A fax made very quick time to Suda Bay and we were disem-barking in great haste, bombers being expected, by ten next morning, 28 April. We had come aboard with only what we could carry, less packs. At first I could get no orders and we streamed in a long straggling crowd to Canea—a dusty road and a hot morning. Some miles along the road we found that someone had organized food and drink, and we sat down very happily under the olive-trees. We had no idea that it was only a matter of from frying-pan to fire. After a while we were directed to a transit camp and meandered along during the afternoon. Everyone had a holiday feeling, there were several attractive wine cafés, and it was evening before the move was completed and the companies reorganized. Not a good show. There were no blankets and the night was rather chill.
The companies had next morning for ‘interior economy’ and a thorough straightening up. In the afternoon I inspected them very carefully. Personal equipment and arms were very nearly complete except for one man who possessed nothing beyond a single hand-grenade. Both our mortars had arrived, complete with base plates, but of course without ammunition. There was scarcely any signalling gear and it was disappointing to find only thirty-seven Bren guns instead of fifty. Apparently on landing someone had told the men to dump heavy gear on the wharf and a number had been simple enough to do so.
The inspection, strictly carried out and undoubtedly helpful for morale, was only just finished when an order came for me to hand over the command to Burrows and to assume command of 4 Brigade. General Freyberg had accepted the difficult command of all the forces in Crete, Brigadier Puttick, in consequence, taking command of the New Zealand page 47 Division. I left that evening. Some troops had gone direct from Greece to Egypt but 4 and 5 New Zealand Brigades were present together with a considerable number of gunners without guns, drivers without trucks, some sappers, and an army troops company. All for whom no rifles could be found were shipped off to Egypt and the remainder were told they were infantry.
The weather was perfect, the surroundings beautiful, and we had no doubt whatever that we would easily destroy the parachute landing of which there was some talk. The troops marched and drilled and dug and quickly got over their weariness and slackness. We had wonderful bathing in the sea or in the sparkling mountain streams, oranges by the armful, brilliant sunshine, and windless, balmy nights. For most it was a halcyon period.
For the commanders and those who knew what was impending it was very different. Intelligence reports soon made it certain that a very strong attack by air-transported troops would shortly be made; and we were in poor condition to meet it.
Hargest, with the four battalions of 5 Brigade, was holding the Maleme area, where was the only airfield, a minute one, in the western end of Crete. One of his battalions, the Twenty-first, was very weak, having been isolated and cut up near Mt. Olympus. At first it was only 190 strong but it grew to 350 as odd parties, including its C.O., Macky, arrived by caïques. In 4 Brigade the Eighteenth had lost 85 and the Nineteenth 156, and all three battalions were like the Twentieth in the amount of their equipment. The various miscellaneous units were at first organized into what was known as Oakes's Force.
On 30 April 4 Brigade moved into position, its task being to cover Canea against attack from the west and to destroy any hostile troops who landed in the Prison valley. We were separated by some five miles and high ground from 5 Brigade at Maleme. I went into Canea in the afternoon and after much searching got nails for my boots; while next day I got a truck, the only one, for the Brigade. Both acquisitions proved most valuable. We set to work to dig in, handicapped page 48 by the shortage of digging tools, of which we never got more than six per company. It was slow, hard work with these, with bayonets, and what clumsy farm and gardening implements we could find, to dig trenches in the stiff clay.
The first hint of the storm came on 2 May when there was a sharp Stuka raid on Suda Bay. We could not see what damage had been done but there were fires. General Freyberg came round and spoke to all officers and N.C.O.s and warned them that the attack was coming and that it would be tough going. He asked me if I thought the men would fight. I was very confident that they would. Perhaps I had eaten too many oranges, for on this day I had an attack of diarrhoea which stayed with me and kept me very weak until the fighting started, when it stopped as if by magic.
On the 4th and 5th there were more raids on Suda Bay. It was a delight to see several Stukas brought down, but there was a pall of smoke over the harbour and the working parties we had sent to unload stores came back to say their ship had been sunk. I had been unreasonably sceptical of any serious attempt at an air landing, but on this day Keith Stewart assured me that there would be one and that it would be a nasty affair.
On the 6th I went with Gentry, John Gray, Blackburn, now commanding the Nineteenth, and Guy Sanders, to Kosimo Kastelli, the little port near the western end of Crete. Here Bedding of the Nineteenth, two other New Zealand officers, and a dozen N.C.O.s were trying to get some order into 800 little Greeks, none more than fifteen days a soldier. They made enough progress to put up an astonishingly good resistance when the attack came, and actually to destroy the whole of the first attacking party. On the way home we had tea with Hargest, who was welcoming Major Trousdale and fifty-one men of the Twenty-first just back from a fortnight's wandering in the Aegean.
The next few days passed quietly. The General gave a very good cocktail party in Canea, the account for which was duly paid in 1945–4 Brigade band arrived, and we visited one another and enjoyed life. On the 14th the air page 49 attacks started again, both on Suda Bay and on Maleme, and on a heavier scale. It began to look like business.
|First Composite Bn.||Strength 750.||Formerly Oakes's Force, now under Lewis; gunners and A.S.C. acting as infantry.|
|N.Z. Divisional Cavalry.||Strength 190.||Commanded by John Russell. Armed with rifles and Brens.|
|Sixth Greek Bn.||Strength 1,400.||Col. Gregorio.|
|Eighth Greek Bn.||Strength 900.||Greek C.O. quite useless and Cliff Wilson actual commander.|
|Twentieth N.Z. Bn.||Strength 650.||Not to be employed without the approval of N.Z. Division.|
|1½ Platoons N.Z. Machine-guns.|
|1 Battery 5 Field Regiment, armed with 3 Italian 75's, without sights and with little ammunition.|
My Brigade Major was Brian Bassett of the Twenty-third; the staff-captain was Geoff Fussell of the Eighteenth. Brigade Headquarters consisted of a dozen signallers with just enough telephones and wire to reach all battalions, but no replacements whatever, and of course no wireless.
The Composite Battalion was composed of good material but both officers and men were wholly untrained in infantry work. Though reliable at first in defence, they were wholly incapable of manœuvre or attack and gradually lost confidence in themselves. The Greeks were malaria-ridden little chaps from Macedonia with four weeks' service. The Eighth Greeks had fired ten rounds each from their ancient Steyers, Sixth Greeks none, and neither battalion could be said to have any military value. The Divisional Cavalry was untrained in infantry work but was a well-disciplined confident unit, and easily adapted itself. Four of the six Vickers guns had tripods. There were two trucks for all purposes—supply, evacuation of wounded, and inter-communication. The Greeks had six heavy St. Étienne machine-guns, old page 50 type, and very worn, and no trained gunners. There was a dire shortage of digging tools, not more than six of all sorts for each company.
I established my headquarters in the biggest house in Galatos and selected a battle headquarters in what proved to be a very bad position. I spent 15th and 16th May going round my units and particularly in trying to get the Greeks into reasonable positions. They had a strong tendency to dig in on the tops of hills; while the gunners of the Composite Battalion were usually satisfied with a ten yards' field of fire.
Heavy raids continued on Suda Bay, several ships were sunk, and there was a monstrous pall of smoke over the bay, thickening and extending daily. On the 17th I walked out through the Prison valley, south-west of Galatos, and an ideal and expected place for a parachute landing, and visited John Russell and Cliff Wilson. Their units, the Divisional Cavalry and 8 Greek Battalion, were in positions nominally commanding the western end of the valley; but they had neither weapons nor troops adequate for the task. I warned them of the imminence of an attack and authorized John Russell to fall back via the high ground into my main position if he found he was doing no good. Cliff thought his Greek officers useless and he felt very lonely. He would be cut off by any landing and I could only try to encourage him, and tell him in the worst case to fall back into the hills and try to work round to rejoin us via Suda Bay. I did not tell him that I had argued elsewhere that 8 Greek Battalion was only a circle on the map—8G—and that it was murder to leave such troops in such a position, and had been told that, in war murder sometimes has to be done. We had lunch together in a spotlessly clean little parlour and then said good-bye for the last time.
The whole of the Prison valley was dominated by the Prison itself, a solid rectangle of buildings, impervious to our little guns. Its Governor was suspected of being pro-German, and so he proved. I have no recollection that we ever considered garrisoning it. Perhaps we were too tender of the civil authorities, or we may have thought it too easy a page 51 bombing target. It was very useful to the Germans who used it as a headquarters and a field ambulance.
That day and the next there were more heavy raids on Suda Bay and Maleme and reconnaissance aircraft were continuously overhead. On the 19th the tempo increased, Suda Bay was full of sunken ships, and transport on the road was machine-gunned. We went to bed convinced that the day was near. Inglis and I had a talk and satisfied each other that the attack would be disastrously repulsed.
An order had arrived during the day for twenty-four N.C.O.s to be sent to assist in training the Greek recruits who were guarding Italian prisoners miles away at Alikianou. I decided not to obey it meanwhile.
The right of 10 Brigade line rested on a bold bluff overlooking the sea, 1,800 yards north of Galatos. Thence it ran southerly through vineyards along a ridge for 2,000 yards to Wheat Hill, a bold feature which dominated the whole line 1,000 yards west of the village. Then the line turned eastwards across the Prison road 2,200 yards to Cemetery hill, a bare prominent knoll 800 yards south-east of Galatos and surmounted by a walled cemetery with cypress trees after the Eastern style. From this point the line ran southwards again for 2,000 yards across the Canea road to the Turkish fort, an ancient structure on a terraced foothill of the main range. The right sector, as far as the Prison road inclusive, some 3,200 yards, was held by the Composite Battalion with the Divisional Petrol Company in the most dangerous portion astride the Prison road. The Sixth Greeks held the remaining 3,000 yards of the brigade position. The Composite Battalion sector was dominated by Signal Hill, two miles westward, with numerous ravines and broken country between. The Prison valley, olive-trees and open pasture, lay opposite the rest of the position. Nearly two miles beyond it and quite isolated, the Divisional Cavalry and the Eighth Greeks held positions respectively north and south of the Agia Reservoir and power station. I had the only map in the Brigade.
Twentieth Battalion nominally belonged to 10 Brigade but could not be employed without Division's approval. It page 52 was in the hospital area west of Canea and Brigade Headquarters had no communication with it. Our nearest support was likely to come from the Nineteenth, in strong reserve positions east of Galatos.
The brigade front was covered by single or double apron wire, weapon pits were quite well constructed, and except for one circumstance there was no reason that it should not have been held against any attack likely in the first instance, despite the bad communications. This circumstance was that the Sixth Greeks had only three rounds per man. Our one truck had delivered five truckloads of ammunition during 19 May, but for some reason it had not been distributed, by whose fault we never discovered. If our troops had been well trained and armed a parachute landing in the Prison valley would have been easily dealt with. As it was, the two outlying units were in hopeless positions and there was little solid about the rest of the line. It was a pity that the Twentieth had been replaced by the Greeks and withdrawn into reserve where they did nothing all the vital first day.
The morning of 20 May was calm and cloudless, as was every day during the battle. Before the sunlight had reached the valleys the German reconnaissance plane appeared. Shortly afterwards a fighter arrived and started to roar up and down the main street of Galatos firing bursts at anything it could see. This struck me as a bit unusual so I hurriedly finished shaving and looked with some caution out of my first-floor window. Other fighters were swooping over the Canea road and there was a great deal of noise from aeroplane engines. Nothing appeared imminent, however, so I finished dressing and went down for breakfast under the trees outside. The plane was still tearing up and down the street and maybe the cooks were bustled, for the porridge was mere oatmeal and water. I was grumbling about this when someone gave an exclamation that might have been an oath or a prayer or both. Almost over our heads were four gliders, the first we had ever seen, in their silence inexpressibly menacing and frightening. Northwards was a growing thunder. I shouted: ‘Stand to your arms!’, and ran upstairs for my rifle and binoculars. I noticed my page 53 diary lying open on the table. Four years later it was returned to me, having meanwhile been concealed by some Cretan girl.
When I reached the courtyard again the thunder had become deafening, the troop-carriers were passing low overhead in every direction one looked, not more than 400 feet up, in scores. As I ran down the Prison road to my battle page 54 headquarters the parachutists were dropping out over the valley, hundreds of them, and floating quietly down. Some were spilling out over our positions and there was a growing crackle of rifle-fire. I pelted down the road, outpacing the two signallers who had started with me, and scrambled up the steep track to the battle post, a pink house on a little knoll east of the road. As I panted through the gap in the cactus hedge there was a startling burst of fire fairly in my face, cutting the cactus on either side of me. I jumped sideways, twisted my ankle, and rolled down the bank. After whimpering a little, I crawled up the track and into the house, and saw my man through the window. Then I hopped out again, hopped around the back and, in what seemed to me a nice bit of minor tactics, stalked him round the side of the house and shot him cleanly through the head at ten yards. The silly fellow was still watching the gap in the hedge and evidently had not noticed me crawl into the house.
The signallers and Brian Bassett arrived and Brian and I surveyed the situation while the signallers tested the lines. The whole valley was covered with discarded parachutes, like huge mushrooms, mostly white, with different colours for those which had been dropped with supplies. Men were running about among them but though there was fire none appeared to be falling. With a shock we saw that a good many had dropped behind the Greek position and that the Greeks were running all ways.
Our own front line, where the Divisional Petrol Company lay astride the road, was only a few hundred yards ahead, and we quickly found that we were in far too exposed a position. Bullets ripped through the cactus and soon it was obvious that we would not be able to stay with any comfort. It was necessary to be near one of our few telephones, so we decided to move to Composite Battalion Headquarters, a few hundred yards to the north. I took the tommy-gun and a pistol from the dead German; Brian and the signallers went back up the road to warn the rest of Headquarters of the change and I went direct through the trees. On the way I came on a dead parachutist hanging in his harness on an olive-tree.page 55
We settled down at Composite Battalion Headquarters, which consisted of a few holes in a hollow, but at least had a telephone. Everything was quiet south of Galatos. A few stray parachutists had landed in the battalion area and had been shot, others were being rounded up, and eventually there was a tally of fifty-five. Two parties of gunners and drivers each about thirty strong under young officers named McLean and Carson—the latter had represented New Zealand at cricket—did most of this rounding up. When they had finished it I kept them in hand as a reserve and we gave them some training as infantry. About 400 of the Greeks were rallied by Michael Forrester, an officer in the Queen's Regiment who was attached to the Greek Mission. He had arrived in Galatos on a visit that morning and decided to stay for the party. He somehow got the Greeks forward and established them on a rough line south of the village connecting the Petrol Company with the Nineteenth.
About 10 o'clock a tremendous racket started on the Galatos–Prison road. The Germans had organized themselves and put in a fierce thrust through the trees on both sides of the road. The Petrol Company was forced back several hundred yards to behind our original headquarters and had thirty-five casualties. McDonagh, its commander, was killed, and Fussell, my staff-captain, was mortally wounded. Harold Rowe, my supply officer, took command of the situation, the men fought stubbornly, and after a while the fighting died down.
There was then time to take stock of the position. Small-arms fire could still be heard from the Reservoir area but we could not see what was happening. 19 Battalion told us that they had killed 155 parachutists and, rather apologetically, that they had taken nine prisoners. They also apologized for having shot my Greek colonel, who was creating a nuisance by throwing grenades at them. Two or three snipers were hiding in Galatos, taking pot shots at intervals, and Carson went off after them. Otherwise the brigade area was clear. Our losses were not heavy, except for the near elimination of both the Greek Battalions. Numerous enemy fighters were about but were uncertain as to who was who page 56 and were doing little damage. Belated troop-carriers continued to arrive and drop their loads in the valley.
At midday there was a short flare-up when patrols approached Cemetery hill. The nearest Greeks set up a terrific yelling and about fifty of them charged. The patrols ran away smartly and all became quiet. Signals had by then got a line through to Division and I spoke cheerfully to General Puttick, who seemed decidedly pleased to hear me. I gathered from him that the position generally was thought to be in hand, there had been a big landing at Maleme and fighting was still going on. There were no troops to spare for a counter-attack so we turned our attention to lunch.
Brian and I were very annoyed that Composite Battalion Headquarters had done nothing whatever in this direction. We made the necessary arrangements and from then on I assumed direct command of the battalion as well as of the Brigade.
By captured orders we later learned that three battalions of the Third Parachute Regiment had landed in our area. They were very elaborate orders but had so far not been carried out. A German officer, Captain Neuhoff, of this regiment, who was interrogated after the war, said that very heavy casualties were suffered from the moment the men left the planes. From his aircraft only three men reached the ground unhurt, and those who jumped first, nearer to Galatos, were nearly all killed either in the air or soon after landing. This was our observation also. In his battalion approximately 350 men survived the initial landing and organizing period.
The afternoon started quietly. I was anxious about John Russell's Divisional Cavalry detachment and about the portion of the line held by the Greeks. They had very little ammunition left and though they did not seem to mind charging were obviously incapable of holding ground. McLean and Carson were sent up to stiffen them but about 4 o'clock both anxieties were ended when John brought his people in and took over the sector. Without long-range weapons he had been unable to interfere with the landing and so exercised the discretion I had given him and came in over Signal Hill. John had page 57 run a stick of bamboo into his leg and like me was very lame, but he had had no casualties. He reported that Cliff Wilson's Greeks appeared to be hopelessly dispersed and disorganized. For the next few days we frequently saw mortar bursts round the Reservoir and occasionally could hear distant rifle fire. No news ever came back from Cliff and long afterwards we learned that he had been killed. He is still remembered with warm affection and in him the Division lost an officer of great promise.
There was another half-hearted attack up the Prison road about this time but the Petrol Company beat it off emphatically and, according to Neuhoff, inflicted really heavy loss. Most of the Germans were armed with sub-machine-guns, not nearly as effective a weapon as the rifle at over 200 yards. I pressed again for infantry with which to counter-attack and was told that something would be done.
Late in the evening two companies of the Nineteenth, under Pleasants and McLaughlan, came over and moved to a start-line behind the Petrol Company. Three light tanks of the Third Hussars came into the village. These people said they were going to attack at 8.30 p.m. but were not at all clear what their objective was. The more common opinion was that they were to reach the edge of the olive-trees north of the prison and remain there to deal with any other landing in the morning. Exactly at zero hour I was informed that the Nineteenth was under my command. We tried to get in touch with the two companies but they had gone forward and it was already dark. We heard very little firing but my patrols, who could not have been very venturesome, failed to find them during the night. Before dawn McLean and his stalwarts went forward with orders from me to withdraw the infantry, Division having recognized that whatever opportunity there was had now gone. McLean found that they had only got about 200 yards past our original wire and were just about to resume their advance with little prospect of success. They came in, except for one platoon that went right across the valley and re-crossed, ten strong, three days later. Pleasants had inflicted about twenty casualties, McLaughlan claimed nothing. The tanks on the previous page 58 evening had gone to the edge of the olive-grove and returned after shooting a few Germans.
We were kept busy all this day, 21 May, though we reported the morning quiet except for persistent ground strafing, another small parachute landing, and a brisk attack up the Prison road. During the night the enemy had got on to Cemetery hill, enfilading part of our position and depriving us of our best observation post. 19 Battalion was still under command, so in the afternoon I attacked the hill with a squadron of the Cavalry and a company of the Nineteenth. This attack was difficult to organize and support but it was quite successful, several machine-guns and mortars being captured, and forty or fifty Germans killed or wounded. There were no tools to dig in with, however, and very little cover on the hill, so after a while the troops, who had been sharply mortared, came back and said the hill was untenable. The Germans appeared to agree and thenceforth both sides left it alone. John Russell and I, having got rather forward and climbed a tree to watch, were seen and had some frights before we got down amid a shower of twigs. We had thirty casualties in this affair.
During the afternoon we had heard that the Twentieth was to go up to Maleme to make a counter-attack with the Maoris. I was able to ring Jim Burrows and wish him luck.
Two days had now elapsed since the landing and it had not yet occurred to us that we were going to be beaten. Instead the impression prevailed that the enemy was evacuating and during the night I was directed to be as aggressive as possible the next day, 22 May. Quite early in the morning we heard that matters had not gone over well at Maleme and that the Twentieth had been badly cut up. It was clear by now, too, that there was no question of the enemy evacuating but that the troop-carriers which we could see flying towards Maleme in an unending procession were bringing reinforcements. Nevertheless, 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 page 59 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 enemy 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. The enemy followed, raising strange yelping cries and firing continuously. I sent McLean to reinforce the Petrol Company and moved with Carson to Wheat hill with the idea of counter-attacking from that flank. The line had gone back some 500 yards, fighting from tree to tree, when we got there. The Germans, whose left was quite close, were abreast of the hill and between us and Galatos. They had also started a direct attack on the western side of Wheat hill. There was a beautiful opening for Carson, and I was waiting for him to line his men up before giving him the order to charge, when a most infernal uproar broke out across the valley. Over an open space in the trees near Galatos came running, bounding, and yelling like Red Indians, about a hundred Greeks and villagers including women and children, led by Michael Forrester twenty yards ahead. It was too much for the Germans. They turned and ran without hesitation, and we went back to our original positions.
I reinforced the Petrol Company with twenty gunners, borrowed a platoon from the Nineteenth, and gave John Russell command of the Petrol Company as well as his own people. The Greeks were collected and reassembled under Forrester behind the village—and a very busy day ended.
Five patrols of about thirty men each went out from the Composite Battalion position. Three moved west along the coast road and then turned southwards to clear the valleys as far west as Agia Marina. About forty Germans were found in the little village of Agio Goannino and nearly all disposed of by Veitch's party. A 12-year-old Cretan boy gave invaluable help here. The other two patrols moved south page 60 of the high ground, and one, under the indefatigable Carson, got as far as Lake Agia and caused some disturbance.
During the day we were rather frequently attacked by fighters, though without great effect, and the enemy mortar fire became much heavier. We copied some of the German ground-to-air signals, without knowing what they meant, and got an interesting assortment of supplies, including a nice new mortar but no ammunition.
My sprained ankle was becoming a nuisance as it prevented me from getting about as much as I should have and also kept me awake when the odd chances of sleeping came. Brian Bassett, my Brigade Major, was a great help. He managed to visit every unit and sub-unit at least once daily, was always cheerful and optimistic, and keenly observant. It was such a pleasure working with him that the battle was almost enjoyable. It was also a delight to have John Russell with me, cheerful and determined and uncomplaining. His batman could always produce a cup of tea, a very important point. Some other officers, especially those who had not had much to do, were beginning to show signs of strain. The Composite Battalion's casualties were now 190, those of the Divisional Cavalry 60, and Lomas, the Battalion's medical officer, warned me that morale was going down. During the day we had an increasing number of cases of slightly wounded men being brought in by three or four friends in no hurry to go back.
23 May was a quiet day for 10 Brigade, but we heard the bad news that 5 Brigade was leaving the Maleme area and moving into reserve behind us. With the help of a company of the Eighteenth we put parties south of the coastal road to cover the retirement. These came in late at night, having had several small brushes and having effectively covered their part of the retirement. Enemy patrols from the Prison area were active and Russell's group was constantly engaged. There was the usual mortaring and ground strafing, with a further ominous increase in the former. I managed to get round most of the Composite Battalion and was forced to the reluctant conclusion that it was in no condition to meet the heavy attacks that must come soon. All day we could see page 61 enemy troops moving into position on the lower features of Signal hill. We had nothing to reach them with and they troubled very little about concealment.
At midday I went down to Division by truck and reported the state of affairs to General Puttick. He at once decided that the Eighteenth should relieve the Composite Battalion in the evening. Apart from the General and Gentry, who gave no sign of perturbation, the atmosphere at Division was not cheerful. I saw some of the Twentieth platoons moving back, looking dazed and weary to exhaustion, and for the first time felt the coming of defeat. During this visit there was a very heavy bombing of the area, so heavy and prolonged that we thought it preceded another parachute landing. I had stupidly come out weaponless and was very relieved when nothing happened.
Inglis came up soon after my return and we arranged the details. 10 Brigade came under the command of 4 Brigade. Russell's Group, who had had the bulk of the fighting but were in the best condition, stayed in position. 18 Battalion took over the line from the sea to Wheat hill inclusive, unfortunately not taking over the feature we called Ruin hill. Composite Battalion, less the sturdy Petrol Company, moved a few hundred yards back to a ridge running north from Galatos. My headquarters moved to a half-completed building at the eastern exits of the village and Michael Forrester managed to move his mob of Greeks to the same area. Fifty of them, under a very stout young Greek officer, remained in the line under Russell.
These moves were not completed until early morning. It was heartening to see the Eighteenth come in—looking very efficient and battle-worthy—in painful contrast with the columns of clumps in which my unfortunate quasi-infantry got about. One of the Composite Battalion's officers told me that the contrast completed his discouragement.
The morning of 24 May was ominously quiet. I managed to walk along the whole of the Composite Battalion's new line and get them into something like reasonable positions. I also tried to put a little heart into some of the officers, but page 62 too many had only the idea that they had done their bit and should be relieved. It was only too clear that the unit had little fighting value left.
The afternoon was lively enough. 18 Battalion was heavily mortared, and there was a lot of ground strafing. In the evening John Cray reported that he was being attacked and asked for help. I put 120 men from the Composite Battalion page 63 under his orders but they were not used, and by dark all was quiet again. About this time 18 Battalion issued an unfortunate order that if companies were too hard pressed they were to retire to the next ridge. This came to Inglis's knowledge and he promptly ordered it to be countermanded, but it probably had some effect on the battalion next day. I reported to Inglis in the evening that the line did not look too stable. What remained of the Twentieth was his only reserve but he promised to do what he could.
The next day brought hard and critical fighting. All morning there were continuous air attacks and steadily increasing mortar and machine-gun fire. Numerous parties of Germans moved into cover opposite 18 Battalion's front and about midday a column about 1,500 strong moved in threes to obvious assembly positions.
B., C., and D. companies of the Twentieth, organized into two companies under Fountaine and O'Callaghan and 140 strong, were sent up by Inglis. I placed them in reserve in the olive-trees north of Galatos, intending to use them for counter-attack. Jim Burrows came with them and said it was nice to be under my command again. Early in the afternoon they were particularly heavily bombed and machine-gunned. From midday mortaring and air attacks became intense and John Russell's front was warmly engaged.
About 4 o'clock a dozen Stukas dive-bombed Galatos. We had no anti-aircraft defences and they must have enjoyed it. My headquarters had one or two very near misses. At this stage I was standing on a table looking through a window that gave a view over the line from the village to the sea, and every few minutes I had to stand aside to avoid being seen by one of the planes continuously cruising over the tree-tops shooting at everything in sight. Fountaine, O'Callaghan, and Carson were with me, waiting the order to counterattack. Carson's batman kept us all going with cups of tea.
Immediately after the bombing the main infantry attack started against the Eighteenth, and the crackle of musketry swelled to a roar, heavily punctuated by mortar bursts. Inglis rang and asked what all the noise was about and I could only say that things were getting warm. I estimated page 64 the mortar bursts at six a minute on one company sector alone. ‘Overs’ from the German machine-guns were crackling all round our building in the most alarming manner. The telephone system had been almost destroyed by the bombing; the line to Brigade now went out and, though the linesmen worked gallantly, was never restored.
I went a few hundred yards forward to get a view of Wheat hill, and for a few minutes watched, fascinated, the rain of mortar bursts. In a hollow, nearly covered by undergrowth, I came on a party of women and children huddled together like little birds. They looked at me silently, with black, terrified eyes.
After two hours of this John Gray came back and said that his right company had been overwhelmed. I told him to counter-attack with his reserve (his Headquarters' Company and Bliss's 120 men) and restore the situation. Brian Bassett went with him and later returned to say that the counterattack had failed, though padre, clerks, batmen, everyone who could carry a rifle, had taken part. In the meantime two runners in succession had come direct to me from the company holding Wheat hill asking permission to retire and had gone back with refusals.
I decided that the time had come to use the Twentieth and ordered it to move fast to the right of the Composite Battalion's ridge. Fountaine and O'Callaghan ran out, stooping under the stream of ‘overs’. They got into position, finding the Composite Battalion nearly all gone though it had only been getting ‘overs’, and hung on grimly. For the rest of the evening it was a comfort to hear their fight going steadily on.
Matters were now looking grave, for John Russell reported that he was being hard pressed, and a trickle of stragglers was coming back past me. I sent Brian on foot to tell Inglis the position and say that I must have help. There were nearly 200 wounded at the Regimental Aid Post, close to headquarters. Our two trucks worked incessantly, taking them down to the Advanced Dressing Station in loads like butcher's meat.
John Gray himself came back about 7.30 p.m., almost the last of his battalion, and looking twenty years older than three hours before. I told him to reorganize his battalion on the Daratsos Ridge. The Greeks had attempted a charge while the Eighteenth was rallying, but this time the men would not face the fire and they disappeared from the field. Fortunately Inglis had acted unhesitatingly and a steady stream of reinforcements was coming up the road; I set to work to build a new line.
The first to arrive was 4 Brigade band, which I put to line a stone wall a hundred yards in front of my headquarters. The Pioneer platoon of the Twentieth and the Kiwi Concert Party extended their right, and A. Company of the Twenty-third under Carl Watson carried it farther towards the sea. Runners got through to the Twentieth with orders to come back to prolong the right of this company. O'Callaghan was never seen again after he had arranged with Fountaine how to carry out this order, but somehow the withdrawal was carried out. There were swarms of Germans everywhere page 66 among the trees but their advance seemed to have lost its impetus and darkness was near. Firing was still incessant and general, too general, for some of the Eighteenth on the ridge behind opened fire on me when I was silhouetted rather too prominently somewhere, and splintered the tree against which I was leaning.
Brian, who seemed to be everywhere at once, appeared at this stage and told me that the third company of the Twentieth, Washbourn's, was in position behind the other two, and this part of the line was secure. Also that more of the Twenty-third, from 5 Brigade, were coming up. The Composite Battalion, on the other hand, he said had cleared out. We long afterwards learnt that some gallant groups had hung on desperately to the end; but the rest of the Division knew nothing of their fate until the war was over and prisoners, who had been there, returned.
The position began to look more hopeful, when it suddenly worsened again. An officer, who had skirted Galatos, arrived with a message from John Russell that he was being heavily attacked frontally and that the enemy was in Galatos behind him. The sound of firing on the whole line increased and there was again mortar fire in it. Evidently the enemy was making his last effort before night.
Two ancient Mark VI tanks of the 3rd Hussars came up the road. Farran stopped and spoke to me and I told him to go into the village and see what was there. He clattered off and we could hear him firing briskly, when two more companies of the Twenty-third arrived, C. and D., under Harvey and Manson, each about eighty strong. They halted on the road near me. The men looked tired, but fit to fight and resolute. It was no use trying to patch the line any more; obviously we must hit or everything would crumble away. I told the two company commanders that they would have to retake Galatos with the help of the two tanks. No, there was no time for reconnaissance; they must move straight in up the road, one company either side in single file behind the tanks, and take everything with them. Stragglers and walking wounded were still streaming past. Some stopped to join in as did Carson and the last four of his party. The page 67 men fixed bayonets, and waited grimly. One of the platoon commanders, Connolly, came up and gave me a photograph of my wife and family which he had brought from New Zealand.
Farran came back with his two tanks and put his head out of the turret. ‘The place is stiff with Jerries’, he said. I told him that I had two companies of infantry; would he go in again with them? Certainly he would, but he had a driver and a gunner wounded; could they be replaced? I turned to a party of Sappers who had just arrived and asked for volunteers. Two men, one named Lewis, immediately volunteered, the wounded men were dragged out, and they clambered aboard. I told Farran to take them down the road to give them a ten minutes' course of instruction and that we would attack as soon as he came back. My batman went off to John Gray with a message that we were counter-attacking and an order to join in.
We waited another ten minutes, the air filled with noise and tracer crackling incessantly overhead—and then Farran came rattling back. He stopped and we spoke for a moment. I said the infantry would follow him, and he was not to go farther than the village square: ‘Now get going.’ He yelled to the second tank to follow him, pulled the turret lid down, and set off. The infantry followed at a walk, then broke into a run, started shouting—and running and shouting disappeared into the village. Instantly there was the most startling clamour, audible all over the field. Scores of automatics and rifles being fired at once, the crunch of grenades, screams and yells—the uproar swelled and sank, swelled again to a terrifying crescendo. Some women and children came scurrying down the road; one old woman frantic with fear clung desperately to me. The firing slackened, became a brisk clatter, steadily became more distant, and stopped. The counter-attack had succeeded, it was nearly dark, and the battlefield suddenly became silent.
Before the end Thomason, commanding the Twenty-third, page 69 had arrived with his last company. The position was now stabilized for the night and there was nothing left of 10 Brigade. I told Thomason where everyone was and, more tired than ever before in my life, or since, walked down the road with Johnny Sullivan to report to Inglis.
It was quite dark when we arrived at Brigade Head-quarters and we stumbled round for some time among the trees. Inglis was in a tarpaulin-covered hole in the ground, seated at a table with a very poor light. Burrows, Blackburn, and Sanders were already there. Dittmer, the Maori Battalion commander, arrived a moment after me. Inglis was anxious to use the Maoris in a night attack and recover the ground. It was clear to all of us that if this was not feasible Crete was lost. It was a difficult operation, perhaps impossible: darkness, olive-trees, vineyards, no good start-line, only 400 men in the battalion. Dittmer said it was difficult; I said it could not be done and that it would need two fresh battalions. Inglis rightly pressed, remarking that we were done if it did not come off—‘Can you do it, George?’ Dittmer said, ‘I'll give it a go!’ We sat silently looking at the map; and then Gentry, the G.1, lowered himself into the hole. Inglis explained the position. Without hesitation Gentry said ‘No’—the Maoris were our last fresh battalion and if used now we would not be able to hold a line to-morrow.
There was no further argument; it was quickly decided that Galatos must be abandoned and everyone brought back to the Daratsos line before morning. I returned to the Twentieth Headquarters with Jim Burrows and slept under a tree while he reassembled the battalion.
The Twentieth had been in reserve and in coast defence positions during the first two days. In the evening of the 21st it had been detached to counter-attack at Maleme with the Maoris and re-capture the airfield. It was known that the enemy was about to attempt a sea-transported landing and consequently the battalion was not allowed to leave its position near Canea until relieved by an Australian battalion. Then it was to move to near Platanias in trucks which had brought the Australians, put in a night attack, and be consolidated by dawn. Unluckily the Australians, bombed page 70 en route, were late and the relief was not completed until after midnight; the attack did not get under way until 4 next morning. It was vigorously pushed, some of Upham's most notable exploits helping the advance; but daylight came before the airfield had been cleared and further progress became impossible. If the attack by these two battalions had been successful the enemy could have brought no more troop-carriers in until he had cleared new landing-strips farther west, and the whole position would have been altered, for the sea invasion was intercepted by the Navy and we might have been in a position to make a general counter-offensive. The Twentieth withdrew by stages to its original area, and from then on the 25th shared in the fighting at Galatos. It had had 292 casualties, including thirteen officers, of whom Rice, Scoltock, and Green had been killed, and was now not much more than 300 strong.
There was hard fighting about Daratsos on the 26th but 5 Brigade held firm and we rested all day. There was a project to form an improvised brigade of some British infantry, including a battalion of the Welch Regiment, which had not yet been seriously engaged. Inglis went off to take command and I took over 4 Brigade, less the Nineteenth, which came under the command of Hargest, and also less A. Company of the Twentieth, which somehow had become attached to the Twenty-first and was retained by that battalion.
It took me all day to discover the Eighteenth and the Composite Battalion—in fact, their commanders discovered me. While its commander was looking for me the Composite Battalion, for its own reasons, made another eastwards movement and we lost all touch with it thenceforward. Inglis returned in the evening, having been unable to find the units of his projected brigade, and resumed command. I returned again to the Twentieth.
There was again heavy fighting on the 27th, but 5 Brigade and Vasey's Australian Brigade held their positions and we were not called on. We spent the day straightening ourselves out and were soon in good shape. The infantry had fought so successfully that, despite nearly 50 per cent. losses, morale page 71 was, if anything, higher than before the battle started. Nevertheless, the news from many quarters made it plain that the end was near and I was unashamedly pleased in the evening when orders came to set off on the march over the mountains to Sphakia and there embark.
We moved in the evening, joined the main column of retreating troops near Suda Bay, and after a weary night march halted in an olive-grove. Shortly after daylight a sergeant from the Welch Regiment arrived in full retreat also. He said that the rearguard had been overwhelmed and his battalion cut up. I thought him just another panic-stricken straggler but his story was true enough this time.
Another rearguard was apparently produced and during the day we saw its positions on the hill behind us being heavily mortared. We were not called on and rested all day, except for a very unpleasant and sustained attack by fighters who discovered us under our trees. Strain was telling on some people and after this attack one officer continued digging until he could not climb out of his pit. One of my officers, who had been badly shaken, appeared walking very fast with odd automaton-like steps and quivering incessantly. He made a great effort to control himself, offered cigarettes to Jim and me, and continued his move at a high velocity.
We discovered a dump of biscuits and bully and saw that every man had as much as he could carry. Everyone washed and cleaned up and made ready for the hard march ahead, some forty miles to Sphakia over a rough, steep mountain road. Pat Welch brought me a billy of tea and I promised to overlook the next few days he overstayed leave. In due course he reminded Bob Orr of the promise, but either there was some technical flaw or Bob thought I had not contemplated a three-weeks' absence.
We were ordered to move to the plain of Askipho, twenty-two miles by the map, and take up positions there to deal with any parachute landing intended to intercept the retreat. This was a desperately hard march, uphill nearly all the way, and made more difficult by the masses of masterless troops, British and Greek, who cluttered the way. Mostly non-combatants of various descriptions, their officers had page 72 lost all grip and they were in a panic-stricken and pitiful state. We plodded on at a steady pace, kept well closed up, halted for the regulation ten minutes before every clock hour, and ruthlessly beat all stragglers out of our column.
At one point, half-way through the march, the road forked and I was uncertain which fork to follow. I spread a map on the ground and turned a torch on to it. Immediately there was a chorus of cries from the bank above: ‘Put out that … light!’ and a man rushed up and kicked the torch out of my hand. I stood up and seized him by the throat, throttled until he started to choke, and threw him down. I then stated if there was any more such talk I would open fire. Apart from a few satisfied grunts from the column behind me there was a dead silence, so I turned on the torch again and resumed study of the map. I was still puzzling when Dick Hutchens, one of the L.O.s1 on Brigade Head-quarters, came up and placed a finger unhesitatingly on the right-hand fork, and we all got up and followed his intuition, for that is all it could have been.
We trudged on, through silent villages, through one where there was a burning house, up interminable spirals. Once we all overslept for half an hour at the hourly halt and woke guiltily but refreshed. At last about 7 o'clock, after thirteen hours on the road, I halted, though we were still short of the plain, meaning to resume the move in an hour's time. The men were reeling with fatigue and with my still-swollen ankle every step was a crisis.
Within ten minutes the Brigade Major, who had travelled ahead by truck, appeared and administered a reprimand to me for stopping before we had reached our destination. He offered to lead us to the plain by a short cut, for the road wound and climbed crazily. Off we went and got at once into some country that would have been difficult for fit and fresh men. I should have turned back to the road but thought that would be the last straw for the men, and plodded on. page 73 A peasant came up and offered to guide us; he said the track was ‘all right for Cretan, for soldier no good’. However, we managed it somehow, climbed up a very steep pinch to the rim of the hills round the little plain, and then down an almost vertical face to the plain itself, arriving about midday. We then moved, very slowly indeed, to positions from which we could command every part of the flat, and by about 3 o'clock the men settled down and slept at once.
I went off to Brigade Headquarters intending to shoot the Brigade Major, but was easily mollified by a tot of whisky, a beautiful cold bath, and a cigar of the Brigadier's. In quite a good humour I returned to the battalion and there Jim Burrows and I shared a blanket and his gas-cape in an extraordinarily uncomfortable position on the hill-side. There did not seem to be a square foot of flat ground in this part of Crete.
Next day, the 29th, we spent quietly in our positions. Large numbers of troops passed through en route for Sphakia, the infantry in good order and still moving in sections at intervals, most of the others in no formation whatever. I saw A. Company of the Twentieth passing through. Markham told me they had had a lovely fight yesterday and both he and Washbourn were pleased about a bayonet charge they had done. Very wrongly I ordered the company to stay with me and heard afterwards that the Twenty-first had an anxious time looking for it.
Water-bottles were short and many were stolen by stragglers. The rearguard was still north of the plain and we were not molested, except occasionally by low-flying aircraft. Whenever a plane appeared, however far away, everyone on the road except the infantry would scurry for cover, and several times I had to go out and be very angry to get movement going again.
General Puttick with Divisional Headquarters was in a hamlet on the plain. Something I heard about the orders for embarkation annoyed me, and without any right to do so I went to speak about it. Frank Davis gave me a beautiful sponge, there was a lovely little spring, so I stripped, soaped, and bathed myself, addressing the General and Keith page 74 Stewart the while. They listened tolerantly and it eased my mind. I had travelled in the one truck we had with the battalion and on the way back was nearly shot off the road by a fighter.
Then an order arrived for us to go back to the northern approaches to the plain, which was as much like the bottom of a sugar-bowl as anything else, and take up a position there until 8 p.m. This did not appeal to me, as it meant a six-mile tramp there and back and we were in good positions where we sat. So I made another trip to Inglis and persuaded him to send a company of the Eighteenth instead. I don't know whether the Division ever knew.
That evening, the night of 29 May, we set off on another long night march. It was not less difficult than the other two and there was more trouble with the stragglers. These were now being organized in groups of fifty, they were tired and quiet but they jammed the road, and we had to force our way through them. It was the policy that formed units should have priority for embarkation after providing a rearguard, and indeed very few got away from Crete who were not with their units.
About daylight we reached the end of the formed road and halted in sight of the sea in a memorably stony spot. I had a slight bickering with an officer from 5 Brigade Headquarters who thought I was in the wrong place, but we were both too tired to pursue the argument.
A few hours later we moved down an extremely steep track and halted in a ravine, known as Rhododendron valley, close to the cave which housed Force Headquarters. Inglis was there and I climbed out of the ravine to speak to him. He handed me the following warning order:
Force HQ directs that the following tps only embark tonight:
Balance of 19, 20 and 28 (Maori) Bns. will be placed under command Lt. Col. Burrows and it is expected will be embarked tomorrow night.page 75
HQ of each unit must be embarked tonight.
Units will organize forthwith parties to embark tonight.
Orders for the move to the beaches will be issued tonight.
G. P. Sanders,
Inglis explained that the Navy could only take off 1,000 men and he sharply overruled my protest against Burrows being left.
While we were talking there was a close and violent outbreak of firing from the ravine and for a few minutes almost equally violent perturbation round Force Headquarters. It appeared that an enemy party was in the ravine within a few hundred yards. Inglis went off to organize resistance on the eastern side. I went to the edge and shouted orders to Washbourn to take his company up the bed of the ravine and to Fountaine to climb up the cliffs on the western side.
Both companies set off promptly and in a few minutes the firing died down. I went back to the valley and with a heart as cold as stone sat down to consider the position. I had 306 men, including the Kiwi Concert Party and 4 Brigade band. I decided that the Concert Party and band must stay, which left about 40 to remain from the Twentieth. These were apportioned between companies and I told them to make the selection any way they liked. I decided that Markham should be the officer to stay but, when a deputation of subalterns came to point out that he was, married and to push their own claims to be left, selected Rolleston instead. I had to turn down very emphatically some urgent appeals to be left with the rear-party.
Meanwhile Upham's platoon was slowly climbing the steep 600-foot hill west of the ravine. The men were weak and very weary but they kept slowly going, and we could see that Upham was working round above the Germans still in the bottom of the ravine and pinned down by Washbourn's company and by fire from the eastern bank. Two hours after they had started the climb there was another sharp outburst of firing. It lasted about a minute, there were then some single shots, and then silence. A little later Upham's page 76 platoon started to come back and then a message came that all twenty-two of the enemy party had been killed, completely helpless under his plunging fire.
The companies made their selections and Jim Burrows started to organize his rear-party and to take over water and food from those who were to go. Fountaine's company came back, very hot and tired. When they were collected Fountaine told them how many were to stay and asked for volunteers. There was a gasp and then Grooby, the C.S.M., stepped forward. He was followed at once by Fraser, the C.Q.M.S., and by Kirk and Vincent, the two sergeants, and then the remaining forty men. The N.C.O.s insisted on staying and after much argument lots had to be drawn for the men.
The afternoon wore miserably on, but at last there was nothing for it but to say good-bye and go. I spoke as reassuringly as I could to the rear-party, shook hands with Jim, and went off very sadly.
We had a tramp of some miles to the beach, the last part lined with men who had lost their units and were hoping for a place with us. Some begged and implored, most simply watched stonily, so that we felt bitterly ashamed. There was a cordon round the beach with orders to shoot any man who tried to break in. I had to count my men through. We were the last unit to pass, and on the principle that there is always room for one more, I bullied the cordon officer into letting me take Frank Davis, with some of Divisional Headquarters as well. I had Brian Bassett with me and just before embarking found that John Russell was in an A.D.S. on the beach and insisted on taking him also.
We embarked on the Australian destroyer Napier and were at once led to great piles of bread and butter, jugs of cold water, and urns of coffee. We ate and drank incredible quantities. An Australian colonel and his Adjutant got aboard, but just before sailing discovered that their battalion had not embarked and went hurriedly ashore again. We sailed after midnight and made for Alexandria at full speed. I had been given the purser's cabin and some pyjamas, and slept profoundly.
Late in the morning I was shaving when suddenly there page 77 was a stunning concussion, everything loose in the cabin crashed all ways, and I found myself sitting on the floor in darkness. My first thought was that the cable announcing my safe arrival would not now be sent. Actually we had a near miss which reduced speed to some twenty knots. I went out and for some time sat with the others in the darkness, waiting as calmly as possible to be drowned. I was a bit disgusted with the way John Gray was rushing round until it appeared that he wanted to get out to take photographs. The ack-ack guns barked furiously, there were other concussions farther away, but we could do nothing but wait and hope for the best. It is a common enough experience to be bombed but we formed the opinion that it is nicer on land than aboard ship.
The racket died down and we went out into the brilliant sunshine. I hastily finished shaving and dressing and decided to spend the rest of the voyage on deck. There was one more scare, but it was caused only by two of our planes which were a shade late in giving the recognition signal. Once the ship stopped altogether but at last we saw the palmtrees of Amiriya and then the towers of Alexandria rising out of the sea. We had never realized that Egypt was so beautiful a country.
We came into Alexandria harbour in style, standing to attention and saluting, and the Navy blowing pipes as we passed each ship. It looked like the graveyard of the Mediterranean Fleet. Every ship showed damage and many were listing or down by the stern. We tied up and I went up to the bridge to thank the Captain. While there I was very distressed to see R.S.M. Wilson hurrying down the gangway. Then he called loudly for markers from Twentieth Battalion and I watched with pride while he collected, dressed, and placed them, all as correctly and smartly as if at Maadi. The men filed down and it was good to see that every one was armed and every one was shaved. The R.S.M. fell them in, handed over to the Adjutant with full routine, the Adjutant handed over to me—and we marched off, I stumping hatless and very proudly at the head and everyone on the wharf saluting.page 78
We spent the next day in a transit camp at Amiriya, got clean clothes, showered, and rested. Also we drank a large amount of beer. In the evening we heard that some more ships, the last embarkation, were coming in. I went down, saw the Orion with grim-faced sailors unloading the bodies of the hundreds of the Black Watch killed by a single bomb—and the Perth with both her fore-turrets blackened wrecks—and then saw the Phoebe come in. Troops streamed off her and then I saw Grooby, and then Fraser, Dave Kirk, and little Vincent, and the rest of them, and then Jim, and met them openly crying.
Late the next night we arrived at Helwan and went to the lines from which we had left for Greece. Twelve of us went into the mess which forty had left, and drank and talked quietly into the small hours.
1 L.O.: Liaison Officer—the practice was to attach junior officers from units to the headquarters of the formation to which the unit belonged or was attached. Their duties were adequately indicated by their description, and in addition they carried out many minor staff duties on the formation head-quarters. Dick Hutchens was 19 Battalion L.O. on 4 Brigade Headquarters.