CHAPTER 8 — Crete
The bulk of Petrol Company reached Crete on 26 April, minus trucks and other equipment. Seven other ranks found their way back to Egypt; two small detachments, away petrol-hunting when the main exodus began, turned up on Crete two days later, in HMS Kingston and HMAS Perth. For Petrol Company the passage was swift and uneventful. The whole evacuation provided a classic example of the skill, daring and endurance of the Royal Navy. Winston Churchill writes:
The organised withdrawal of over fifty thousand men from Greece under the conditions prevailing might well have seemed an almost hopeless task…. At Dunkirk on the whole we had air mastery. In Greece the Germans were in complete and undisputed control of the air and could maintain an almost continuous attack on the ports and on the retreating Army.1
That so many got safely away is also due largely to successful delaying tactics by the New Zealand Division, which fought stern rearguard actions throughout the long retreat.
Churchill again pays graceful tribute:
Everyone in Britain has watched with gratitude and admiration the grand fighting deeds of the New Zealand Division upon the ever-famous battlefields of Greece. It is only gradually that we have learned and are learning the full tale, and the more the accounts come in the more we realise the vital part you played in a task of honour and a deed of fame. Throughout the whole Empire and the English-speaking world the name of New Zealand is saluted.2
Petrol Company's share in that ‘task of honour and deed of fame’ has already been described–the weeks of hazardous driving by day and by night to bring out men and materials; the control and delivery of POL when supplies were plentiful; the unremitting search over wide areas when supply lines had failed and the Division, hard-pressed, was ‘scratching’ for page 104 petrol. And now, deprived of their trucks, with no bayonets, no entrenching tools, few automatic weapons, and hardly enough rifles to go round, Petrol Company were scheduled to play an unrehearsed part in yet another deed of fame—the defence, as infantrymen, of the island of Crete.
From the defence angle, that island was woeful. It faced the wrong way round. Its one main road ran east-west roughly parallel to the northern coastline, a length of about 160 miles. Along it were strung the vital airfields of Maleme, Retimo and Heraklion, the main port at Suda, and the chief town, Canea. All were wide open to air and sea attack from the large German forces now massing in southern Greece, while the eastern end lay within easy striking distance of Italian bases in the Dodecanese Islands. Supplies and reinforcements had to run the gauntlet and land in the north, since the southern coast lacked harbours. Inland the island was mountainous, with steep gorges and serrated ranges rising to 6000 feet, making communications, other than by the coast road, extremely difficult.
Obviously, the key-points in any pattern of defence would be the three airfields plus the Suda-Canea area. Each had to be self-contained and self-supporting. With the shortage of transport and connecting routes there was no way of moving central reserves to a threatened point once the main road was cut and held by the enemy. Such was the situation which faced General Freyberg when, on 30 April, he was charged with the task of defending Crete. His Creforce, as it was called, consisted of 42,500 British, Greek and Imperial troops, plus from 4000 to 5000 unarmed Cypriots and Palestinians. For good measure there were many unarmed stragglers from Greece, 15,000 Italian prisoners, and the King of the Hellenes. An additional headache was a civilian population of 400,000 who, because of the blockade, now had great difficulty in providing their own sustenance.
But with Petrol Company, spilling out in the sunshine on to Suda's single wharf, such questions of broad strategy weighed little. For them this sunny island, with its blue skies, snowy mountains, green fields and pleasant olive groves meant rest, and a haven from the hammering Luftwaffe and the pursuing Wehrmacht. True, an air-raid warning greeted their arrival; page 105 but nothing came of it, so they piled in happily with the stream of assorted soldiery—men from a dozen different countries wearing the motley remnants of a score of different uniforms— straggling through the dusty streets of Suda. Beyond the town were pleasant roadside cafés, and white cottages with gardens and smiling villagers who plied the troops with wine and oranges. Here all was peace and friendship—or so it seemed.
Their first staging place was an assembly point two or three miles from Suda. There the troops queued up for a scanty handout of bread and cheese, one tin of bully to every three men, and unlimited quantities of army biscuit. They ate with their fingers, then scavenged for empty tins to hold their issue of tea. Here the sick and wounded were sorted out for evacuation. The remainder marched westward to a transit ‘camp’ lacking tents, blankets, bedding; it had no buildings, no cooking facilities, no tools to dig latrines or bury refuse. The men were allocated in groups to mighty olive trees, each bearing a number, beneath whose gnarled trunks they sank down to sleep, or to watch the friendly stars as they twinkled through the branches. On this first trek, Padre Hiddlestone3 had managed to hire himself a fiacre—Cretan version of the Egyptian gharry—and so he proceeded with dignity and ease.
In the general ‘shemozzle’ of the evacuation 6 NZ Infantry Brigade had been directed back to Egypt without the knowledge of our GOC—a serious loss, and one deeply felt when the fighting developed. Thus New Zealand troops on Crete consisted of two battered infantry brigades; several hundred artillery- men without guns (they eventually acquired some); 1100 ASC personnel without trucks; seven officers and 180 other ranks of Divisional Signals; some personnel of Divisional Cavalry and 27 MG Battalion; three companies of engineers; medical details, and an assorted group of specialists, most of whom were evacuated, along with about fifty New Zealand nursing sisters, early in the piece. As OC troops for one group of evacuees went Major Dickson, the command of Petrol Company then passing to Captain McDonagh. Dickson recalls that one of the first men he met on returning to Egypt was the page 106 Company's keenest gambler, who generously offered the major a partnership in his flourishing crown-and-anchor business.
Petrol Company's next move was to Ay Marina, farther along the road towards Maleme. Shuffling alongside our own marching cohorts went two shaggy Tommies, one bearing a Lewis gun, the other a field telephone. They were quickly pounced on by a pukka British officer from the original Crete garrison, who made unfriendly comment: ‘Soldier! You haven't shaved or washed today!’ Whereupon some of Petrol Company, themselves for the most part unshaven and unkempt, chanted in unison: ‘You dirty-looking B—s! You dirty-looking B—s!’
At Ay Marina, on 28 April, Petrol Company was decanted and rebottled as part of an infantry battalion made up of the 1100 NZASC men. This formation—a short-lived one—had Major McGuire as OC and Captain Hood4 as Adjutant. Its members had been issued two days earlier with rations, blankets, and ammunition. They were now allotted a sector to defend against possible invasion by paratroops. But business in that line was slack at the time; and even among the officers few really thought it a serious possibility. Our drivers stood-to at dusk and at dawn; they mounted guard, went out on patrol. They took a fresh interest in oil-bottle and pull-through, kept their barrels shiny, their bolts as laid down in the Little Red Book—‘clean, bright and slightly oiled’. Some, at times, got slightly oiled themselves (the wine of the country proving a suitable lubricant) during visits to Canea or the local hostelries. Some played poker for imaginary piastres. Others found time to write letters home.
A few lines to let you know I am still well and have weathered the storm so far. I expect you have heard Haw-Haw say where we are.
Had to go out on a ration party last night; arrived back in camp at 2 a.m., after scrambling over the hills for four hours with a kerosene tin full of rations in either hand, rifle over your back, tin-hat sometimes on your head, but mostly rolling down the slopes and you after it.page 107
We are now in an olive-grove. A local has just come along with a jar of red wine, probably grape. It is a bit tart, but there is no charge—just help yourself—so what more could anyone ask?
The nicest thing about this little place is the oranges. They are the thick-skinned type and are delicious. You can buy them at two for five drachmas (2½d) and sometimes cheaper. I have a dozen right here, and have had several since lunch.
We are still on the move–three shifts yesterday—and have been here a week and never slept in the same spot twice. Pack up and away at ten minutes' notice–not that we have much to pack: overcoat, groundsheet, one blanket. Some have a change of clothing, but most not. I have, as I brought more away with me than most. It has been a bit of a load, but I did not like dumping it. I still have H—'s scarf, B—'s balaclava, and Mrs S—'s mittens. They take up room, and have hardly been worn, but I hated parting with them. Also, a little something for you and R— that I have carried since Egypt and never had a chance of posting as there has been no parcel mail sent out. But I am hoping to get them away soon now.
We are now camped in an olive-grove, the trees larger than usual, about the size of a big apple-tree, and planted in rows, about 10 yards either way. Underneath are grape plants, also in rows, 4 ft either way and about 10 ft from the base of the tree. The grapes are only about 3 ft high, the old plants 18 inches, and the new shoots up to 2 feet. They are cut back each year as soon as they have finished bearing. They are now all loaded with small clumps of fruit, and the locals are taking the tips out of the shoots. This is a very fertile place in the valleys between the hills and ranges, which are stony, and practically bare.
There is a huge well about 3 chains away—our only water. It is about 20 ft across and has an endless chain and small buckets, like the old dredge at New Plymouth. The water is very cool and rather nice.
We have had no mail yet, and no news. It is like being in a lost world here…. Eggs have been scarce lately; an old lady was demonstrating to us how they have to wait for the hens to lay. It was too funny! (Later)… our mail has arrived at last. I got 15 letters and 3 cables…. We had a wet night the one before last; it rained nearly all night and we were pretty well soaked. All you could do was curl up in your groundsheet and wait for the dawn. It broke fine, and at 7 a.m. the sun came out, so all turned out all right….
There was a lot of activity here last night—he was over nearly all night and dropped a lot of bombs, out at the harbour, I should think. The AA guns gave him a pretty hot reception and the searchlights were going. It was like a huge Guy Fawkes.page 108
The defence sector allocated to the New Zealand Division (now under command of Brigadier Puttick) extended westward from Canea to the Maleme airfield, a distance of ten miles. In depth this sector varied from a mile and a half to three miles, the space restricted by a valley to the rear which ran south-west from Canea and passed behind the village of Galatas. Fifth Brigade under Brigadier Hargest undertook the defence of the Maleme territory while the sector's second fortress area, centred on Galatas, became the responsibility of a new formation—10 Infantry Brigade under Colonel Kippenberger— which included Divisional Petrol Company. Fourth Brigade filled the role of Creforce Reserve.
On 29 April, the day after its formation, NZASC Battalion had been disbanded and Petrol Company, now under command of Captain McDonagh, became attached for a time to 5 Brigade. By 4 May the NZASC was incorporated in yet another outfit known as Oakes Force. By 15 May Petrol Company was again shuffled and re-dealt (for the last time) as part of 10 Brigade's Composite Battalion, commanded by Major Lewis.5 The battalion also included groups from RMT, Supply Column, and 4 and 5 Field Regiments. Other units of 10 Brigade were 20 Battalion (operationally under control of the New Zealand Division, since it formed the Divisional Reserve), 6 and 8 Greek Regiments, and a New Zealand Divisional Cavalry detachment of three squadrons, used as infantry.
Tenth Brigade's task was to garrison the defences built on high ground in the Galatas area and to guard the approach to Canea from the west. It had the further responsibility of destroying any hostile troops which might land in the valley behind the Divisional sector. Tenth Brigade's right flank pivoted on the sea coast about a mile and a half west of 7 General Hospital, 1800 yards north of Galatas. From there the line swung south-west along Ruin Ridge through vineyards for a distance of about 2000 yards to Wheat Hill, a high feature which dominated the whole line about 1000 yards west of Galatas. Thence the defences continued south-east to Pink Hill, immediately south of the village.
The danger to these southern positions lay in the amount of level country, with plenty of good cover, which the Prison Valley afforded for the landing of German parachutists and other airborne troops. The valley was a ‘natural’ for the concentration of enemy forces intent on cutting off our troops in the Maleme area. That could be done by a strong thrust northward to the coast—a distance of only a mile or two— through Galatas. The valley could also be used by enemy troops for a direct attack on the Canea-Suda sector. In either case the Divisional Petrol positions would lie directly in the Germans' path and would need to be eliminated.
On B Section's front, less than half a mile away, was the prison itself. Its commanding position and square solid walls, impregnable to our own light arms, provided a ready-made bastion which should have been denied to the enemy. Yet no attempt was made to occupy it, probably through deference to the civilian authorities—a squeamishness not shared by the prison's commandant, who proved to be pro-German.
Two miles down the valley, near its western end (and theoretically ‘commanding’ it) were the Divisional Cavalry, now on foot of course, and 8 Greek Regiment, holding isolated positions which would certainly be overwhelmed by any large-scale landing. Divisional Cavalry had orders to withdraw through Galatas if they could not hold out. The Greeks, numbering 900, were a ‘scratch’ formation of very recent vintage, armed with ancient Steyer rifles from which they had fired only ten rounds apiece by way of musketry training. The Greek CO was ineffective and a New Zealander, Major Cliff Wilson,6 was their actual commander. Sixth Greek Regiment, page 111 1400 strong but with only four weeks' service, occupied positions on high country south-east of Galatas. They were commanded by Colonel Gregarios, a staunch and loyal soldier; but none had yet fired a single round from his rifle. Each man carried only three rounds, and ammunition sent up to them the night before the attack remained for some reason undistributed.
In addition to these local considerations, the southern sector shared in the general defence weaknesses—lack of air support, no transport, poor communications, no heavy armament, and insufficient fighting men to defend strategic points. Nevertheless, Petrol Company made the best of the terrain allotted them. They occupied trenches—much too wide, as it turned out, when the mortars began lobbing, and only waist deep— previously dug by I Welch Regiment. With the help of our sappers (who taught Petrol Company how to make grenades out of empty milk-tins) they erected barbed wire in front of their positions. To block the important Galatas road, which ran alongside B Section's cookhouse and marked the flank of the Company's main positions, they had dragged up three big pine trees, felled in the face of voluble protests from their Cretan owner.
Living conditions in this sector were strange and primitive. Food was cooked in cut-down petrol tins, over open fires for which the men gathered logs from the fields, or tore off branches from nearby olive trees. Rations consisted of the inevitable bully, with sometimes a sparse issue of tinned carrots and potatoes, and very occasionally a tin of fruit. Fresh oranges were available, and sometimes eggs, though these were more often privately acquired by men who were willing to barter their small issue of cigarettes—woodbines at that time. There were daily patrols through the olive groves and the much-trampled fields of young wheat and barley. The crops provided bedding of a sort for an alfresco existence made tolerable only by the mildness of the climate and the season of the year—late spring. Still, the nights were very cold, and downpours of rain often added to the general discomfort. Some men built themselves crude huts, Robinson Crusoe style, from twigs and branches.page 112
While our troops were thus adapting themselves in one sector or another on Crete, the Hun had not been idle. He built new airfields in Greece and on the island of Melos. From these he launched attacks on Maleme and Heraklion, and on Allied ships carrying stores and reinforcements from Egypt. As in Greece, his numerical superiority enabled him quickly to knock out the RAF, and by 18 May our operational aircraft on the island had been reduced to four Hurricanes and three Gladiators. And since there was no hope of reinforcing them, these were flown back to Egypt next day. Allied shipping took a severe pounding, and by 19 May there were thirteen vessels lying sunk or damaged in Suda Bay. Under such conditions supplies of local labour for unloading cargoes soon faded out, so the New Zealanders formed their own dock parties and carried on.
Most ominous, however, for the defenders of Crete was the steady build-up in southern Greece of German airborne troops. Our Intelligence estimated these to number between 5000 and 6000, in addition to equally formidable forces preparing to invade by sea. The scale of air support for the expected invasion—thought to be due on 16 May—was reckoned at about 315 heavy bombers, 60 twin-engined fighters, 240 dive-bombers and 270 single-engined fighters. As it happened, the enemy assault did not develop, as expected, on 16 May, Jerry continuing to hold his hand and contenting himself with a solid air pounding of Suda on 19 May and a savage blitz against the defences of Maleme and Heraklion. On Tuesday, 20 May, the show really opened, shortly after sunrise on a bright, cloudless day. And from that time the ‘all clear’ was not heard again on Crete.
The attack found Petrol Company well prepared. Battle positions had been carefully sited, the procedure for manning them rehearsed. As the first enemy aircraft zoomed overhead, shedding parachutists and towing troop-laden gliders, men from the five sections moved to their defence posts without confusion or delay. Driver Johnson,7 of B Section, writes:
At the time of the invasion (approx 0800 hrs on 20th May) I was having a wash. My first thought on seeing a bomber coming over, page 113 towing seven gliders, was that the invasion had started in earnest. I went to my fire-position which was a two-man slit trench.
Then the troop-carrying planes came up the valley from the south and started dropping paratroops. As the range was roughly twelve hundred yards it was useless firing on them so we just sat tight and watched proceedings.
About a half-hour after dropping the first paratroopers the enemy had a mortar firing on our positions. I noticed a German on the top of Cemetery Hill and as he was making signals by Very pistol I surmised that he was a spotter for their mortars.
I tried a shot at him but had to fire four shots in all to get the range (700 yds). On the fifth shot I skittled him. He was replaced immediately by another. I got three spotters in all, then the spotters got a bit shrewd and either took cover or shifted post, as I did not see any more.
Then the troop-carriers came, towing gliders that were uncoupled overhead. He next strafed all around our area, for about ten minutes to half an hour. I made for my action post, which was the last of B Section as it joined onto C Section area.
I stayed there picking them off as they advanced towards the barbed wire. Then I noticed four Jerries pulling at a white parachute; they were putting in a machine-gun. I opened fire, and got a lovely reply.
A sniper opened up, then a mortar. They were dropping all around my position. They finally got the machine-gun going and concentrated on me. Lieut McPhail was coming along in front of me when the sniper got him in the leg. About 20 minutes after that a mortar blew me out of my trench.
While this was going on in B Section's area, a machine-gun outpost under Corporal Trevelyan, forward of the wire about midway between the prison and the village of Galatas, came in for a hot time. This detachment comprised Drivers Baldwin,9 J. S. Plumtree,10 Holland,11 Lawton,12 Eckersley,13 Peel- page 114 Walker,14 C. Neilson15 and Piper.16 Their report follows:
At approximately 0800 hrs on the 20th May, 1941, a party of nine of us were holding an anti-tank rifle and bren-gun position some 300 yds back from the jail in front of the Greek lines when we were forced to take cover on account of large numbers of enemy aircraft which were concentrating on the area surrounding the jail. They were flying very low and machine-gunning the area.
Following closely were gliders and numerous troop-carrying planes from which parachute troops descended in large numbers and we most certainly accounted for many with our rifles. They landed on three sides of our position and within fifteen minutes were throwing hand grenades at our slit trench. We soon realised that it was useless to remain in this position and decided to retire to our own unit some 300 yds to the rear.
If it had not been for the covering fire of Dvr Eckersley's bren-gun I am afraid very few if any of us would have come out alive. After reporting to Sgt Hopley we took up positions with our own B Section.
At the first opportunity we checked up on our party and found that Dvr D. Piper was missing and we fear that he was killed during our retirement as he has not been seen since. Another member, Dvr W. Holland, was severely wounded on arrival back at B Section area.
For approximately six hours the hill was subject to heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, during which time many casualties17 were inflicted on our section. Among these were, Killed: Capt McDonagh, Sgt Hopley, Dvrs E. T. H. Toner, G. Parnell, E. Isherwood; Wounded: Lieut McPhail, 2/Lieut Jackson, Sgt McNae, L/Cpl R. Orr, Dvrs W. Dunn, W. Smithson, B. Standen.
At approximately 1600 hrs we received the order from CSM James to retire to C Section area as our own area was considered untenable. We retired under heavy machine-gun and mortar fire carrying our wounded with us down to the RAP.
Corporal Trevelyan's group had come under fire from HQ and 9 Company of III Battalion, 3 Parachute Regiment, led by the battalion's CO, Major Heilmann. German records reveal that this group had landed by mistake south-east of Galatas instead of east of it; and only by determined action in which their page 115 grenades and machine pistols came into use were they able to dislodge the Petrol Company detachment and gain a footing on Cemetery Hill. The regiment's commander, Colonel Heidrich, had himself landed with a signals group near the prison about 9 a.m., and from there he directed the attack on Petrol Company's Pink Hill positions, sending in 5 and 12 Companies and probably part of 9 Company.
A German CSM wrote of this attack:
In the afternoon between 1400 and 1500 hours we advanced to attack the hill of Galatos (Pink Hill). We proceeded, without opposition, about halfway up the hill. Suddenly we ran into heavy and very accurate rifle and machine-gun fire. The enemy had held their fire with great discipline and had allowed us to approach well within effective range before opening up. Our casualties were extremely heavy and we were forced to retire leaving many dead behind us…. This first attack on Galatos had cost us approximately 50 per cent casualties, about half of whom were killed.
Events in C Section on this first day of the attack followed much the same pattern as in B Section. Parachutists concentrating in the area during the morning's ‘first flurry’ were met by a disciplined and devastating fire which forced them to withdraw, leaving many dead. In this encounter Driver Stanger,18 on the Bren gun, did notable work, followed by similar execution, later on, with a Spandau that he brought in after a lone-wolf prowl by night. As the morning advanced a heavy mortar got C Section's range, causing many casualties. Sergeant Taaffe was wounded, and the two corporals, N. M. Stewart19 and J. K. Bailic,20 took over, handling the section very ably.
Casualties, mainly from mortar fire from Cemetery Hill (where the Germans had succeeded in dislodging the Greeks and establishing themselves) and from rifles and machine guns in the prison area, were growing now in B Section. Captain McDonagh, directing operations there, was mortally wounded. This was a severe loss. A fearless and inspiring commander, page 116 McDonagh had been moving among his sections, cheering the men with such pleasantries as ‘The duck season's opened a bit late boys, but there's good shooting now’, and taking photographs of the descending parachutists. Lieutenant Macphail took over, but he too was soon badly wounded. Second-Lieutenant Jackson then assumed command, until he in his turn was hit, first in the hand, then in the head. Driver R. H. Johnson supplies the following account:
B Section were entrenched on the right of Galatos facing the prison when the invasion commenced. At approximately 1200 hrs on the 20th of May 2/Lieut Jackson was making his way back to the R.A.P. with a shattered wrist. As he passed my trench which was in an exposed position he fell, and as he fell, a German sniper, who had been causing considerable damage, opened fire on him; although the bullets did not make a direct hit, being of an explosive nature, the shrapnel from same hit Mr Jackson about the right eye and temple. I managed to drag the Lieut to the comparative safety of my trench, where I bandaged his wounds and applied a tourniquet. I was not able to get Mr Jackson back to the R.A.P. for some time as the enemy sniper wasn't a new chum with a rifle, and any movement on my part was greeted with a stream of exploding bullets. At approximately 1530 hrs, with the aid of Dvr Gradon,21 Dvr Kinnuman22 and Dvr Hatchard we were able to get Mr Jackson out of my trench and on the way back to the R.A.P. I kept up a rapid fire on where I had reason to believe the sniper was, and managed to draw his fire till they were out of his range.
Previous to this at about 1400 hrs we had been told to retire to C Section's lines.
Shortly the enemy fire slackened off enough to warrant a dash for it. Dvr Gradon and myself dashed up the hill behind our position on the top of the hill. Amongst some cactus plants we found four of our section wounded. Dvr Gradon and I managed to assist one man over the hill to safety and told the others we would send help. We got to a dressing station where I inquired after Mr Jackson and his assistants, to be told that they had not yet arrived. I retraced our tracks till I found them and we brought Mr Jackson to the dressing station, where we acquired a stretcher and conveyed him to the R.A.P.
From the R.A.P. I went to the 7th General Hospital as Rifleman on the truck taking the wounded. At the hospital I assisted in the page 117 amputation of Mr Jackson's hand. The amputation was done by Major Christie.23
I helped with the patients all the next day as the hospital orderlies had been taken prisoner by the enemy.
I then tried to rejoin my unit but was unable to do so on account of enemy action, so was told by an officer of the 18th Rifle Batt that I might stay with them until they shifted up to the front, which they did that night.
Petrol Company was now without officers in the Galatas sector,24 so CSM James took control of the Company and directed operations with outstanding ability. His right-hand man was Sergeant Hopley of B Section, whose conduct, until he too was killed, has been described as ‘particularly cool and daring’. When B Section's machine-gun detachment was surrounded by paratroopers early on 20 May, Hopley had asked permission to go to their aid, but was refused. Again, when it was found that in the excitement of the first German landings, the road block near the cookhouse had not been placed in position, Second-Lieutenant Macphail and Sergeant Hopley rectified this, despite the attentions of low-flying and machine-gunning aircraft.
While B and C Sections were taking the brunt of the enemy's first onslaught, D Section (Workshops) on the other flank had a fairly quiet morning. Under Sergeant-Major C. Chetwin, Staff-Sergeant Williams and Sergeants Stephens25 and Church,26 they held prepared positions at the base of Wheat Hill, overlooking the prison. To their front was a wood, with barbed wire strung across the tree trunks. Driver Watkins27 recalls that on the morning of 20 May stand-to was concluded in the usual manner on a perfectly fine day with very little wind. After page 118 breakfast enemy air activity became very pronounced, but no paratroops landed within range. Minor shooting exchanges occurred between D Section and scattered parties of Germans, who apparently retired on finding the position wired and well defended. Watkins continues:
There occurred no further enemy aggression until 1515 hrs, when under cover of a mortar barrage on this sector, the enemy advanced to within 200 yards of our forward posts, screened by natural cover which made his progress difficult to detect until the attack developed to a large-scale assault on our hill, which possessed many strategic advantages, preventing enemy advance on Galatos and commanding both the right and left flanks of his movement on the lower levels.
D Section area therefore developed into an area of concentrated enemy fire from mortar, automatic and light weapons, met by a heavy return fire from our own men with rifle and Bren. Dvrs O. G. Jones28 and Barker29 (on the bren-gun)discouraged further enemy advance through the wire defences at the foot of the hill, while rifle fire picked off enemy targets as they appeared. When it became apparent that the enemy's mortar fire was becoming too heavy, and severe casualties were being inflicted on our men, it was decided by the section sergeants to evacuate the position to rear defences, at 1700 hrs.
Following this retirement, which Staff-Sergeant Williams directed, though wounded, D Section survivors were distributed among the other sections, while all sections from then on became ‘mixed-up’. During the retirement, Driver Watkins adds, Driver W. A. Mackinder still held his forward position, under fire from the enemy's machine guns and mortars, and took toll with his rifle. He held his position until mortally wounded.
A Section took post under Second-Lieutenant Almao30 of 5 Field Regiment alongside D Section at the foot of Wheat Hill. This detachment was to act as a reserve, and to protect an observation post higher up. Corporal Putt31 commanded one A page 119 sub-section which occupied a trench on Wheat Hill from 20 to 24 May, and took only a small part in the general action. At each end of this trench was a Vickers machine gun. Putt says he left the trench only three times during those five days, and remarks that no provision seems to have been made for food and water to reach the group; and had it not been for the initiative shown by Lance-Corporal R. Bickers and Driver Bloomfield32 in procuring supplies and providing hot tea once a day, Putt's sub-section, he says, would have had a pretty lean time.
At dusk on 20 May CSM James, then still in effective command of Petrol Company, ordered its withdrawal for reorganisation from Pink Hill to the line of a sunken road (or irrigation trench) in the rear. Concerning this withdrawal Corporal A. T. Rimmer of HQ Section reports:
B and C Sections were compelled to retire from their positions on the hill during the afternoon after having suffered fairly heavy casualties and they took up positions with HQ Section. D Section were still in their positions on the right flank, but during the late afternoon, owing to heavy and accurate mortar fire they also were forced to retire. At the conclusion of the day, the position showed that our line had been withdrawn a short distance. We had suffered fairly heavy casualties, but from information gathered we had been able to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy troops.
Headquarters' sergeant at that time was W. F. Browne. His section was very ‘thin on the ground’. One HQ corporal (Jim Ottaway33), in the vicinity of the cookhouse when the attack opened, tried to rejoin his section but was unable to do so immediately, so he joined A Section at the foot of Wheat Hill.
B Section retired over the top of Pink Hill, which had little cover and was exposed to both the view and the fire of the enemy. A covering party of fourteen men had been posted there, mainly to protect the withdrawal of the wounded. Driver Johnson records:
As the enemy's mortar-fire was getting too close to be comfortable, Dvr Gradon and I dashed into the adjoining trench, which was being page 120 held by Cpl Trevelyan, Cpl Reefman,34 and Dvr Sergeant35 and a Greek soldier. From there we made a dash up the hill behind our lines. At the top of the hill we found several of our section wounded. We started across the flat top of the hill; Cpl Trevelyan had joined us and was helping a man across the top. There was a lot of bullets flying around, but by crawling along on our stomachs we safely crossed and scrambled into a slit trench.
By this time the Greek troops across the road on Petrol Company's left flank had withdrawn and were replaced by Divisional Cavalry. Some twenty Greeks still manning a Maxim gun when Petrol Company retired were found next morning all dead. Divisional Cavalry's exposed position farther down the valley had proved untenable, and led by Major Russell36 they had worked their way round through the hills into Galatas, after some unpleasant moments in the approach to front-line positions held by the Composite Battalion. During the night CSM James effected his reorganisation of Petrol Company then handed over to Captain Rowe,37 10 Brigade's Supply Officer, who had been sent by Colonel Kippenberger to take command. The CSM, not having met this officer previously, regarded him with some reserve; but he found Captain Rowe to be ‘one of the best’ and soon had complete confidence in him. This confidence seems to have been mutual, for Rowe left James to carry out most of the detailed work of running the Company while he himself attended to the general dispositions, and to effecting liaison with 10 Brigade Headquarters, Divisional Cavalry, and other neighbouring units. During the night, parties from Divisional Petrol and Divisional Cavalry made sorties into Galatas village and cleared out German troops who had gained positions there.
This was an anxious day for 10 Brigade's commanding officer, and he found good cause to praise the steadfastness of “the sturdy Petrol Company”.38 His main concern was the weakness page 121 of his left flank where, after the first German attack in the morning, most of 6 Greek Regiment had withdrawn, leaving gaps between Petrol Company and 19 Battalion east of Galatas. ‘It was fortunate’, writes D. M. Davin in his official history of the Crete campaign, ‘that the enemy pitted his main attack against Petrol Company.’ In an effort to bridge the gap, Captain Bassett,39 Brigade Major of 10 Brigade, worked his way across to the right-hand positions of 19 Battalion, and while doing so, saw a young British officer, Captain Michael Forrester, rally a party of Greeks in a weird counter-attack.
‘Suddenly Forrester began tootling a tin whistle like the Pied Piper’, Bassett wrote, ‘and the whole motley crowd of them surged down against the Huns yelling and shouting in a mad bayonet charge which made the Jerries break and run. This steadied what Greeks were left and we stretched a thin line of outposts across which I patrolled three times that day.’
Anxiety, both on account of the weak left flank and the fate of Divisional Cavalry (concerning which Colonel Kippenberger had heard nothing) ended at about four in the afternoon when Major Russell brought in his cavalry detachment and occupied the weak left sector between Pink Hill and Cemetery Hill. Thus the enemy's chance for a break-through was gone.
More than once during the day Kippenberger asked Divisional Headquarters for infantry support to launch a counter-attack in the prison area, from which the main thrusts were coming and where it was reported that the Germans were preparing a landing ground. The Composite Battalion, though holding their line stoutly, were wholly untrained for such a manoeuvre and were not armed for it. Petrol Company, for example, had no bayonets and were five rifles short of their numerical strength. Their only other weapons were two Brens, one Lewis gun and an anti-tank rifle. They themselves were mostly drivers and technicians, with no previous experience of infantry fighting.
Late in the afternoon two companies came over from 19 Battalion, and three light tanks of the 3rd Hussars, commanded by the intrepid Lieutenant Roy Farran. Two of his tanks went page 122 down the road from Galatas towards the prison and returned fairly soon, after shooting a few Germans. Zero hour for the infantry attack was set at 8.30, but the two companies seemed rather vague concerning their objective. They were withdrawn by 10 Brigade before daylight after having inflicted only minor casualties. Meanwhile the retirement of Petrol Company allowed Heidrich's forces to gain a footing on Pink Hill and, had they held out there, things would have looked very sticky for 10 Brigade. But for some unknown reason (perhaps because of the arrival of the tanks and the infantry from 19 Battalion) the enemy withdrew from the hill. Next day Petrol Company returned to their original positions, and the battle for Galatas and the heights that commanded it began over again.
While every man in Petrol Company acquitted himself well on 20 May, a number were outstanding in their coolness under fire and their willingness to undertake hazardous tasks. Some have already been mentioned. Eckersley, for example, who continued firing his Bren gun single-handed, though surrounded, to cover the withdrawal of his detachment, and then himself escaped with his weapon. For this and other exploits, which took a heavy toll in German lives, Eckersley was awarded the Military Medal. The same decoration went to Driver E. B. (‘Skin’) Thompson who, Captain Rowe records, showed outstanding bravery in maintaining contact between Brigade Headquarters, the various sections of Petrol Company, and other neighbouring units. At one stage Thompson carried messages to 6 Greek Regiment—a particularly dangerous mission, since besides running the gauntlet of enemy fire, he risked being shot by the Greeks themselves. On a similar errand later, Thompson was wounded and taken prisoner. Driver Payne,40 the Company Headquarters runner, proved equally zealous and intrepid. G. C. Stephens, as Orderly Sergeant, showed great tact and courage in keeping continuous contact with all Petrol Company sections, even under the heaviest fire; while CSM James's outstanding leadership while acting as company commander has been noted.
When Petrol Company reoccupied the forward positions at dawn on 21 May a strip of ‘no-man's land’ was left on their page 123 eastern flank. This strip extended from the Prison road to the summit of Pink Hill, an area offering little cover and continually raked by enemy mortars. Much of the fire came from Cemetery Hill, across the road, where the Germans had established themselves and were able to enfilade the positions of both Petrol Company and Divisional Cavalry. Later in the day a squadron of the Cavalry and an infantry company attacked Cemetery Hill and drove the Germans off, capturing several mortars and machine guns and inflicting severe casualties. But since Cemetery Hill, like Pink Hill, offered little cover, and our troops had no tools to dig in with, they also withdrew, reporting the hill to be untenable. Both sides seemed to agree on this; so Cemetery Hill also became no-man's land.
Apart from continual mortaring, with attacks—and the threat of them—from enemy aircraft, the day passed fairly quietly. Sergeant-Major Chetwin took over HQ Section, supervising operations in the Company's reorganised line, while CSM James accompanied Captain Rowe on reconnaissance and liaison work. With so many casualties on the previous day among officers and sergeants, added responsibility for leadership fell to the corporals, who ably commanded the groups allotted them. Among these, Thwaites,41 Stewart, Ottaway, Hurdley,42 Bailie and Ginders were prominent. Casualties that day included a machine-gun team comprising Drivers A. N. Norton,43 who later died of his wounds, and Colin Standen,44 killed. Colin was one of five Standen brothers who served with the 2 NZEF, three of them in Petrol Company. Two lost their lives on Crete.
During the morning, after arranging with Major Russell that Petrol Company and Divisional Cavalry would each cover one side of Pink Hill, Captain Rowe asked Colonel Kippenberger to inspect the Company's line. This he did, in company page 124 with the Brigade Major. Rowe pointed out that Petrol Company, with about 130 men, was holding a front of over 1000 yards, and asked for reinforcements. But it was decided, in view of the general shortage, to continue with the same strength (later increased by Divisional Petrol personnel returning from various duties, e.g., at 7 General Hospital and Brigade Headquarters) and only to call for reinforcements in time of stress.
For both sides 21 May was a very busy day, and in terms of the fate of Crete, a crucial one. General Student, directing the German operations from Greece, had seen his plans go awry the previous day, especially in the Galatas sector. But he had made some gains near Maleme, where 22 Battalion was forced to withdraw. Nevertheless he expected a strong counter-attack there, and was not too hopeful about his chances of with- standing it. In the Prison area Colonel Heidrich, commanding 3 Parachute Regiment, also expected strong counter-measures, which would have put his force completely ‘in the cart’. The determined stand by Petrol Company and other units on the first day had foiled his moves for the speedy capture of Galatas; the ground he held was not easily defensible, a large number of his men were killed, and he now had hundreds of wounded on his hands.
His remaining troops were losing their zest, and CSM Neuhoff, already quoted, expressed his feelings in this way:
It was particularly noticeable that a very large proportion of our casualties had been shot in the head. This fact and the controlled fire and discipline of the enemy led us to believe that we were up against a specialist force of picked snipers, of whose strength we had no accurate idea but which we judged to be far greater than ours … we were expecting the enemy to counter-attack…. We had suffered heavy casualties and had encountered opposition far greater than anticipated or ever before experienced. Our Commanding Officer wished to retire to a better defensive position in hilly wooded country to the south-west of the prison…. It was eventually decided to remain in our original positions and we were greatly relieved when the expected counter-attack did not eventuate.
In 10 Brigade, by contrast, morale was still high; but our men were not equal to the task of counter-attack, and by the time Divisional Headquarters was able to mount one, the opportunity for it had gone. In the Maleme sector, likewise, page 125 various factors hindered a swift and all-out onslaught against the enemy to drive him from the airfield and so prevent German reinforcements from landing there. One factor was an expected invasion by seaborne forces, to deal with which several of our all-too-few battalions had to be kept in hand. As it happened, the Royal Navy took care of this sea invasion, effectively thwarting on the night of 21-22 May a German force of several thousand men, together with tanks, transport, supplies and heavy armament. The boats were scattered and turned back. Nevertheless, General Student, reinforcing success, threw in his reserves at Maleme. Our counter-attack there failed; and from that moment (as Student declared at his trial, years later) Crete was won for Germany.page 126
Ironically enough, Petrol Company and others of the Composite Battalion, watching the never-ending stream of German troop-carriers flying towards Maleme, were greatly cheered. They thought the Hun was evacuating. The idea of a defeat just didn't occur to them. But early in the morning of 22 May Colonel Kippenberger heard that things had not been going well for us at Maleme. ‘Nevertheless’, he writes, ‘it was decided to go ahead with my plans. 19 Battalion attacked with two companies on a front of 800 yards, with the object of regaining most of the ground from which the Greeks had been driven. Meagre support was given by our three Italian 75's and a couple of mortars. There was considerable opposition, enemy aircraft intervened with some effect and, after three hours of rather desultory scrapping in very broken ground, both companies withdrew with a dozen casualties, having captured a mortar and three heavy machine-guns. The day closed with a heavy attack in the evening on the old line up the Prison road. This was fiercely pressed on a front of some 700 yards, and after losing about fifty men the rather weary Petrol Company fell back, though still fighting.’
In point of fact, Petrol Company gave no ground at all on 22 May, and Colonel Kippenberger was no doubt misled by a false report to Brigade Headquarters stating that the Company was being driven out of Galatas—a report which caused Captain Rowe to send to Brigade the following terse message: ‘Div Pet are, and will remain, in their original positions’.
Not only were they in them, but they were dug in. A few picks and shovels had somehow come to light on 22 May, and our men took advantage of a rather quiet morning to get below ground. Their original trenches, dug by the Welch Regiment, had proved too wide for protection against mortar bursts and were too shallow to provide riflemen with adequate cover. Earlier, it seems, there had been one pick and one shovel for the whole Company, but these had been needed for burials. During the temporary withdrawal on the night of 20-21 May Drivers Baldwin and Thompson had carved themselves a dugout, using a tin-hat and a short Italian bayonet.
In the afternoon of 22 May reports reached Captain Rowe of enemy troop movements at the crossroads near the prison. page 127 He and CSM James decided to investigate. They went some distance forward of the wire in front of Company Headquarters' positions, where they were seen and machine-gunned by three fighter planes. Simultaneously, Galatas and the Petrol Company's lines were attacked from the air–all this being preliminary to a German infantry advance up the Galatas road, and up the ‘dead’ area on Pink Hill. The Hun was obviously intent on working into Galatas via the Divisional Petrol positions.
Rowe and James were cut off for a time, and when they got back events were moving briskly. One determined enemy thrust pierced the Company's line; but Corporal N. M. Stewart, who had been in reserve with about thirty men of the night-watching patrols, rushed into the breach and drove the Germans back about 100 yards. For this he was awarded the Military Medal. Some Germans succeeded in getting to the top of Pink Hill; and as they could thus outflank Petrol Company's positions, Rowe sent for immediate reinforcements and ordered a concentrated fire on Pink Hill. ‘Everything we had went off’, he writes, ‘and soon the Greeks arrived. I asked them to clear the Hill, but in view of our few numbers I refused to allow Div Pet to participate.’
Nonetheless, many of the Company did participate. Sergeant Stephens, in Company Headquarters' area, could see the Germans out in front from time to time, and Corporal Stubbs, who was alongside him, potted one. ‘The Greeks were back in the left rear in reserve under Capt Forrester and also a Greek Major with red tabs such as our Colonels (and above) wear’, Captain Rowe reported. ‘The Greeks moved through Div Pet to the front. HQ Section was only a few yards from a clearing, and in front of the line was a patch of open land with grass, grape-vines and some bushes. The Germans were among the vines and bushes. At about 5 p.m. the Greeks charged into them, with yelling which was led by the Greek major—his voice could be heard above all the noise of battle.’
Also into the fray rushed the women and children of Galatas, brandishing knives, reap-hooks and such-like primitive weapons, and leaping and screaming like wild animals. Men from Petrol Company followed, in a bayonet charge without page 128 bayonets. The enemy turned and fled. Sergeant Stephens affirms that although Captain Rowe forbade them to take part, most of Petrol Company around him did so, including Corporal Stubbs. Later, as a prisoner of war, Stephens spoke to the Germans about this weird counter-attack and they told him that when the children from the village joined in, it took the heart out of them. They could not fire at the children, so they bolted. It no doubt came as a shock to the Germans to find themselves so hated by the civilian population. They had assumed all along that the Cretans would be sympathetic towards them, and ready to balk the efforts of the island's defenders.
Just before the attack on HQ Section area a Petrol Company group in the valley between Wheat Hill and Pink Hill took a pounding from the general air blitz, then found themselves attacked by ground forces. Driver Baldwin relates:
L-Cpl Hearn,45 a quiet unassuming sort of chap, stood up and called out, ‘Let's charge the bastards, boys!’ With rifles only—no bayonets—we charged. Ruback46 and Depper47 were hit. We then heard a voice, authoritative and in perfect English, call out, ‘ASC cease fire!’ We had lost our original officers and did not recognise the voice, but it took the kick out of the charge. Things looked a bit grim for a time. Then we heard the Greeks and civilians making a terrific racket up nearer Galatos. They had been out collecting arms from dead Jerries that day, and earlier I saw one Greek in a pleated skirt with eight or nine rifles.
This charge, coming from a fresh quarter, ‘threw’ the Germans, so we took fresh heart and charged again, firing as we ran. The Germans retreated, and we chased them through the olive trees. I did not count the dead myself, but there must have been about twenty on our front. Pet Coy captured five Spandau machine-guns with ammunition and two trench mortars without ammunition.
The authoritative voice speaking ‘perfect English’ was no doubt that of Colonel Kippenberger who, with Lieutenant Carson48 and a small reserve force of 4 RMT men, had moved quickly round to Wheat Hill with the idea of counter-attacking the enemy on his left flank. The Colonel was waiting for page 129 Carson's men to line up before giving him the order to charge, when ‘a most infernal uproar broke out across the valley’— coming of course from the Greeks and Cretans. One other conspicuous effort in the day's activities was that of Petrol Company's Driver Peel-Walker, who on 20 May had fought his way to safety with Corporal Trevelyan's hard-pressed MG detachment. Firing a captured Spandau on the Company's right flank, Peel-Walker accounted for two of the three enemy machine guns concentrated there. He used tracer to attract the Germans' fire, and then calmly shot them up. This and other exploits gained him the Military Medal.
That day the Company came under command of Major Russell, his Divisional Cavalry detachment and our company thus making a single tactical formation (Russell Force) to cover both sides of the vital Prison-Galatas road.
Petrol Company's mood that evening is summed up by Corporal Rimmer: ‘We were tired but exhilarated by our success. Our casualties had been light, and we felt we had justified ourselves as infantrymen. Naturally we could not perform to the same extent as experienced and trained infanteers, but our lack of experience and weapons did not damp the fighting qualities of our men.’
When the Company became part of Russell Force changes were made in the disposition of the remaining elements of the Composite Battalion. By now the battalion had had 190 casualties. It was showing signs of exhaustion. On 23 May a relief was arranged and 18 Battalion took over the positions on Petrol Company's right flank from Wheat Hill to the sea. A platoon from 4 Field Regiment, under Lieutenant Dill,49 was moved up to hold the crest of Pink Hill.
The pasting taken by 5 Brigade in the Maleme area also had its effect upon the fortunes of Petrol Company. Far from the enemy withdrawing in that sector, at least 12,000 additional troops were landed there on 22 May, the enemy also landing light tanks, Bren carriers, field and mountain guns, motor-cycles, machine guns and mortars of various calibres. This extra weight of men and material eventually forced 5 Brigade page 130 back into the Divisional Reserve area, giving the enemy in the Maleme sector substantial control of the coast road, and thus facilitating the meeting-up of his ‘West’ Force with Heidrich's troops in the prison area. Together they could bring a crushing weight to bear upon 18 Battalion, Petrol Company, 4 Field Regiment and other New Zealand units barring the way to Canea.
That this was their firm intention became abundantly clear on 23 and 24 May. Enemy patrols from the prison area were very active against Russell Force on both sides of the Galatas road. Farther north, parties of the Composite Battalion, working south of the coast road to cover the withdrawal of 5 Brigade, reported several brushes with the Germans. Both enemy groups were extending ‘feeler’ patrols towards each other. On 24 May, with 5 Brigade now out of the line, 18 Battalion, holding the whole front from Galatas to the sea, was heavily mortared. The entire Galatas area came in for much ground strafing from planes at tree-top level. That day Second-Lieutenant Collins and Sergeant Jim Greig, who had been with the Petrol Company picket group in Canea, made their way back to the Company.50
On 25 May, Petrol Company's sixth consecutive day of fighting, the enemy began his expected heavy push against the whole Galatas line. He had spent the previous night getting his artillery, mortars and machine guns into position, ample cover being available in the numerous gullies and olive groves, and on the reverse sides of hills. During the morning strong parties of enemy infantry took up positions under cover opposite page 131 18 Battalion, and one column 1500 strong was observed about noon moving forward in threes, ready to deploy. From that time mortaring and air attacks along the whole line became intense.
The attack opened at 2 p.m. with the usual stiff thrust against Petrol Company, the enemy having a fixed idea that his best way into Galatas was via our Company's lines—a costly notion for him, but one which no amount of punishment seemed able to dispel. Petrol Company, for their part, had an equally fixed idea that Jerry wasn't going that way. Helped by enfilade fire from Divisional Cavalry, the Company stood fast and held up enemy progress in the Pink Hill area. Divisional Cavalry also came under hot ground fire, and as the battle progressed Major Russell had difficulty in keeping touch with his force. Telephone lines were cut, and communication had to be made by runner. Soon the various elements of Russell Force, including two infantry platoons from 19 Battalion sent up as reinforcements, were acting more or less independently.
By the middle of the afternoon the whole Galatas line was under very severe pressure. Eighteenth Battalion, on Petrol Company's right flank, came in for a mauling. Its D Company near the sea was quickly overrun, and despite gallant counter-attacks, that flank was turned. Simultaneously the enemy lunged hard against A Company, then holding Wheat Hill immediately to the right of Petrol Company. Jerry's plan, no doubt, was to encircle the centre of the 18 Battalion front, then held by C Company. The extreme pressure on A Company (right alongside Petrol Company) caused it, too, to withdraw, after holding out gallantly and sustaining heavy casualties; and so, to avoid encirclement, C Company also withdrew.
This left Russell Force in a most perilous position, not helped by the fact that Captain Rowe and CSM James were in the dark about what was actually happening on their right. Captain Rowe reports: ‘I had no indication that there was going to be a withdrawal, but as the afternoon progressed, more and heavier fire came from our right flank and on several occasions I tried to contact 18th Battalion and at one stage sent a Sgt and runner to definitely find out what had happened. Late in the afternoon I received a call from Major Russell to page 132 say that he was hard pressed and must withdraw but would try and hold out until we came through. He said that the 18th Battalion had been withdrawn some hours before. This was my first definite advice of a withdrawal on this flank.’
‘Skin’ Thompson, again running the gauntlet from Petrol Company lines to Divisional Cavalry, managed to contact Major Russell, whom he found with a bandage round his head directing operations from a slit trench. From there Thompson was sent with a message to 18 Battalion's headquarters on Red Hill. He arrived in time to catch a heavy dive-bombing attack by massed Stukas, and to join in the subsequent retirement of 18 Battalion. Almost immediately he was hit by a machine-gun bullet in the right arm, closely followed by a mortar burst which wounded him in the rump, neck and leg. Dazed, but still mobile, Thompson ‘ran like Hell’, he says, uphill instead of down. An infantry S/M slapped a couple of field dressings on him then directed him downhill to the RAP.
At this stage there were nearly 200 wounded at the RAP, with two trucks working non-stop, taking men down to the ADS in loads. The wounded were sorted under a culvert on the road and the really bad cases taken into a farmhouse, then being used as a kind of field hospital by two or three untiring MOs. Thompson was directed to a stable along with ten or twelve of the less seriously wounded. There he found Driver Crocker51 of Petrol Company (wounded in the leg) who had been sent out to find him that afternoon when he failed to return to the Company lines.
A runner from 18 Battalion trying to reach Petrol Company to warn them of the Battalion's withdrawal was also shot up. He was found later on by Lieutenant Carson and his RMT patrol which had come forward to help stiffen the line. ‘Hardly had it arrived when there was an attack by thirty Stukas which weakened the right flank badly. Into the gap Lieutenant Carson took his patrol and the whole force stayed grimly put against attacks of increasing intensity. Even after 18 Battalion had withdrawn they stayed on, the runner sent to warn them of the retirement having been killed on the way.page 133
‘The consequence of 18 Battalion's withdrawal was that the Petrol Company was now coming under heavy fire from the right as well as the front. But Captain Rowe and his men battled stoutly on in defence of their positions until a message came by telephone–this line must have been one of the few that remained uncut–from Major Russell to the effect that 18 Battalion had withdrawn and that he himself was so hard pressed that he would have to withdraw also; but he would try to hold on for a time so that the Petrol Company could withdraw first.’52
Shortly afterwards Divisional Cavalry retired towards Karatsos and the 19 Battalion positions. About the same time Captain Rowe sent a message along Petrol Company's line to its right flank asking them to send runners to collect any food and ammunition possible, and saying that in a quarter of an hour the Company would retire in extended line, using the flank on Pink Hill as a pivot. They would thus form a new line in front of Galatas facing Wheat Hill. Rowe hoped in this way to contact troops who had been between Galatas and Ruin Hill in the morning. Those troops, however, had also been withdrawn, so Petrol Company was ordered to continue its retirement through Galatas with the idea of linking up with 19 Battalion behind the village.
The whole operation was a hazardous one exposing the remnants of the company to enemy view and fire. Concerning it CSM James says: ‘Passing through the southern outskirts we discovered Div Cav was being fiercely attacked and we carried out some of their wounded. Pet Coy had very heavy casualties. These seemed to come from box barrages laid by mortars sited on Ruin Hill which overlooked the whole area.’
Captain Rowe relates:
Sgt Greig, CSM James and I were the last of our unit out of Galatos and found some wounded at the Exchange. We had them carried back and Sgt Greig, myself and CSM James were leaving Galatos in that order when three mortar bombs landed alongside us. Sgt Greig was hit in the head and although it was later turned to concussion he was able to walk at this stage: CSM James was hit on the legs, I was untouched. We called back some of the others and carried CSM James out on a blanket until we reached the 19 Bn RAP. Greig was then delirious, and leaving him and James I found Major Russell.page 134
Out on the far flank of this pivoting movement, Sergeant Stephens noted that many men were picked off by the enemy as they moved through the groves in extended order. He and some others struck a sunken road and made their way along it into Galatas. Through Galatas they ran into an officer who, Stephens says, was brandishing a revolver and ‘was about to counter-attack Galatos’. Stephens prepared to join up with him, but an MO called out, ‘I want you four men’; so he and three others went to carry back some wounded. They carried a number to a waiting truck on the eastern outskirts of Galatas. Then at dusk Stephens and the other three set out to find Divisional Petrol Company or Captain Rowe. The counter-attack on Galatas—the most dramatic episode in the whole Crete campaign—was shared by a number from Petrol Company, and is described further on.
Corporal Rimmer, of Headquarters Section, notes that during this retirement enemy mortar fire was concentrated on Petrol Company, and snipers were very active. The Luftwaffe also harassed persistently and the withdrawal, Rimmer found, became so difficult that after getting through the village it was a matter of every man following the line of best cover and moving as quickly as possible. Consequently the Company became separated and most of them attached themselves to other units in the area. This came about through approaching darkness, and the fact that the men were obliged to disperse widely as they retired. Next day Captain Rowe endeavoured to find his Company and get the men together again, but after much effort only a handful could be collected.
Dinner-time in Syria
Pulling out from Asluj, June 1942
Petrol Company group in the Western Desert
Workshops detachment at Amiriya
Loading supplies. The German water tank in this photograph was picked up in the desert and repaired by 13 Section
Mud at Sidi Haneish, November 1942
Kippenberger ordered Farran to take his tanks into Galatas to see what was there. Two companies of 23 Battalion were then told that they must retake the village with the help of the tanks when they returned, moving straight up the road, with one company on either side of it in single file.
Following the tanks and infantry went a number of men out of touch with their own units, including Petrol Company's Norman Lambert,53 Jack Plumtree, and several others who had been on duty at Brigade Headquarters. Though both tanks struck trouble and Farran and his crew were wounded, the attack succeeded brilliantly. The battle-worn infantry charged as though inspired, completely routing the Germans from the town. But despite this success, which gave a much-needed breathing space, there was no hope now of re-establishing our line. A new and shorter one east of Karatsos was ordered to be formed next day. But the writing was already on the wall. By 26 May it was clear that Crete could no longer be defended. Withdrawal and evacuation—the mixture as before—remained as the only alternative.
On the night of 26-27 May a general retreat began to Sfakia, a little fishing village on the south coast, which had been fixed as the main point of embarkation. This meant for Petrol Company and others—who had been fighting day and night since the morning of 20 May—a forced march of about 40 miles over steep mountainous country. Most found this a harrowing experience; for many it entailed extremes of hardship.
Norm Lambert, for example, wore the soles from his boots and continued walking with bleeding feet in the remains of his socks. He was fortunate in getting a lift for about three miles up one of the bigger hills. By dusk he had reached a point about 2000 feet above sea level, overlooking Sfakia. He had no blanket, no overcoat, only his service uniform. The night was so cold, he says, that he and his companions cut branches off page 136 the pine trees and covered themselves that way. Next day they were forbidden to go down to the beach. He got off by night in HMAS Perth, which was attacked on the way to Egypt by enemy planes. He and some mates were leaning against the warship's galley when the aircraft were spotted. The New Zealanders moved away to watch proceedings, and immediately a bomb hit the place where they had been standing. It killed the ship's cooks, accounting altogether for about sixteen men. Had it landed just a little further forward, Lambert says, the bomb would have claimed a great many more.
George Baldwin also had foot trouble on the march, having started off in a pair of size nine boots. He normally took size seven; but an issue had been made at Galatas on the basis of one pair to every sixty men, and since George had then worn right through his soles, the only pair available was issued to him. On the hike to Sfakia they reduced his feet to a raw and bleeding mess. To make matters worse, Baldwin like a number of others was suffering from dysentery. For a time he joined a party of our Engineers, who would march for an hour then halt for ten minutes. ‘At one of these halts I went to sleep, and when I woke up there was no one there. I was entirely on my own, and never felt so lonely in my life. It was the middle of the night, but I got up and walked on alone. Eventually I joined up with Phil Keddell and one other bloke from Pet Coy; but I was so sick with dysentery that I reached a stage where I could go no further, so I told the others to push on ahead. Later I recovered a little and picked up with Fleck, a 20 Bn chap with a wounded ankle. I was able to help him a bit. When we got to Sfakia we ran into a mob of the 20 Battalion. They were told to toss out anyone not known to be in their unit; but as I had helped Fleck I was allowed to go along, and so got off Crete with the Twentieth.’
Jim Ottaway's story starts after he had lost touch with the Company in the darkness during the night of the withdrawal from Galatas.
I attached myself to an artillery unit which had four guns on the hill above the village. As the officer in charge decided it was too risky for the guns to remain there, they and the troop moved out towards Canea at approximately 0200 hrs next morning. I walked page 137 behind the guns until nearing Canea. I was compelled to rest by the roadside and so lost touch with the artillery unit. That day I tried to get in touch with the Div Pet Coy picquet which had been left in Canea, but as the town had been destroyed the day before, I found no sign of the picquet. I marched for a time with a party of the 18 Bn and on the way encountered Dvrs Campbell54 and Lillico.55 They had not seen anything of the Pet Coy, but had heard of an order to proceed to an evacuation point on the other side of the island. When I returned after a temporary absence I found they had already started off.
I walked to the evacuation point that night and took cover for the day as enemy bombers were overhead. When dusk came I proceeded to the barrier at the beach and learned that only walking wounded were being taken off. Subsequently, however, volunteers were called for a loading party to unload stores from the boats and transport them up the beach some distance. I volunteered for the work and when the job was finished the British officer in charge told the party they could go aboard the destroyer. I did so and arrived in Alexandria on the afternoon of 29 May. With the exception of Dvrs Campbell and Lillico I saw no Div Pet personnel from the night of the retreat from Galatos until I boarded the destroyer at Sfakia.
Sergeant Stephens was less fortunate. After helping to carry out wounded men from Galatas he and three Petrol Company drivers set out to find the Company or Captain Rowe. Failing to do so, they tagged on to 20 Battalion. Some distance past Suda they dug in. Then Captain Veitch56 of the 4 RMT came along and called for all NZASC men, saying, ‘You'll have to come back with me’. Stephens, impressed by the orderliness of the battalion as opposed to the evident disorder of all other troops in sight, refused to go. Veitch then went to Colonel Kippenberger and asked him for orders to withdraw the ASC men from the battalion and the Colonel agreed. Thus Stephens and his party left with Captain Veitch.
Somewhere on the way to Sfakia Stephens was put in charge of a group of 100 Australians and with them he continued until they found their own officers. He ended up, he says, in a cave with twenty men and two British officers, who managed to get some food (two tins) and brought back news that they would page 138 not embark that night (27 May). They stayed where they were for two or three days; then one morning the British officers vanished and German soldiers appeared. Surrender (which had been authorised for all troops left behind) was then their only course.
Drivers Guy,57 O'Connor58 and Erle Stewart came off with a battalion of 5 Brigade. They made their way to Canea and eventually to a point south of Suda Bay, where they met Major Davis of Supply Company. He informed them where to go to embark, ‘the only definite orders we received’, Stewart says, ‘and the last contact made with an ASC officer. In the vicinity of Sfakia we were told to hole up. Over the last three days rations were conspicuous by their absence. A big portion of Pet Coy were at the embarkation point at the same time as ourselves, but no effort was made to organize them. After two days spent in vain efforts to get into an organized party we attached ourselves to the 23 Bn.’
Several other survivors mention the difficulty of procuring food and water during the retreat, though Corporal Rimmer recalls that a ration point had been established on the road and supplies were handed out to the troops as they passed. However, most Petrol Company men who escaped travelled across country, keeping off the roads and making no contact with official assembly areas. ‘These men’, says one, ‘kept on down to the beach and had no difficulty in embarking on the waiting ships. The others, comprising about 75% of Pet Coy survivors, waited patiently on the hill for orders to proceed to the beach, but due to some misunderstanding regarding insufficient shipping, they waited until the last and were then told that no more men could be taken off. Shortly afterwards the Germans arrived and the men had no alternative but to lay down their arms.’
Driver Stanger, who came off with the Engineers, could also find, when he reached the assembly point, no arrangements for getting NZASC units off the island. He puts in a good word for the unit ‘spud barbers’—Bill Ambrose, Maurie Smylie,59 page 139 Davey Hall,60 Eric Sutton,61 and others—who worked under great difficulty in both Greece and Crete, yet still managed to claim quite a few German ‘scalps.’
Arthur Stubbs,62 before being captured on Crete, had some humorous experiences. He and Fred Davey were helping a wounded comrade out of Galatas when both were hit by bomb fragments. They handed over their charge at a dressing station on the coast, where both received ‘walking wounded’ chits for evacuation from Suda Bay. On the way to Suda, however, Stubbs acquired a donkey, with the idea of riding instead of walking. But the donkey proving stubborn, and Stubbs being more so, Fred Davey pushed on and left them to it.
Eventually, minus the donkey, Stubbs made his way to Suda, where he picked up with Geoff Harman63 of Petrol Company. They found an abandoned naval store near the Bay, ‘chocka- block with food and kegs of rum’, so they helped themselves. By this time things were getting pretty hot in the Suda area, so, hearing that evacuation was taking place at Sfakia, they followed the crowd and arrived there in the middle of the night. Some British officers at the assembly area gave Stubbs a message to take to General Freyberg. This he delivered just as ‘Tiny’ was stepping into a boat to embark in a flying boat moored offshore; and Stubbs believes he was the last person to speak to the GOC on Crete.
When he reported back to the officers, they said, ‘Good show. Now we are going to turn it in’. Stubbs refused to believe that this meant surrender for the thousands of soldiers still left on Crete. But so it proved; and he and Harman went ‘into the bag’. But they soon walked out of it; and what with numerous escapes and recaptures Arthur Stubbs spent almost a year on the island.
One of the most dramatic evacuation stories is told by Petrol Company's Corporal D. R. Plumtree, one of a party which page 140 escaped from Crete in an invasion barge and landed—after running out of petrol—on the Egyptian coast near Sidi Barrani. By 3 a.m. on 1 June, Plumtree found himself only a few hundred yards from the beach at Sfakia, among troops packed five deep and extending about a mile to the rear. He writes:
Orders were shouted from the beach for all troops to remove magazines and bolts from their rifles. This order being complied with we were told that there would be no further evacuation of troops from Crete. It was suggested by officers that we were to show as much white cloth as possible and dispense with arms and ammunition as we were to surrender. The troops then dispersed about the village and surrounding hills.
I decided upon a couple of hours sleep after which I went in search of rations of which there were none to be found. I then went in search of a suitable place of refuge, and was successful in finding a cave about a half mile east of the village on the water's edge. No sooner had I reached there when several enemy aircraft began strafing and dive bombing the village in spite of the white towels and handkerchiefs being waved by the troops. This attack lasted about half an hour and I have no idea as to casualties inflicted. The attack was made between 0900 and 0930 hrs.
While I was sheltering there, I heard noises of metal bumping against rock and upon investigating, found an invasion barge SD 15 moored inside a cave. On this barge were miscellaneous personnel including Dvr N. Christall64 of Petrol Coy, two ASC attached 5 Fd Amb and one member of Div Sup Coln. Their names were unknown to me….
We remained in concealment during the daylight hours of the 1st June and at 2145 hrs with a complement of 63 men we proceeded on our voyage. We left our departure to nightfall owing to the fact that German troops were in Sfakia. As we left the shore we were subjected to intense machine gun fire by enemy troops from the village. No casualties were inflicted. By pursuing a zigzag course we were out of range within a few minutes. At approximately 0200 hrs June 2nd we struck a submerged rock on the southern tip of Gaudavous Island some forty miles south of Sfakia. Owing to the receding tide we were unable to refloat the barge so we unloaded all our stores and dispersed on the island. While on the island we split up into foraging parties in an endeavour to build up our meagre store of rations and water. We were not very successful in this matter but were able to fill every available vessel with brackish water.
At approximately 1600 hrs the barge was refloated but one ballast tank was full of water. We got the barge into a suitable page 141 place of concealment whereupon we proceeded to bail and pump the water out of it and reloaded our provisions. Fourteen men decided to remain on the island owing to the meagre rations on the ship, so we arranged a prominent rendezvous for a flare position for Naval or RAF craft. We equipped them with the best of our boots and clothing also water bottles and all available money, so that they could purchase food from the local inhabitants. Just as we were about to sail, four Australians and one Greek who had made their way from Crete in a rowing boat joined our party, thus giving us a total of 54 men. We left the island at approximately 2100 hrs on 2 June and at 1600 hrs on 3 June ran out of petrol. We were then about one hundred miles from Crete. By making use of several poles and sewing blankets together we made a mast and sail which assisted our progress considerably. Thanks to favourable winds and fervent prayers we sighted land at 1100 hrs 8 June. We beached our craft approximately 6 miles East of Sidi Barrani at 0130 hrs on 9 June.
We were fortunate landing near a camp of the RASC who, upon being awakened, made us a cup of tea and a meal. The OC made arrangements for transport to Mersa Matruh leaving at 1830 hrs the same day. Upon arrival at Mersa we were bedded down at the Transit Camp. We entrained for Amiriya at 0630 hrs and arrived at 1400 hrs 10th June. There we were fed and re-equipped to the extent of a change of clothes and toilet gear.
We left there at 1100 hrs 12 June per RASC convoy and arrived at Kasr-el-Nil Barracks at 1700 hrs. From there we were transported to Base Reception Depot, Maadi, thence moved to our various Units.
All troops left behind on Crete had been authorised by General Wavell to surrender, but many roamed at large for months, dodging the Jerries and being sheltered and helped by friendly Cretans. Such aid brought the islanders savage reprisals; in some cases they were shot in batches of twenty or thirty, often including people quite unconnected with the ‘crime’. Some men from Petrol Company rejoined the unit in Egypt after weeks of wandering through Turkey and the Mediterranean islands. Others repeatedly walked out on their German captors, spending a year or more on Crete before being finally caught and caged.
A most persistent spurner of German ‘hospitality’ was Petrol Company's Driver W. J. Siely,65 who escaped three times on page 142 Crete, and four times from various stalags and working camps in Germany. Siely finally gained his liberty when he and a Tommy and two Frenchmen were smuggled aboard a Swedish vessel at Stettin. For five days they stayed hidden in the air- shaft of the main funnel, and were later put ashore at Kalmar, Sweden, eventually reaching Britain in August 1944. Siely's exploits won him the DCM.66
The official history, Crete, also details the adventures of other Petrol Company escapists, viz., Drivers J. Symes,67 F. P. H. McCoy,68 W. H. Swinburne,69 P. L. Winter and H. F. Mace. Besides breaking out in Crete, Winter also got away from a prison in Greece, after which he received a brutal beating-up. Symes dodged about, living in caves, and evading German round-up parties, for nearly two years. He finally made contact with a New Zealand staff-sergeant, T. Moir70 (who was helping with an escape organisation on Crete), and got off the island in May 1943.
Swinburne stayed even longer, and had some amazing adventures. In one village he was served with a request to ‘move on’ when the locals became understandably alarmed at the prospect of reprisals. The local constable saw to his departure, politely but firmly, shaking hands on the outskirts of the township and wishing him a successful escape. For a time he joined a guerrilla band in the Lasithi Mountains. Eventually Swinburne and twenty others got away in a motor torpedo- boat, reaching Mersa Matruh at the end of August 1943.
Though wounded and unable to escape, Sergeant Walsh also had some remarkable experiences while a PW in Crete. At one stage a messenger came into the compound inquiring for Petrol Company men from Galatas.page 143
‘Why?’ asked Walsh.
‘Never mind why’, was the answer. ‘The officer will say why.’
The officer wanted to know if Walsh had buried any Germans at Galatas. Walsh replied that his section had—quite a number. He was then asked if he knew anything about a German colonel, buried with four New Zealanders. On replying that he did, Walsh was put into a truck and taken to the German headquarters at Canea.
There a high-ranking officer told him through an interpreter: ‘We've brought you here to ask about a German colonel, buried with four New Zealanders in front of Galatos. His body has more than a hundred bullet-holes. How do you account for that?’
Walsh explained that the officer's parachute had caught in a tree, and his body had stayed there for forty-eight hours, dangling and spinning. No one could tell, from a distance, if the man were alive or dead, so everybody who passed that way took a pot at him.
The officer then said, ‘I am going to ask you a question, and I want you to tell me the truth, or I will make things very hot for you. Are you quite sure that this man was not put up against a wall and shot?’
Walsh replied, ‘I've never seen any German put up against a wall and shot. We don't do such things’.
‘Why was he buried with four New Zealanders? The Germans are your enemies.’
‘What difference does it make? During the action there were a lot of unburied dead from both sides. A bomb-crater was handy so our men used it.’
The officer finished by saying that he thought Walsh had answered truthfully. He added that if he could do the sergeant any small favour he would. He had already given Walsh ten cigarettes (which were like gold at that time), so our man spoke up:
‘A New Zealand corporal and I helped to bury our officer, Captain McDonagh, in a potato field, after he had been killed by a cannon-shell from a Messerschmitt, and was laid out by a Greek woman in her own home. But he had only about page 144 eighteen inches of earth over him. We would like him to receive a proper burial.’
The officer replied that at that moment burial squads, supervised by Germans, were digging up all the dead around Galatas and burying them in mass graves. He promised that he would have a cross made, inscribed with Captain McDonagh's name and other details. But whether this was ever done or not, Walsh does not know.
About two months later, he says, he and a lot of others were put aboard a filthy old coal-boat and battened down in the holds with little food or water, no medical attention for the wounded, and no sanitation. They remained under those conditions for about five days while their convoy, comprising similar boats carrying Greeks, and escorted by two Italian destroyers, nosed up through the Dodecanese Islands. Ships of the Royal Navy ‘skittled’ the convoy, and Walsh's boat turned back to Dratos. It stayed there for a day and a night, then sneaked across to Salonika.
2 Ibid, p. 217.
23 Col H. K. Christie, CBE, ED; Wanganui; born Invercargill, 13 Jul 1894; surgeon; surgeon I Gen Hosp Mar 1940-Apr 1941; OC surgical team, Greece and Crete; in charge surgical division I Gen Hosp, Aug 1941-Jun 1943; CO 2 Gen Hosp Jun 1943-Oct 1944.
24 Maj Dickson and Capt Ramsden had returned to Egypt soon after the Greek campaign. 2 Lt Trewby became a casualty while in Canea and he, too, was evacuated. On 14 May 2 Lt Collins, with Sgt Greig, Cpl K. A. Bailey and 28 men, had been posted to Canea for picket duty.
50 This group had been billeted alongside the Greek HQ and when the invasion began moved to the British Provost HQ where they took up defensive positions in conjunction with the Tommy and Australian redcaps. In the first few days the group noted little beyond the frequent bombing of the town and the internment of a good number of German prisoners. On Saturday, 24 May, Collins and Greig, considering it their duty to rejoin the hard-pressed Company, set off for Galatas at 10 a.m.
On that afternoon seven men were killed as the result of a direct bomb hit through the centre of their building and another simultaneously against the west wall. None of these casualties were New Zealanders. The same evening the picket group moved to a position on a hillside north of Canea, where they stayed one day, moving out on Monday, 26 May, because of severe bombing attacks on the area. They had been ordered by Force HQ to that position–right alongside an ammunition dump, with trucks parked all round, and a naval gun just behind them! On the night of 26-27 May the party moved towards Suda Bay, where it became separated. Only six or seven of this group eventually rejoined the unit in Egypt.