CHAPTER 6 — Crete
The evacuation of Greece cut the regiment into several groups, and of the major ones of these, RHQ and most of HQ Squadron were taken to Egypt, while parts of all the three other squadrons, together with a few from HQ Squadron, went to Crete. Of these, the A and B Squadron men and most of those from HQ Squadron were landed at Suda Bay on 27 April, and those of C Squadron at Kastelli on the 29th. The regiment's strength on Crete was 194 all ranks, but a few were evacuated to Egypt before the fighting began.
For the best part of a month, in ones and twos, others continued to arrive until the very day before the attack on the island began. Every one of these men had a story of excitement to tell, stories of the resource of any New Zealander who is determined not to be locked up in a prisoner-of-war cage. They told too of the bravery of the Greek peasants who helped them as they rowed or sailed down the coasts, gave them food, hid them by day, and decoyed enemy searching craft away from them.
The Navy served the troops faithfully, tirelessly, and cheerfully during the Greece evacuation. Precious ships had crept in to the shore night after night, boldly taking shocking risks which, six weeks later, were gladly repeated at the Crete evacuation; and the tales of those it was impossible to embark, who nevertheless drew on their own resources of courage and still got away, must be sufficient proof to the Senior Service that its efforts were worth while.
By the end of May only forty-nine men were not accounted for. Forty-five of them were later confirmed as prisoners of war, two of them wounded; one was missing and one wounded and missing—both were later reclassified as killed in action. Two others, it was later established, had been killed: Trooper Grattan1 was killed when Sergeant Sutherland's truck was caught in an air raid in the Peloponnese and Corporal Woodward2 was also posted killed about the same time. This brought the regiment's losses in Greece to seven killed.page 89
Crete gave peace to the soldiers—for a week or so. It is a beautiful spot. Its people are simple and kindly. Sometimes they resented the soldiers a little when they felt that their presence would bring the war down upon them, but they were made of the right stuff: philosophic, a little fatalistic, and humane. But when a terrible war did descend upon them, it refined, if that were possible, the best that was in them.
The country rolls back from its narrow beaches in spurs covered with little groves of olives, or in terraces covered with vines. Here and there the Cretans grow small sweet oranges and patches of wheat and barley. Further inland the country rises, gradually becoming more rugged and open, to a range of hills capped with snow. Beyond that it falls, more suddenly, down to the sea on the southern coast.
The days were hot—it was pleasant in the shade—and the nights were cold. With no clothes to spare and only odd blankets, men huddled together for warmth at nights or took their sleep in the daytime.
It was a period of reorganisation—and of surprises. Each day someone would turn up; someone who had been thought dead, and he with news of others still alive. Rest alone, at this stage, made the men fit. The Cretans sold them bread and eggs and sometimes gave them oranges. Each day a certain proportion of each unit was allowed down to the coast to bathe. Extra socks and underclothes were rare enough to be considered luxuries and the owner of a book was the subject of universal envy.
There was a feeling of unreality about those days. After the movement and excitement of Greece, the peacefulness was hard to understand, and the men found the time dragging and worried a little as they wondered whether they would be able to pick up the old threads when this wretched war was over. They had time to think of home, and they fretted lest their people would hear and believe any of the feckless rumours that always float around. Between their games of ‘Pontoon’ or Five Hundred or Bridge—the last was always popular in Div Cav— they thought of the Germans who were coming but they felt quite happy about this. They knew themselves superior, man to man, and this time the Hun would bring no panzers.
The defence of Crete was based on the assumption that it would be attacked from the air and sea simultaneously. Little or no air support could be expected by the defenders; but the Navy, vigilant and keen, could be expected to guard the sea approaches. The south coast of the island provides no suitable harbours and the inland hills are unsuitable for air assault. The northern side of the island, however, is a different proposition. The beaches are suitable for landings and the ridges and gullies behind them afford plenty of cover. The only major road follows the coast; lateral roads are few and poor.
It was decided, then, to divide the defences into four sectors. At Heraklion, farthest east, was a mixed brigade of British, Greeks and Australians. At Retimo was 19 Australian Brigade of four battalions and six Greek battalions. At Suda Bay was the equivalent of about eight battalions, British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek.
The balance of the island, from Suda Bay to Maleme, was the New Zealanders' sector. The 5th Brigade defended Maleme airfield itself. The 4th Brigade was to be a mobile reserve until it was clear where the sea landing would come. The rest of the New Zealanders and two Greek regiments, the 6th and the 8th, were formed into a new brigade, the 10th, under the command of Colonel Kippenberger. This was disposed round the village of Galatas.
But not quite all of it; running south-west from Canea is a road to the village of Alikianou, six miles away. Half-way along this road are prison buildings and, a mile farther on, a reservoir and a power-house. This is where Div Cav settled down to wait.
‘Russell Force’, as it was now known, consisted by 19 May of 194 all ranks under the command of Major J. T. Russell. He organised his force into three squadrons of three troops each. These squadrons were commanded by Lieutenant H. A. Robinson, Captain F. W. Horton,4 and Major E. R. Harford. The Adjutant was Captain I. L. Bonifant and Lieutenant Reeves5 was Quartermaster.page 92
Early in May Russell Force moved up to Aghya and settled round the north and west sides of the reservoir. On the opposite side, beyond the Canea road, were also ‘amateur infantry’, men of the New Zealand Divisional Petrol Company, but the ASC companies were withdrawn to positions round Galatas and replaced by 8 Greek Regiment.
Suda Bay and Maleme had been regularly bombed by the Luftwaffe for a fortnight or more, and daily Russell Force went religiously through the stand-to periods. There had been several Intelligence reports of the probable date of the attack and everyone was beginning to become a little sceptical.
On 19 May the Luftwaffe was considerably more active than usual, not just attending to two or three places, but ranging further afield.
Then came the 20th of May.
The air activity of the previous fortnight was continued in the morning, heavier than ever. High up were patrolling fighters. Below this screen, steadily coming in over the sea, were medium bombers and also dive-bombers and fighter-bombers which pounced, wailing and screaming, to bomb or strafe anything that looked like a target. It seemed that the day had arrived.
It was time to stand down for breakfast when transport planes began to come in over Maleme. Some were towing gliders, which they released to sail overhead towards the prison with an eerie, swishing sound that nobody had heard before. Each big lumbering transport, flying at the height of only a few hundred feet, began to spew out of its belly twelve forms which plummeted a few feet before their parachutes opened above them.
For a short while it seemed quite unlike the beginning of the fierce attack that it proved to be. A hush had settled over the whole valley as the bombing ceased. It was like that moment, after the whistling of the wind, when there is a muffled silence that makes you look up to the window and see the first flakes of a snowstorm.
But these snowflakes did not curl down lazily. They were coming straight down with a purpose. Below each one was dangling a man, armed—a man trained to kill.
Mostly they fell out of range on the far side of the reservoir. Two landed in the lake itself and took no further interest in the proceedings. The Greeks on the opposite side of the lake killed many, but except for some odd shots at long range, the Divisional Cavalry did little at first. John Russell himself did page 93 some good shooting on the crew of a quick-firing gun of about 40-millimetre calibre that landed near the road to the prison. Any parties of Germans that organised themselves and began to make towards the Div Cav positions were promptly discouraged, when they came near enough, by small-arms fire. It was later learned that many of them had been in several landings, all unopposed, and they were quite indignant to have been shot at.
A telephone line had been laid from Aghya to Brigade Headquarters but the first time it was required for a serious purpose it was discovered to be out of order. Major Russell sent Sergeant Hood6 back as a runner, but he was wounded crossing some rising ground towards the prison. He returned with the news that this route was denied them, so Russell, appreciating the danger of being cut off and the fact that his force would be doing no good by staying, decided to carry out the Brigade Commander's previous instruction should these circumstances arise, and withdrew towards Galatas by making north over some steeply rising ground and then turning right to enter the town from the west.
The withdrawal began at two o'clock. Passing through the 4 Field Regiment positions, the Divisional Cavalry came under intermittent fire and took shelter for a while in a drain where there were some short bamboo stakes. A sliver from one of these ran into Major Russell's thigh as he stumbled, and made him lame for the rest of the campaign. He refused to allow himself to be taken to hospital, even when the wound began to fester and his leg to swell, but stayed with his men throughout the fighting.
There were two things reluctantly left at Aghya. One was a 15-cwt truck which had been issued only the day before and which had to be wrecked. The other was a sad and sentimental loss. Alan Sperry had to abandon his bagpipes. These had piped the regiment on its route marches from the first days in camp and it was sad that they should have to be left to fall into the unappreciating hands of the Philistines.
Approaching Galatas from the west, Russell Force had to cross some rising ground with wire along the crest. This spot was covered by enemy fire and had to be crossed in little groups. Each group, as it dashed up to the wire, found itself delayed in a very uncomfortable position. This delay might have caused page 94 casualties but for the coolness of Keith Stobie,7 who had been one of the first to go up. He lay in some small cover by the fence and, as each group arrived, he stood up and parted the wires to let the men through quickly. Neither he nor any of the others was hit.
At this time Galatas was wide open to the Germans but their chief aim seemed to be to annihilate the Divisional Petrol Company positions west of the village lest, when they occupied it as they hoped, they would leave themselves with a flank there exposed to counter-attack.
The regiment entered the town unopposed. Most of the streets were deserted and, passing through them from the north to the south end, it was met by only a little intermittent fire from snipers. The Greek regiment to the south of the town between the left flank of the Petrol Company and 19 Battalion were very keen to fight, but they were armed only with captured Italian rifles with practically no ammunition. So Colonel Kippenberger sent Major Russell to stiffen up this part of the line with his men.
Russell extended his force into some sort of a line, and with surprisingly little bother they moved out to the south and began to probe towards 19 Battalion and the Petrol Company. It was a very uncomfortable position for the last hour before dark. The forward positions which they took up followed the general line of a stone wall supporting a terrace on the forward slope of the hill. A few scattered olive trees provided the only cover and the slope was under accurate enemy fire.
There were no prepared positions there and the men had to dig themselves in as best they could with tin hats, bayonets, jam-tins; anything, even their fingernails.
Blessed and welcome dusk allowed some respite.
The ground in the vicinity of the reservoir was by now occupied by a fairly numerous enemy, who therefore constituted page 95 quite a threat to the whole Division. Elements of these enemy troops had followed up the withdrawal to the Galatas area and appeared to be the vanguard of an attack designed to encircle the regiment. Two companies of 19 Battalion, together with three light tanks from 3 Hussars, were sent forward but were recalled next morning before they came to grips with the enemy in the prison area.
After dark, patrols were sent out, one as a standing patrol on the front of Pink Hill to secure that flank, and the others to reconnoitre. They found many Germans killed by 19 Battalion and the Petrol Company and arrived back with various enemy supplies and equipment, including entrenching tools, automatic weapons and ammunition, from a cache at the bottom of the hill. All these were put to good use. The weapons, with others that were captured later, were kept in action more or less until the evacuation, and the entrenching tools were much sought after by the men, some of whom had been digging with their bare hands.
The Divisional Cavalry position was bounded by two roads, both of them running from Galatas to the Canea-Alikianou road. The one on the right joined it just short of the prison, and that on the left, east of Cemetery Hill. B Squadron was on the right, C Squadron in the centre, and A Squadron joined 19 Battalion at the eastern road. In reserve were the Greeks, a band of somewhat varying strength, now under command of Captain Michael Forrester of the Queen's Royal Regiment.
On the 21st the Luftwaffe arrived at first light and the regiment had to accept, with everybody else, its share of bombing and machine-gunning. An A Squadron patrol opened the day with a grenade fight against a German patrol which it met at the top of a hill. The Germans got only second prize this time and withdrew.
On Cemetery Hill there were two enemy machine-gun posts threatening the A and C Squadron positions and part of the 19 Battalion area. Two platoons of the battalion attacked, supported by C Squadron and some light tanks of 3 Hussars. This attack also produced some useful loot in the form of four MMGs with ammunition. The hill soon came under heavy mortar fire and 19 Battalion had to withdraw. Nor could the enemy make use of it as they could not get support for it on one flank and it provided little cover; so it just became a no-man's land. But at least Div Cav found that it could now page 96 strengthen the line by pushing forward some posts. The action cost one man killed, Trooper Nicolson,11 and four others wounded.
That night, as the men lay on the hillsides looking out to sea, they knew by the flashes and the glare that the seaborne enemy would never arrive. The Navy was cutting it to pieces.
The following morning, 22 May, started with a violent cannon and machine-gun attack on a nearby ridge by Me109s and 110s. It was a brilliant fireworks display, and very thrilling too, because one never knew whether the attack would switch suddenly and put the spectators to ground, taut with anticipation. But nothing of the sort happened and the attack died down. For the rest of the morning the regiment, and in particular A Squadron whom the aircraft could not get at owing to the contour of the hill, busied themselves by annoying parties of Germans around the prison with machine-gun fire. This was at rather long range but it at least retarded the enemy's activities.
During the afternoon the enemy aircraft came again in support of an attack on Galatas. This attack developed round the Petrol Company positions on Pink Hill and the flank of B Squadron. In one place the enemy broke through the Petrol Company's left flank, occupied the summit of Pink Hill, and threatened the regiment's right. A counter-attack by a troop under Lieutenant Wynyard with a platoon of 19 Battalion and some fifty or sixty Greeks was organised.
The previous day Captain H. M. Smith12 of 23 Battalion, who spoke some Greek, and Captain Forrester had made arrangements with Major Russell to keep the Greeks together if possible and hold them in reserve.
When the Germans occupied the summit of Pink Hill they set up their machine guns in a cluster of cottages dominating the ASC positions, on the slopes facing Galatas, and also those of the regiment, though to a lesser degree owing to the greater density of trees there. Nevertheless Russell realised that the situation was very dangerous to his B Squadron flank and took Sergeant-Major Seccombe round by the outskirts of the village to see how Div Cav could participate in the attack on the position. On the way they met the Greeks, their ranks now swelled by a collection of civilians from Galatas, including even the page 97 village policeman complete with shotgun, and women and children. This party they led round the slopes of Pink Hill to a little sunken road that skirted Galatas and which was, at one place, about 200 yards from the summit of the hill. Here Russell turned to Seccombe and said: ‘We've got to try and clear the top of the hill. See what you can do.’ He then went back to his headquarters.
Seccombe led the Greeks along the road to find the best point to launch the attack. They attracted some fire from the hill which unsettled the Greeks a little. They were hard enough to control at any time, since Seccombe's only means of indicating his intention to them was through a junior officer who spoke a little English, and whom they questioned fiercely all the time. The point that Seccombe chose for the attack was partly sheltered by the slope of the hill, and at the time the Germans were occupied in firing at the Petrol Company's positions to the right. This was most fortunate, for when Seccombe gave the order to charge and rushed up the hill a few paces, nobody followed. The Greeks were still too busy arguing the situation. Seccombe went back and tried again. He repeated this performance four or five times until the whole situation was becoming quite farcical. Then all of a sudden, with eyes rolling and with bloodthirsty yells, they surged after him brandishing rifles, Tommy guns, carving knives, bayonets. Their impetus carried them up the hill and right amongst the houses on the summit. There was only a handful of Germans there, but very well armed. They did not see the attack coming, and not one survived.
Once wound up to go the Greeks could not be unwound. They got the smell of blood and wanted to slaughter every German in Crete; the last the infantry platoon and Alan Barton's13 Div Cav troop, who were in support, saw of them, some were still going, headed for the prison nearly a mile away.
From down below, the rest of the regiment watched this performance. They realised its importance to their positions and in their excitement they stood up, wildly cheering it on like a football match, while three of them, Sergeant-Majors Conway14 and Chambers15 and Trooper Dalton,16 climbed trees and brought deadly fire to bear on the retreating enemy.page 98
The day's fighting cost the unit two more men killed, Corporal McDowall17 and Corporal Marshall,18 and eight more wounded; but twenty-five enemy were reported killed and a number of mortars and machine guns, with ammunition, were captured.
A feature of the fighting round Galatas seemed to be the ‘morning counter-attack’. After breakfast there would be a drive to push the enemy machine-gun posts back towards the prison and generally to remind the Hun that they were still there. The Germans usually retired with but little persuasion, so the attacks did have a good effect on the morale of the men. From the very beginning everyone considered himself far superior to his enemies and was impatient for an attack that would clean out the whole valley, right to Alikianou.
Major Russell's personality was an inspiration to the men. He positively exuded confidence as he waddled about amongst them; he always had walked with a roll, and now with his gashed leg stiffening, he had a decided limp. Men would do anything for him. Even when they were down to smoking tea- leaves rolled up in airmail paper, one trooper parted willingly with his last precious Craven A which the major spotted and demanded—he was a discriminating smoker—with the remark that if the trooper wanted the cigarette as much as he did, he would have smoked it long since.
Perhaps he had his men too confident. Sometimes they took some holding.
But high morale does not last for ever and by the morning of the 23rd the men were more restrained, having had several days of fairly hard fighting. After watching the enemy bombardment of Canea and seeing him receiving supplies all the time, and with the cumulative effects of the strafing by the Luftwaffe, they were now content to hold what they had; they suffered the aerial bombing and the mortar fire with more patience, but they continued to resent any intrusion.
On the 24th it was decided that two men should be placed in some dead ground ahead of the FDLs19 to report on any forward movement. Troopers Dean20 and Kean21 volunteered page 99 for this job. They crept down with binoculars and a rifle to where they could get a good view of the prison. Dean climbed into a tree and presently sent Kean back to report a mortar detachment ‘setting up shop’. The Germans must have seen Dean for they began by bombing all around him. He stuck it out for as long as he could but had to make a run for it after they had landed a bomb in the far side of his tree. But later, undeterred, the same two men set out with the intention of keeping watch until after dark. This time they stayed on the ground. After a while some Germans appeared out of the bushes about thirty yards below them and set up a machine gun with which they began to fire up a gully towards Galatas. Since there was only one rifle between them, Dean decided to crawl back and borrow one of his troop's two Bren guns. The Germans became suspicious and turned their gun towards Kean. He hung on, but they were using explosive bullets and some of these burst in the branches above him, wounding him in the back and shoulder. He crawled back, but not before the Germans had decided that the area was too unhealthy for them.
Like all the other New Zealanders the Div Cav men were natural looters and, in attack or patrol, every man had an eye for enemy equipment. A patrol would arrive back with a gun and ammunition and by next day someone had mastered it, had instructed others in its operation, and had turned it against its rightful owners. ‘Watty’ Weir22 and ‘Snowy’ Nicholas23 earned fame for this. Nicholas sited his German gun a little behind the squadron lines where, for several days, he brought fire to bear round the German headquarters at the prison. Weir used his gun at great personal risk, and with such deadly effect during one attack which forced part of his squadron back, that he virtually halted the whole advance on his own, so allowing his mates to rally and organise a counter-attack which brought them back again into their original positions around him.
The 5th Brigade had been forced off the Maleme aerodrome by 22 May and from then on the troops had to watch, quite powerless to do anything about it, a stream of transport planes, seemingly endless and daily increasing in numbers, flying in low beyond Theodhoroi Island to deliver more troops and material to Crete.page 100
Bombing and ground strafing also became worse each day. Over came the Stukas, circled a while to pick signals from their own troops or to watch for their flares, then down they came, nose to tail as if playing a kind of perpendicular leapfrog, motors screaming hysterically, mad malice in the very upswept line of their wings. Their bellies disgorged bombs which wobbled a little in the air, then steadied, then howled as if in anguish as they curved down to earth to throw up great billows of ugly smoke from a final ‘crump’ that sent angry shards buzzing into the trees: and the revelled air punched the bodies on the ground, slapped their faces and plucked at their clothes.
As the intensity of the air attack increased and the German ground forces were reinforced, so the volume of their mortar and machine-gun fire increased. For its part Russell Force managed to a certain extent to cope with this crescendo. Throughout the morning of the 25th they suffered the heaviest air blitz of the whole campaign. A general attack began to develop from about midday onwards. First the Divisional Cavalry and Petrol Company positions, to the south of Galatas, were warmly engaged and, as the afternoon drew on, repeated infantry thrusts were made, stronger and stronger, against Petrol Company round Pink Hill and against 18 Battalion on Wheat Hill, nearer the coast. B and C Squadrons brought down enfilade fire on this flank, halting these thrusts and allowing the line to hold fast.
Eventually the attack overwhelmed one company of the 18th, and the enemy concentrated against this breach. A first counter-attack failed, but a second one did manage to stop it a little farther back. The rattle of machine-gun and rifle fire developed into a steady roar, punctuated with the ‘scream-and-bomp’ of the rapid mortar fire.
Towards evening the pressure against Div Cav began to increase until the troopers realised that they no longer needed to feel awed by the volume of fire raining down on their right; they were getting almost as much themselves.
Then suddenly Wheat Hill, the key to Galatas, was lost; abandoned with little or no warning. This exposed the centre of 18 Battalion's line and every man in the regiment, even though fully occupied with his own front, could tell that the 18th, somewhere, were falling back eastwards through Galatas, fighting stubbornly as they gave ground.page 101
By eight o'clock it appeared that the whole of the battalion was east of the village, because Div Cav, still heavily engaged on its own front, was beginning to surfer sniping from the village behind it. Be that as it may, the men of Petrol Company and Div Cav, left ‘in the air’ now with their right flank wide open, had been impressed with the stubbornness with which the 18th had fought back as they were forced to retire, and they were fully determined to follow the example. Russell sent word back to Colonel Kippenberger reporting his position, but since the enemy had eased the pressure a little, he continued to hang on.
Then, towards dark, the firing all around began to intensify and the mortars to whistle down again. B and C Squadrons still kept up heavy fire to deny the enemy access to their front and the ASC's, whilst about half of A Squadron was withdrawn and formed into a reserve. The Germans had had one experience of attacking the Petrol Company area through the enfilade fire from Div Cav and, not surprisingly, this had been enough. They remained content to answer with a fair amount of fire, from a sensible distance.
At last came the counter-attack into Galatas which would extricate these two units. Behind them, within the village itself, could be heard the unmistakable sound of two Vickers guns. Of all the British weapons, the Vickers gun is the easiest to distinguish because of its absolutely perfect rhythm—the rhythm that is so steadying to fluttering nerves and so demoralising to an enemy. These guns were in two tanks of 3 Hussars: Mark VIs, the very kind that Div Cav had wanted ever since it arrived in Egypt. Their firing stopped for a while and then, after a gap of twenty minutes or half an hour, started again accompanied by the uproar of a bayonet charge.
Now immortal for its ferocity, this attack by two companies of 23 Battalion and parties of 18 and 20 Battalions was designed to retake Galatas and re-form the line, or if that were impossible, at least to extricate the units still there. But though the village was regained, it was yielded again on divisional orders during the night, and the men reluctantly retired. A shorter line had been established to the east.
Major Russell and Captain Rowe,24 in command of the Divisional Petrol Company, had been firmly resisting a vindictive enemy all the afternoon and, by the evening, they had page 102 no justification to hold on much longer. They therefore withdrew, the Divisional Cavalry taking the eastwards route on to Church Hill behind 19 Battalion. The withdrawal was anything but easy as there were planes overhead waiting to pounce on anything that moved, and the men had to work up along a ridge exposed to machine-gun fire from the enemy north of Galatas. They suffered five casualties, including Lieutenant J. G. Wynyard, who had his lower jaw shattered by a bullet.
By the time it was fully dark all three squadrons were on Church Hill and for some hours they dug positions there.
At one o'clock in the morning of the 26th they were ordered to join what was left of 21 Battalion, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Allen,25 on the main coast road, about half-way between Canea and Galatas. Colonel Allen formed a position in two lines which straddled the road. The battalion, now reduced more or less to one company strength, was south of the road and nearest Galatas with C Squadron in support. On the other side of the road was a company of New Zealand Engineers supported by A Squadron. A few hundred yards behind C Squadron was a company of 20 Battalion, and across the road, between there and the beach, was B Squadron.
These positions were on a feature which became nicknamed ‘Hellfire Hill’—and rightly so. The Divisional Cavalry arrived there after a night's digging, followed by a long tiresome march in the dark with no food and very little water. Like everybody else they were now far from fighting fit. All through that day they were bombed from the air and mortared from the ground, and machine-gunned from both.
The Germans had, under a flag of truce as it seemed, set up a machine-gun post on the right flank. This caused many casualties among the men as they tried to take shelter under the grape vines. In the area was a CCS in a building, and during the morning an emissary was sent up from there to tell Div Cav that if they did not remove their right forward machine-gun post, the enemy, in their efforts to knock it out, would endanger this hospital.
So the post had to go, leaving the engineer company, already very tired, in an exposed position and unable to retaliate, to suffer punishment and casualties by heavy mortaring from the direction of Galatas. The Divisional Cavalry lost two killed, page 103 Sergeant Edwards26 and Corporal G. W. Smith,27 and several wounded, during the day. For this punishment all they could claim by way of retaliation was a motor-cycle combination knocked out by an anti-tank rifle and several snipers liquidated. They had, however, with the use of their machine guns, prevented the enemy from getting round the right flank during the middle of the morning.
It was a terrible day, the 26th, and one can imagine the depth of feeling which prompted Alex Atchison to write in his diary:
‘We could see the Huns bringing up mortars but could do very little about it. Late in the afternoon he began plastering us so that we were pleased when darkness came. A long—long day. Hell from the air.’
Darkness that night eased the strain on only a few of the senses. After midnight, together with 21 Battalion, the troopers marched back six or seven miles to arrive near Suda Bay at four in the morning. They passed through an area where parachutists had been dropped on the first day of the attack, only a week—but a week of ages—ago. These parachutists had been completely wiped out, and for some hundreds of yards the men marched through the stink of rotting flesh. Overhead the Luftwaffe still hovered like vultures. Unlike vultures they were not content to wait for death but did all they could to hurry it along. As if resolved to force their prey to collapse and die of mental exhaustion, the planes continuously dropped parachute flares which lit the place like day. Nerves now taut with the week's punishment seemed to knot up inside, until they could almost be felt physically, like twisted rubber bands; and nothing did those torturing aircraft do but drop their fiendish flares to hang in the sky while they flew back for more.
‘All that day we had longed for darkness—and all that night we prayed for daylight to release us from this ruthless persecution.’
The 21st Battalion took up a position at 42nd Street. This was a track near Suda Bay. It took its name from the 42nd Field Company, RE, which had been working on supply routes and dumps in this neighbourhood for some months. The Divisional Cavalry was again the reserve for the battalion here. page 104 Until daylight some men dug themselves in. Others, physically more tired—or stronger in the nerves—preferred to take their chance by day and stole some sleep.
Daylight on the 27th brought little attention from the enemy, but by eight o'clock he began to press forward again. Ammunition was running short and, what was worse, men were thirsty and hungry. The day was hot, but despite their parched throats the men still worked to improve their trenches. Here they did at least have shovels. At Suda Bay there were more shovels than they had ever dreamt of and they used them willingly, remembering a long week ago when they had bruised their fingers and barked their knuckles and broken their nails wrenching up rocks at Galatas to make shelter.
The line now ran almost due south from the most western point of Suda Bay. Touching the sea and in front of Suda village itself were 19 Australian Infantry Brigade, and on its left was 5 New Zealand Brigade.
In the middle of the morning the enemy infantry began to make contact with this line and, by 10.30 a.m., had arrived in strength. The 19th, 28 (Maori), and 23 Battalions, together with 2/7 Australian Battalion, counter-attacked with the bayonet and pushed the enemy back a full three-quarters of a mile along the whole front. Some men of Div Cav followed the Maoris in. Many of them had no bayonets but, considering whom they were supporting, this was a negligible worry. The Maoris were only too thorough in their work. The Divisional Cavalry had no need for bayonets; many German dead were left on the field from the fire of their rifles and machine guns.
On the night of the 26th two battalions of Commandos had been landed at Suda Bay, too late to help defend Crete, but not too late to help cover the withdrawal of the forces already there. By the afternoon of the 27th the Australian and New Zealand line, running south from the coast, consisted of 19 Australian Brigade, 21 Battalion with Div Cav in reserve, 19 Battalion and 22 Battalion. Now there was a danger that the Germans would make a drive in an easterly direction, south of 22 Battalion, and cut off the only line of retreat to the south coast—the road across the hills to Sfakia.
A general move towards Stilos, on the road to Sfakia, was ordered after dark on the 27th. The Divisional Cavalry was amongst the first to be drawn back. At nine o'clock the men began to move towards Stilos, arriving there at 4 a.m. They formed the extreme right of a defensive line, with 23 Battalion page 105 on their left and 19 Battalion to the left again. Here they managed to catch some sleep until daylight. Nothing much happened on the ground in the morning until the enemy opened fire on 19 Battalion about eight o'clock. Before this there was a certain amount of activity in the air, but by this time everybody had become inured to air attack. Men had become filled with a sluggish disregard for aircraft—a sort of desperation of weariness—and considered only the enemy on the ground. Against him at least they had a chance to retaliate.
About 10 a.m., A and C Squadrons made contact with enemy patrols moving across their front and prepared to make a counter-attack. They were moving out over some flat country with plenty of cover in swampy ground that wet some of them up to their bellies, when orders were received to withdraw through Vrises towards Sfakia. Each squadron left its LMGs to cover its withdrawal. When they had done this the LMG crews covered each other's retirement: some guns fired over the whole front as the others moved back and took up new positions, whence they in turn could give covering fire. The last two gun-crews were nearly cut off, but they escaped by wading down a canal and were rescued by two tanks which happened along at the critical moment, and upon which they clambered after a desperate sprint.
During this action there were three casualties to mortar fire, of whom Trooper Weight28 was killed and Trooper Graham,29 wounded, died later as a prisoner of war. A timely diversion probably prevented a greater number of casualties. A large column of Italian prisoners of war, who had been held in Crete, had been let loose and they went straggling down the road towards the German lines, inadvertently blocking, at the critical moment, the enemy's line of fire.
So the last, and worst, march began. There was a long and gruelling climb ahead of the retreating troops. Overhead the Luftwaffe was not active—fortunately so—for had there been any strafing, many would have been killed. The men were too tired to care: too tired to be frightened: too tired to take cover. They marched until 2.30 p.m., when they reached a small village at the foot of the pass where they halted and lay dispersed under cover. About an hour before dark they began to climb the pass, slowly and painfully. The columns in front page 106 were constantly halting. When this happened, try as they might to prevent it, some would fall asleep, officers and men, and it was difficult to keep the troops together and moving.
Lieutenant Atchison writes of this march:
‘At 6 p.m. we started the up grade over the mountain towards Sphakia. A great number of the boys had sore feet, and just wanted to sleep, not caring what happened. I felt proud of my troop.
‘Sometimes ahead of me I noticed some of them carrying two rifles and supporting some poor devil who had all but thrown in the towel.
‘At times we in the rear were not too gentle with poor chaps who had given up hope and just wanted to sleep till the enemy caught up with them.
‘It was a gruelling night, but very peaceful as far as noise was concerned—no shots, no aircraft.’
About the middle of the night they reached the top of the pass and laid up in some deserted houses where they stayed most of the next day, the 29th. Again, men just slept where they fell. They pooled their rations and had one meagre meal: about two biscuits and a sip of water to each man. Here Major Harford took over command. Major Russell, not before he had been assured that his men would be evacuated the following night, allowed himself to be taken off. Together with some walking wounded, he had succeeded in reaching the top of the hill only by pure grit. They had managed to hitch-hike a little as there were a few vehicles of sorts going up; but guts—the will to win—had got them there.
When men are hard-pressed there are always some characters which rise above all difficulties to bear the others up with them. Of such was John Russell.
Another, though less conspicuous figure, was Lieutenant J. W. Reeves, ‘Hellfire Jack’ or ‘Jeeves’, the quartermaster for the campaign. He was a born ‘scrounger’. On the first wild evening at Galatas he found some old benzine tins and the ingredients for a soupy stew, which he dispensed to everybody when darkness had spread its comforting mantle and the reaction was just setting in after the fury of the day's fighting. All that week he spun out the meagre rations so that the cook could put them to their best use. Then, on the final punishing, thirsty march over the hills, he rose to his best occasion. He walked miles on raw and blistered feet looking for water—and page 107 found it. It was in an old well and somewhat foul, and all he could find to put it in were some filthy tins; but to the men, as they filed past him and drank and filled their bottles, it was Elysian nectar. Jack Reeves had found the something that spurred their failing strength enough to finish the journey.
A fairy godmother usually does act inconspicuously. There was another like Jack Reeves who was now more or less voluntarily in enemy hands. He was Jim Cameron,30 medical corporal from C Squadron. At Galatas, Jim took over a little brick hut which was used for drying olives. It was very close to the road that ran past Pink Hill to the prison. In this building, which was exposed to all the bombing and machine-gunning and which attracted as much or more than its share, he tended the wounded. After the charge on Pink Hill the hut was full and overfull of wounded and dying. The doctor was elsewhere, so Jim acted as doctor, nurse and orderly to friend and enemy alike. He stayed with them when Galatas was overrun, and later, after the evacuation, was taken to Kalivia. Here again he continued to tend the wounded until he was taken away to the mainland of Greece.
In doing all this he gave everything that was his best. He had a heart great in proportion to his stature and it was set in the right place. To stay with the wounded must have broken his heart, so that one part went with his friends who escaped the island while the other remained to maintain life until the end of the war, through the years of anguished longing for freedom.
The Divisional Cavalry rested throughout most of the 30th on top of the range, the men taking what shelter they could from the hot sun and gazing towards the cool sea. Each one could have drunk a gallon without drawing breath. A check revealed the regiment's strength at this stage to be 14 officers and 105 other ranks. Apart from the ten killed in action, one more, Trooper Seaton,31 died of wounds while a prisoner of war. Seven more were to be lost as prisoners of war and with them another nine wounded. One man reported missing later escaped the island and came back to Egypt. There had been 4 officers and 36 other ranks wounded and some of them were still with the unit.
While they were resting, Divisional Cavalry was given orders that it was to act as rearguard to 19 Australian Brigade, but page 108 later the orders were countermanded and the men slept in the same positions till five o'clock the next morning. Then they began to move down towards the coast, hundreds of feet below, near to Force Headquarters.
A few vehicles had come over the mountains with the first troops. These had been bombed and set on fire and the charred remains of bodies were scattered about and in the twisted metal. The sight of these and the horrible smell of decay made everyone wonder at the inactivity of the Luftwaffe. The retiring troops perhaps were not the only tired men on the island.
Down near Force Headquarters there were wells, and as the men settled amongst the pine trees on the rocky hillside, all who could were ordered to shave.
There was water to drink. And food: from where, Heaven only knows, but Jack Reeves had gleaned some—about three teaspoonfuls of M & V per man or a 12-ounce tin of bully beef to seven men. Some found a few broad beans in a garden and ate them raw.
The last day on Crete can best be described directly from Alex Atchison's diary:
‘… from a nearby well we drank our fill and filled water- bottles. The water cheered everyone considerably. We rested all morning.
‘In the afternoon 20 O/R's and an Officer from each squadron were asked to go back up the mountain to reinforce the position there.
‘When my troop volunteered to a man I could do nothing else but volunteer too. We built up the 20 O/R's from other troops and started up the mountain….’
Just imagine their tired legs starting to tremble with the strain on the way up and forcing them to rest!
‘… Robbie32 took the A Squadron boys. The hours up there seemed like days particularly when we thought we would be staying there. Excepting for m.g. fire going over our heads occasionally there wasn't much doing.
‘After dark we were withdrawn and moved back to our units. I felt happy. Later in the night we marched over the rocky country to Sphakia. We had a small meal yesterday and nothing but water and two biscuits today. My boots are through to my feet.page 109
‘Shortly after midnight we boarded barges and were taken out to the H.M.S. Abdiel, a modern mine-layer in commission only a few months.
‘Only organised parties could be taken off. We passed through a unit with fixed bayonets to keep the odds and sods off. It seemed hard on them.
‘The ship's crew gave us biscuits and hot cocoa. It seemed the best meal we had ever had. Afterwards the Officers brought us whiskey and offered us their beds. Everyone was so tired that I am sure those who slept on the floor were just as happy as the ones with beds.
‘At 4.30 a.m. the ship moved off and so ended Crete for us: but what of the poor devils still there?’
3 Meat and vegetable stew.
19 Forward Defended Localities.