to 42nd Street was practicable. He may well have known also that General Weston had set off to Creforce to get a decision.
1 If the war diary of 1 Rangers is correct he must have had some earlier intimation; for according to this the unit received a warning order at 8 a.m. that it was to take over some NZ positions and with 1 NH would be under command of 1 Welch for the operation. The diary adds that COs and OCs had great difficulty in contacting higher authority and getting detailed orders which would enable daylight reconnaissance.
2 This seems to confirm that General Weston did not intend to use Brig Inglis.
3 Report by General Weston, para 27.
The actual order must have been much later, as indeed is suggested by Weston's account already quoted. Captain J. N. Hogg of the Rangers is reported by Captain A. R. W. Low as having said orders arrived at 10 p.m. Major Gibson says ‘it was certainly not any earlier than 2200 hrs and probably considerably later that we received a message brought in by our Motor Contact Officer ordering us to carry out the 2nd task, i.e., to occupy the positions WEST of CANEA BRIDGE.’ This is supported by a witness from Northumberland Hussars who says ‘the C.O. got his orders at 11.30 and we moved out at 0015. We thought we should have got orders earlier.’2
It looks therefore as if Weston did indeed send a warning order at 8.30 p.m. but did not send off his final orders until after he had seen General Freyberg and returned to his HQ in 42nd Street. It would be later still by the time these orders got to the battalions. The result was that Force Reserve was not in position when 5 Brigade withdrew and was still coming forward when Captain Dutton passed through Canea. This is borne out by Gibson's statement that 1 Welch moved at 12.30 a.m. and got into position at 2.30 a.m.; as also by the Rangers’ war diary which says the battalion did not get settled in until 4.30 a.m.
Meanwhile the message which Brigadier Puttick had sent by Captain Bell reached General Weston very late, if it reached him personally at all. For Bell, leaving Division before half past ten, went first to Weston's Canea HQ only to find that this had now moved to 42nd Street. Bell showed the message to Lieutenant Kempthorne,3 who was GSO 3 (Intelligence) for Suda Area, in case anything should happen to himself, and then went on to look for General Weston in 42nd Street. After great trouble in getting there he found the new HQ. ‘I can remember having difficulty in getting access to General Weston personally that night. I think Weston was asleep when I arrived but my message was certainly delivered, if not to General Weston himself then to his GSO 1.’4 Bell then went on to Suda Point and reported the situation to General Freyberg.
1 The diary adds that the unit began moving up to new positions near 1 W and NH on receipt of the order.
4 Report by Capt Bell. Lt Kempthorne also came prepared to pass the message but arrived so late that Brig Puttick seems to have been before him. Neither Bell nor Kempthorne remembers the times.
GOC in C has ordered that 4 [sic] NZ Div1 must hold fast positions tonight 26/27 May until relieved by 1 Welch, NH and 1 Rangers. These latter units received orders to move about 2000 hrs and they should move about Midnight.
It is not easy to see why Weston should have waited so long before sending this message. The move of his headquarters might help to explain, but can scarcely justify, delay in a case of such urgency. He knew that Puttick and his brigadiers thought withdrawal inevitable; and he knew that Puttick must have been anxiously waiting for the decision that he had gone to General Freyberg to get. Nor do his own words to Puttick help to clarify the situation. For, about 2.15 a.m., when Puttick found him asleep in his new HQ and asked why orders had not been sent, ‘Gen Weston replied that it was no use sending orders as Div Comd had made it very clear that NZ Div was retiring whatever happened. Div Comd replied that the retirement could not have been avoided but that orders were necessary so that he would know where to retire to and how best to co-operate with other tps.’2
It is difficult to believe that Weston can have meant what he said to have been taken literally; for if he had really believed that the retirement would take place whatever happened, his action in sending Force Reserve forward would be quite incomprehensible. To find an explanation of his actions we must assume that his words on this occasion were prompted by exhaustion.
Even so, however, we are left with two puzzles. For it remains inexplicable that Weston did not at once signal to Puttick when he learnt from General Freyberg that there should be no withdrawal; and that he left it till 1.10 a.m. before he sent not only the necessary orders but the information that Force Reserve was to move about midnight. The death of General Weston makes it unlikely that a satisfactory explanation can now be found.
1 Presumably a loose way of saying 5 Bde.
2 Diary of Events, compiled by Brig Puttick.
3 General Puttick comments that the conversation lasted ‘at least 15 minutes’.
Meanwhile Lieutenant-Colonel Hely had also arrived and General Weston ordered him and Brigadier Puttick to report to General Freyberg. On his way to do so, at 3 a.m., Puttick met Brigadiers Hargest and Vasey. He hurriedly discussed the situation with them—it was urgent that no time should be lost in seeing General Freyberg—and told them to choose their brigade positions in co-operation with each other. He then left for Creforce, arriving at 4 a.m.
General Weston had realised that Force Reserve was now in an ugly situation and would have to be recalled. ‘Some difficulty was found in getting D.R.'s to take this message but two were despatched about 0130 hours. These D.R.'s have since been interviewed and the fact that the message was delivered to the Welch HQ has been established. The D.R.'s arrived back at Suda Sector H.Q. at 0345 hours.’2
If Weston is right in saying the time of despatch was 1.30 a.m., then the message must have been sent before Puttick's arrival at a quarter past two. If so, it was presumably sent on the receipt of the message carried by Captain Bell and, since the order of 1.10 a.m. for Brigadier Puttick could hardly have been sent if he had been known to be already withdrawing, the not unlikely inference would follow that Bell arrived between 1.10 and 1.30 a.m.
The alternative explanation is that Weston is wrong in his recollection of the time and that the message was sent about 2.30 a.m. If so, Weston must also be wrong about the time of the return of the DRs. But, whatever time it was sent and in spite of the subsequent testimony of the despatch riders, it can hardly be doubted that the message failed to reach Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan; and indeed it is strange that a message of this importance was not given to a staff officer who would realise how vital it was that it should reach the proper quarter.
1 Diary of Events, compiled by Brig Puttick. It is not clear what troops General Weston was thinking of. Brig Wills thinks that he probably meant to use the commandos, an RM searchlight unit, the docks operating unit, and some Australian gunners.
2 General Weston's Report. Brig Wills says that duplicate messages were sent by separate DRs to each unit of Force Reserve. He thinks one DR got through to 1 Welch but too late for withdrawal to be possible.
At all events and whatever the explanation, this was the unluckiest confusion of all the confusions on that trying and unhappy day. Its consequences for Force Reserve will appear in the sequel.