IV: Other Fronts and Creforce
IV: Other Fronts and Creforce
It will be remembered that General Student and General Ringel attached great importance to the outflanking movement which was to pass through Alikianou and go on towards Ay Marina. The enemy's object was partly to cut off the troops in the Canea sector and partly to relieve his own hard-pressed force at Retimo.
Attempts to get this movement going had been hitherto thwarted by the presence of Greek opposition across the proposed line of advance. But after the fall of Galatas the Greeks probably moved back into the hills and the enemy himself began to attack with more determination.
As a result Alikianou was taken in the course of the morning. III Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment pushed on east of it as far as the hills south-west of Varipetron. It should have been relieved there by I Battalion, which was then to push on to Malaxa with II Battalion following.
Unluckily for this scheme and luckily for the defence, I and III Battalions were severely attacked by their own bombers during the early afternoon and this had an adverse effect on progress and morale. Then I Battalion encountered ‘stubborn enemy resistance’. This and the hard going prevented the regiment from getting more than a few kilometres beyond Varipetron. The breakthrough to Ay Marina and Malaxa had again to be postponed.
Had this thrust been begun earlier and with more energy, and had not the remnants of the Greek forces and the Cretan civilians put up the resistance they did, grave consequences might have followed for General Freyberg's main body.
At the same time the enemy was building up another threat on the former front of 6 and 2 Greek Regiments. In the morning of 26 May Colonel Jais, commanding 141 Mountain Regiment, was ordered to begin advancing south of Colonel Heidrich's 3 Parachute Regiment. To do so he had I Battalion complete and elements of his other two battalions. His object was to cut the main coast road at Suda Bay. He began to move in the middle of the afternoon and by evening had reached Pirgos. No opposition page 363 was met, and it may be inferred that any Greek forces still in the area were making for the high country farther to the south.
At Retimo the Australians, unaware of the deteriorating situation on the main front, made yet another attempt on 26 May to reduce the German strongpoint in Perivolia. The 2/11 Battalion set off at dawn, accompanied by a supporting tank. But their usual ill luck dogged them and the tank's machine gun broke down almost at once. The battalion had to withdraw, postponing its attack for another twenty-four hours.
By 11 a.m. the tank's machine gun was repaired. It was too late to renew the Perivolia attack, and so instead the tank was used in support of an attack on the factory in the eastern sector. In this engagement B Company of 2/1 Battalion took 80 prisoners, 40 of them wounded. A further enemy party to the east, about 80 strong, was attacked and contained by Cretan gendarmerie. To make the morrow's plans more certain the troops dug out the second tank and trained a crew that night.
During the afternoon also the Quartermaster of 2/1 Battalion succeeded in making his way back from Suda. Unfortunately, as he had left during the previous afternoon, he knew nothing of the latest developments in the situation there. Retimo force therefore continued to expect reinforcement and guessed nothing of the evacuation which was by now being planned. In this ignorance of the true situation they felt no reason to be dispirited and were embarrassed only by a shortage of supplies, which their possession of 500 prisoners seriously aggravated.
The enemy at Heraklion was still intent on concentrating his forces in the eastern sector if possible and continued his attempt to do so into daylight of 26 May. The route followed was to the south of the defence, and one concentration in the course of the morning forced a minor Australian withdrawal. A more serious development took place on the front of the newly arrived Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Early in the morning the enemy surrounded the forward elements of this battalion, and an attempt by 2 Leicesters to counter-attack in the afternoon was frustrated by an ambush and by low-flying fighter aircraft.
This was the only serious aggression by the enemy, however. He dropped more stores in the eastern sector during the morning, and was in the main content to hold the Knossos road from the south and build up in the east.
The morning began for General Freyberg with his decision that, whatever the Commanders-in-Chief might decide, the position was hopeless and his message to General Wavell to that effect sent at half past nine. Unfortunately Wavell was away in Alexandria when this message arrived, discussing the situation with Admiral Cunningham, Air Marshal Tedder, General Blamey, and the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr. Fraser. Available to this meeting were the opinions of Brigadier Falconer, who had left Crete on the Abdiel in the early morning of 24 May and who had stressed the effect on the troops of continuous and unchecked air attack.
Wavell began a message to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff on his way back to Cairo. In it he explained how difficult it was to reinforce when there was so little hope of merchant vessels sent to the north of Crete getting through that the only chance of sending troops there was by destroyer. Even to send reinforcements to the south coast, warships or fast troopships of the Glen class were necessary. This meant that it was impossible to land transport or tanks at Suda Bay, and only limited numbers of infantry could be sent. The upshot of the conference had been that existing plans to send three battalions in the next few days could not be improved on, without undue risk to warships and robbing forces in the Western Desert to a degree too dangerous to be contemplated. There was little that could be done to counter the enemy's air attacks, but all that could be done to help would be. It now seemed doubtful whether a permanent hold on Crete could be retained.
On arrival at his HQ Wavell found the message sent from Freyberg. He therefore continued his own message by sending a copy of it and of his own reply to General Freyberg. This reply was to the effect that Freyberg had done well to withstand the attack so long; and that if he could continue to hold on the effect on the whole position in the Middle East would be all the greater. He went on to ask if, with the reinforcements that had reached him during the previous night and with 1 Welch, it might not be possible to push the enemy back or at least relieve the sector in greatest danger. If, however, it was impossible to hold Suda Bay after 27 May, he suggested that Freyberg should use his freshest forces to cover his withdrawal on the night of 27 May, join up with the troops at Retimo, and block the enemy's further progress to the east. In this way it might be possible to hold out for some time still. If Freyberg would send the outline of proposals for carrying out such a plan, he himself would do his best to help. page 365 Meanwhile he was sending General J. F. Evetts, a tank expert, by Sunderland and hoped that Freyberg would send him back a liaison officer by this plane.1
This telegram did not reach General Freyberg until late that night. Meanwhile the day's events that have already been followed in detail had done nothing to alleviate his anxieties. How he viewed the situation late that afternoon may be gathered from a situation report sent to General Wavell: the front to the west of Canea had been penetrated and men were falling back in disorder; he was trying to form a line which would cover Suda Bay until the supplies and men due that night were disembarked; but any stabilisation could only be temporary, and he would have to aim at getting some supplies dumped at Stilos with the ultimate plan of falling back on Sfakia and Porto Loutro.2
In the evening, about a quarter past ten, General Freyberg went to Weston's new headquarters in 42nd Street. There he informed General Weston of his plans which assumed that, after the relief of 5 Brigade by Force Reserve, the troops would stand on their present line till the evening of 27 May. As a result Weston's staff began to prepare an order for withdrawal which was completed by 3 a.m. The more important provisions of this order were to the following effect:
All troops were to withdraw to Sfakia, with Layforce (the newly arrived commandos) doing the rearguard. Withdrawal would begin on the night of 27 May, and the last to leave the Suda area would be Force Reserve, an RM battalion, and the RHA.
After hearing the news of Freyberg's plans Weston told him that the Australians of 19 Brigade meant to withdraw that same evening, although the New Zealand troops were standing fast.3 It was this information which moved General Freyberg to send his direct order to Brigadier Vasey. Having sent it, he went to Suda Bay to make sure that his arrangements about transport, which had been difficult to provide, were carried through.
1 O. 67110, General Wavell to CIGS, 26 May.
3 General Freyberg's Report. There was, of course, no question of 19 Bde withdrawing without Puttick's orders. General Puttick comments: ‘I cannot imagine how Weston could get this idea in view of my plain talk with him.’
Because transport was short and because their new role would demand mobility, the commandos were told to jettison their radios, motor cycles and heavy equipment, keeping only weapons, ammunition and rations. A Battalion was then sent forward to join Lieutenant-Colonel F. B. Colvin's party which had taken up positions the night before in the Suda Docks area. D Battalion marched east along the coast road until dawn found it near the turn-off to Stilos. Here it lay up in the olive groves. Colonel Laycock himself reported to General Weston near 42nd Street.
Meanwhile General Freyberg had been arranging for ten tons of supplies that had come with the convoy to go to Retimo—his staff's plan for sending them by caique having failed with the engine of the caique. Eventually the Navy lent a motor landing craft. This hid up in a cove near Suda Point and prepared to set off in the darkness of next night.
Now that all plans seemed to be working satisfactorily, Freyberg returned to his HQ where he expected to find a reply from General Wavell to his signal sent that morning. The reply was there but he ‘did not derive much comfort from this helpful advice which indicated complete ignorance of the strength of the Retimo road blocks and the latest reports of a German sea landing at Georgiopoulos.’1
General Freyberg, realising from Wavell's last signal that the tactical and administrative situation was not understood in Egypt, at once sent off his reply. Retimo was without ammunition, was very short of food, and was cut off on all sides by road. In his own sector the guns were all lost through shortage of tractors. His fighting strength was very low in contrast with his ration strength. His force could not continue to function as such without air support. The Retimo plan was out of the question and the only hope was to withdraw to selected beaches, hiding up from the enemy's aircraft by day and marching by night. Even so, survival depended on the landing of supplies at Sfakia at once. His plan was therefore to withdraw to Sfakia, fighting a rearguard as he went. Since the bulk of his force were not front-line troops and were now in a deteriorated state, he would like General Wavell to try and spare more commandos to cover the withdrawal. The garrison at Retimo would have to be moved at once.page 367
This was, of course, a just view of the position, and was to be rendered more so by the withdrawal of 5 and 19 Brigades. Even if a junction could have been effected with Retimo no prolonged resistance there could have been made. Moreover, arrangements already made, including the orders now being prepared by Weston's staff, presupposed withdrawal to Sfakia. Miscellaneous bodies of troops were already on the way there, rumours of evacuation having spread around. And, finally, had he changed his plans in accordance with Wavell's suggestions, the only possibilities for evacuation would have been by Retimo itself or by withdrawal to the southern ports. The first alternative would have exposed the Navy to all the dangers of air attack; the second would give the withdrawing force a much more difficult march and would offer the enemy an even better chance to cut the route of withdrawal.
Even to try to defend Canea and Suda until the following night, as General Freyberg at this stage still hoped to do, was taking a big risk; for he knew that with the Greek regiments scattered there was little except the difficulty of the country to prevent the enemy from cutting the road south to Sfakia.
Back in London General Wavell's telegram had roused the Prime Minister to alarm, and at 1.35 in the morning of 27 May he cabled Wavell that victory was essential and that he must keep hurling in reinforcements. But, even before this, the convoy taking 2 Battalion of the Queen's Regiment—Glenroy, Stuart, Coventry and Jaguar— had been forced to turn back. It had been attacked by torpedo bombers and the Glenroy had been damaged—a cargo of petrol catching fire from machine-gun fire and one of her landing craft having to be cut adrift. The delays had been such that there was not enough time left to reach Crete, land troops, and return under cover of dark. The misfortune was less than it seemed. Another battalion could not now have affected the result and would have complicated the evacuation.
The attack on Scarpanto airfield by the Formidable's twelve aircraft did not come off at full strength, as four proved unserviceable. The other eight had some success and 1 Battle Squadron then withdrew. In the early afternoon of 26 May it was attacked by aircraft and Formidable was hit twice by dive-bombers. Nubian also was hit and lost her stern. While the Vice-Admiral was preoccupied by the bombing and the damage to the Formidable, a signal reached him to detach Nubian, Kandahar, and Janus for a raid that night on Melos, and Ajax and Dido for a feint through the Kaso page 368 Strait. The bombing and the delay it caused decided the Vice-Admiral to cancel both operations. Instead he detached Formidable with an escort to go back to Alexandria, while the rest of the force continued at sea.
Something of the strain of this and kindred operations can be seen in Admiral Cunningham's message this day to the Admiralty. He explains that the cautionary note in his previous appreciations was not due to the fear of losses as such but to the fear of crippling the Fleet. Experience was already enough to show what the scale of losses in future operations was likely to be. In three days the Fleet had had two cruisers and four destroyers sunk, two cruisers and four destroyers seriously damaged, and one battleship put out of action for several weeks. And now he had just learnt that Formidable and Nubian were hit and returning. All these operations and losses under undisputed enemy control of the air were having their cumulative effect on men who had been stretched to their utmost ever since February. Even so, he was having the north coast of Crete swept nightly and had so far stopped the enemy getting reinforcement through by sea. To prevent it by air was impossible without long-range aircraft, and so far those asked for from the United Kingdom had not appeared.
Cunningham had indeed reason to be proud of his Fleet. And in spite of the continuous effort men and commander had already put forth, they were able to nerve themselves to yet further strain in the crisis still to come.
Air Marshal Tedder, too, was doing his best. During the night of 25 May four Wellingtons had bombed Maleme airfield and beaches. On 26 May six Hurricanes returned to attack by daylight and were followed at dusk by a force of Blenheims and Marylands. These attacks did some damage, though of course they were not on a scale to affect the military situation to any serious extent.