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19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment

CHAPTER 9 — Reorganisation on Crete

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Reorganisation on Crete

… fell into a profound sleep in which we forgot not only cold, great hunger, and fatigue, but our own names and our souls, and passed as it were, into a deep bath of forgetfulness.

—H. Belloc

The first weeks spent in Crete can be divided into three periods. One, when flaccid and comatose men lounged and were content to lounge, not caring about the past or worrying over the future. Two, when returning vitality after a surfeit of sleep caused individual mental and physical wrestlings with self and surroundings. Three, when phœnix-like the unit rose, cut its losses, reorganised its forces, and stood ready to fight again in a campaign which was to prove even more severe and costly than its first.

For most men, two days and nights saw the end of that first period. The second, with its tempo increasing daily, lasted for perhaps a week. The third period carried the unit through the days of feverish preparation, through the air blitz, into the attack, and on through the deadly duel which characterised the bitter defence and rearguard actions. The survivors took back this spirit of doggedness with them to Egypt and passed it on to the reinforcements when the unit was brought up to strength once more. Tried by fire, hallowed by sacrifice and strengthened by adversity, this esprit de corps would bind the men of the 19th together through the long years of war which lay ahead.

On 28 April, a fine sunny morning, the battalion woke to find itself at Suda Bay for the second time in six weeks. Ajax, Kimberley, and Kingston had made a fast passage from Porto Rafti and now, anchored in the blue bay, they disembarked their tired passengers and prepared to return once more to Greece, where at Monemvasia 6 Brigade waited its turn to be taken off.

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An unshaven, unmilitary-looking rabble debouched from the three smart grey ships into waiting barges. British troops, Greeks, Australians, Yugoslavs and New Zealanders, a mixture of many nations and all arms, were ferried to the quayside and shepherded to a refreshment camp just outside the town where food was waiting. In retrospect it can hardly be termed an attractive meal—bully, biscuits, scalding tea, and a small sweet orange—but it was a meal to remember. Eaten at leisure, the first food for weeks served as a set meal and not snatched as a snack, it was little wonder that every man managed each course on the frugal but welcome menu. Mess gear was short; however, except for tea, utensils were superfluous. Mugs and tins were passed around, filled and refilled, until each man’s thirst was slaked. After food, a rest and a smoke, the sorting out of units began.

A rough stocktaking showed that two men were missing from the evacuation and that the battalion had arrived in Crete with a total of 475 all ranks. Despite the loss of over 25 per cent of its strength it was still a fighting force: its dishevelled but serried ranks could still muster 449 rifles, 32 Bren guns, 2 three-inch mortars, 36 tommy guns, 25 pistols and 6 anti-tank rifles. Carrying their precious weapons, the unit formed up and began the weary march to the bivouac area, five miles away among the olive groves near Galatas.

It was a long, hot plod down the dusty road, but the quiet countryside and the promise of sleep ahead kept the overtaxed troops moving on. The grass and shade by the roadside beckoned invitingly and at every halt men cast themselves wearily down to fall asleep immediately. When stirred once more into wakefulness they trudged dully and stiffly forward, until that afternoon, beneath the olive trees among a sparse crop of green barley, the march came to an end.

There were no amenities and practically no necessities on the spot where the 19th stopped, but fatigue needs no feathers. Comfort came from the bare ground, relaxation from the knowledge that sleep would be safe and undisturbed. Sleep itself was all sufficient. Food and blankets page 113 were forgotten as, huddled together in groups for warmth, the weary men shared the scanty coverings available and dropped off into oblivion.

Next day was spent in drowsing and in desultory organisation. Blankets were issued, one to be shared among each three men, and rations were received, but as yet there was no desire for movement and there was little response to normal routine calls. It was warm, and sleep and sun were the tonic tired bodies still craved. Night fell, but few were awake when darkness came.

On 1 May there were signs of returning strength, but the degree of exhaustion remaining still claimed much rest. The troops, however, were now flocking to the two-foot-wide creek on the other side of the valley road and to wells for water to wash and shave. Companies were sorted out and the unit moved a short distance, dispersed, and took over an area just south of Karatsos in an anti-paratroop role as reserve battalion of 4 Brigade. Fifth Brigade moved to the Maleme aerodrome, while news was received that the 6th was now safely in Egypt.

With a definite job to do, the moribund period ended and the battalion embarked on the task of clearing up its area and improvising camp facilities. There were no tools and no cooking appliances but company cookhouses soon came into being. Mud stoves, petrol-tin cookers and containers, fuel from the olive groves and mess gear from bully-beef tins quickly became standard equipment. Hygiene and sanitation were attended to. The administrative side began to function normally. Rations were arranged and supplemented where possible by a few vegetables, and oranges, which were plentiful and cheap, were bought from the villagers. The water point was set up at a well in the valley between Galatas and Karatsos.

That night, after the evening meal, groups gathered and reviewed events of the past few weeks. Sections, platoons, and companies became grimly aware of their losses. To men who had served, lived, and shared together for so long, every gap was keenly felt. After Servia a connected story was impossible. Now in the quietness of the Cretan twilight page 114 men began to piece together the saga of the past month. The fate of Wellington West Coast Company at Corinth was not fully known—were they all captured after the fight? The reinforcements sent to Volos when the unit moved north—had they got off? The sick and wounded evacuated to hospitals in Greece during the early stages of the campaign—how had they fared?

The casualty return issued that day was a sad commentary on the cost of the campaign in Greece—6 killed, 30 wounded, 178 missing—but the last figure was provisional only. All knew that it would contain, when the final results were made known, a large proportion of killed and wounded.1

Their companies remembered with affection those who had been left behind killed or evacuated from the field wounded: Chas Hiskens,2 the father of Wellington Company, a veteran of the First World War, wounded during the first air blitz at Servia Pass; the cheerful, inimitable Corporal ‘Ned’ Kelly, who succumbed to wounds after the engagement with the Hun infantry; Lance-Corporal McRae,3 the long, lean orderly-room clerk from Hawke’s Bay Company, who had been killed by a shell while standing outside his company headquarters. Not only had the unit lost a large proportion of its fighting strength but each man who remained had lost friends. With the sadness, however, was mingled a certain satisfaction. The battalion had not been beaten. Despite the heavy odds against it, it had got away. It had not run away, but under the nose of a superior force had been evacuated in good order. Where it had fought against the German infantryman it had beaten him, and when at his mercy on the embarkation beaches he had lacked the nerve to attack. From the campaign in Greece had come an undaunted doggedness of spirit which would serve the unit well in all future actions.

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Early in the first week in May it became clear that Crete was destined to be more than a mere staging place and rest area for those who had survived Greece. The battered wrecks of warships and merchantmen in Suda Bay spoke eloquently of the attention the harbour had received from the Axis air forces before we landed. Raids were now increasing in frequency and it was obvious to all that preparations were being made for the defence of the island against an enemy landing. A special order of the day issued by the GOC, who had been appointed Commander of the British Troops in Crete, gave a clear warning that attack could shortly be expected:

Special Order of the Day by Major-General B. C. Freyberg, vc, cb, cmg, dso, Commander British Troops in Crete

The withdrawal from Greece has now been completed. It has been a difficult operation. A smaller force held a much larger one at bay for over a month and then withdrew from an open beach. This rearguard battle and the withdrawal has been a great feat of arms. The fighting qualities and the steadiness of the troops were beyond praise.

Today, the British Forces in Crete stand and face another threat, the possibility of invasion. The threat of landing is not a new one. In England, we have faced it for nearly a year. If it comes here it will be delivered with all the accustomed air activity. We have in the last month learned a certain amount about the enemy air methods. If he attacks us here in Crete, the enemy will be meeting our troops upon even terms and those of us who met his infantry last month ask for no better chance. We are to stand now and fight him back. Keep yourselves fit and be ready for immediate action. I am confident that the force at our disposal will be adequate tó defeat any attack that may be delivered upon this Island.

Despite the confident note upon which this order ended, General Freyberg was under no illusions about the task which confronted the defenders. The topography of the island was entirely in the attackers’ favour. The only ports, Suda, Canea and Heraklion, the only airfield, Maleme, and the airstrips at Heraklion and Retimo, were on the vulnerable north coast within easy range of the German-occupied Peloponnese and the Italian bases in the Dodecanese. Already page 116 the enemy was successfully raiding the vital points on the island and his bombers had little opposition. Crete was well beyond the range of the nearest RAF fighter bases in Egypt and North Africa. The country was extremely rocky and covered with olive groves. The south coast was steep, dangerous and bare, and to reach it a mountain range in places over 6000 feet high would have to be crossed. Roads were few and rough. Communications were primitive or non-existent. The island was poor and offered little or no material suitable for adapting to its defence. It could not even keep its own population in sufficient food. The defenders had to be supplied entirely from the sea, and in addition had to provide for about 15,000 prisoners of war. Armour, artillery, automatic weapons, ammunition and tools were all woefully short. The units themselves were not yet properly organised.

To the troops, however, the tactical and administrative difficulties of the island’s effective defence had little meaning. The battalion, without tools, did its best to dig positions, interspersed its work with a little training and with plenty of rest, held daily bathing parades in the creek or on the coast, and revelled in the sunny days and the peaceful nights. The periodical bombing attacks on the ports could be seen from the unit’s area, but the enemy aircraft confined their attention to those targets. The small RAF garrison on the island did good work, and they and the ack-ack gunners provided the watchers with many thrills. At first the Luftwaffe did not make its raids with complete impunity, and an enemy bomber disappearing into the sea behind a trail of smoke was a heartening sight.

As in Greece, so in Crete, the villagers made friends with the troops. The majority of the Cretans were wretchedly poor, and apart from oranges there was little local food or wine to be found. The women, however, were pleased to do any washing and mending, and the troops’ all too scanty clothing supplies were sorely in need of their attention. The children constantly wandered in and out of the lines in search of scraps of food, empty tins, cigarettes and anything else likely to be given away.

Coloured map of Crete

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There were few leave attractions. Galatas was an impoverished little village, Suda a grubby, straggling port; but at Canea there was a Naafi and a few small cafés. Some liquid refreshment was available but there was very little food. Still, leave was not sought after. The few drachmae which remained from the last pay in Greece had practically no purchasing power here. There were no places of entertainment, therefore the troops contented themselves with swimming during the day leave and sleeping at nights.

The total absence of vehicles made things more difficult and the transport, pioneer, and signals platoons of Headquarters Company, whose normal functioning was now impossible owing to lack of equipment, became rifle platoons. Training began again and it was remarkable how quickly the unit, despite its varied uniform, acquired soldierly smartness once more. Competition between sub-units revived, and the return to a regular routine was welcomed by those who now found time beginning to hang heavily on their hands.

In the quiet spells there was a spate of letter writing, and though censorship regulations to some extent dammed the easy flow of words, there was, nevertheless, much mail despatched from Crete. Today, carefully preserved by wives, families and friends, these epistles received from loved ones overseas during those anxious days are still precious possessions. To the men whose recent experience had been so bitter, who had for the first time stood amid sudden death, the quiet thoughts of home became very poignant. The comparison between battered Greece and peaceful New Zealand was painful in its clarity and disturbing in its possibilities. As yet the Southern Hemisphere was safe, but in a few months’ time the men overseas were to endure tortures of anxiety when the third Axis partner menaced the shores of their own country.

Some unusual pastimes were devised. Chess became popular; the pieces were of no standard pattern, but served the purpose both for play and as a hobby when amateur whittlers with knives and razor blades shaped them into some semblance of the Staunton models. A few greasy page 118 packs of cards worked overtime, but the usually popular poker was replaced by euchre, five hundred and bridge. Crown and Anchor, two-up and housie went into recess. Reason, the lack of hard currency. The slate was tried for a time by some of the more ardent gamblers, but in a few days the bookkeeping became too involved and so, without the usual official warnings, ‘vicious’ games lapsed.

The BBC news broadcast was again an eagerly awaited daily event and the issue of Crete News helped fill a great need for printed matter. Copies were at a premium, for all were athirst for news. The tidings learned over the air were not reassuring: the Luftwaffe was still bombing Britain, Rommel was still ranging the Western Desert, and Lord Haw-Haw from Berlin Radio was busy announcing the impending liquidation of the garrison of Crete. As yet there were few qualms. If the sword of Damocles did hang suspended over the heads of the garrison, the menace was disregarded. Rations were the only real worry; no trimmings to eke out the drab daily menu and no returns kept appetites keen. John Ledgerwood’s YMCA emporium was set up once more and was a popular institution, but supplies soon ran out. Replenishments sent from Egypt shared the fate of many more important items which were being rushed from the all too scanty war stores of the Middle East for the British troops in Crete.

Our shipping suffered shocking casualties. Alexandria to Suda Bay was a suicide route, and though many a gallant crew and craft made the journey, few got through unscathed. A proportion were sunk before sighting Crete, but the majority met their doom in the daylight raids on the island’s ports. These increased in frequency and ferocity throughout the month until a ship still in harbour at daylight stood little chance of ever putting to sea again. Only the fastest units in the gallant and overworked Mediterranean Fleet could make the trip, arrive at night, berth briefly and turn around again before dawn.

All units from time to time supplied unloading parties at the docks, and this dangerous duty was undertaken by three men from each of the carrier platoons with the New Zealand page 119 battalions in Crete. Under Second-Lieutenant Yorke Fleming they were based at Suda Bay, for Bren carriers were being sent to re-equip all battalions. Of the eight or nine ships they worked, all were sunk in the bay, and despite the most valiant efforts a total of eight vehicles was all that could be taken off and brought ashore. Three of these were landed after the main attack opened.

The trickle of stores and equipment which came to Crete at so great a cost was put to good use. The few tools were worked in shifts to ensure their maximum use. With their help the unit position, well dug in and camouflaged, was added to and improved daily.

The remnants of the Greek Army which had been evacuated to the island towards the end of the campaign on the mainland were reorganised with British assistance. They were to play an important part in the defence. Courageous and hardy fighting men though they were, their organisation, training, and equipment fell far short of modern standards. Some officers and NCOs from New Zealand units were sent to assist them. On 12 May Wellington Company, with the mortar platoon, staged for their benefit a successful demonstration of the company in attack. This and other similar demonstrations added stimulus to the training of the Greek troops. They were keen to emulate our methods, but the wretchedness of their arms and equipment seriously reduced their value as a fighting force.

With the full moon on 13 May the Luftwaffe began regular night raids. The ports were still their chief target and unloading difficulties were intensified. Three bombs were dropped that night on the battalion area, but there were no casualties; probably some pilot was jettisoning his overs before returning home. At all events, subsequent happenings proved that the 19th’s area was not regarded by the enemy as being occupied, and neither did his later reconnaissances pierce our camouflage. The rising moon, however, made raids by night a regular occurrence.

By now the remarkable recuperative powers of men well trained and well disciplined were manifest. With regular rest and routine the battalion belied its recent rough hand- page 120 ling, and though its ranks were thinned, fitness and morale were never more clearly in evidence. The will to work, and the cheerful accomplishment of tasks made unduly arduous by the absence of equipment, were reflected in the orderliness of an area which offered nothing in the way of natural facilities for bivouac or bastion. Despite difficulties, comfort was contrived and defences designed, dug, and camouflaged. Primitive Cretan agricultural implements borrowed from the peasants and steel helmets used as shovels were up to now the only tools available for the job.

Sunday was a holiday, and in the little Greek church at Galatas Padre Hyde held divine service for the battalion. Here the rolling metre of ‘Oh God our Help in Ages Past’ took on a truer tone and richer meaning than ever before. These occasions were no mere routine. The poignant service was frequently punctuated by the bombing of our shipping in Suda Bay, and as the Benediction ended with a fervent Amen, the little stone church trembled to the detonations and the congregation filed out into the world at war.

A few members of the unit, including some who had been hospital patients, came with caique parties to Crete. The arrival of these parties now became an almost nightly event, for Greek fishermen organised by the Royal Navy were smuggling stranded men off the mainland, making the hazardous journey across the Aegean, then putting in to the smaller fishing ports on the north coast of Crete to land their passengers.

At Kisamos Kastelli, where Major Bedding was in command of two Greek battalions, remnants of 1 Greek Regiment, over 800 British troops were put ashore by these friendly fishermen. Some amazing tales were told. Lance-Corporal ‘Des’ O’Donoghue,4 of Wellington Company, who had been evacuated to hospital when the battalion was at Katerini, arrived back with the unit at Karatsos over a month later. His adventures were typical of those shared by many men upon whose resourcefulness and fortitude fortune had smiled.

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Discharged from 26 General Hospital at Kifisia, O’Donoghue found himself at a reinforcement depot on the coast east of Athens when the withdrawal was beginning. The men in the depot were hurriedly formed into a composite battalion and moved by lorry to the Peloponnese for evacuation. The convoy, after receiving its share of attention from the Luftwaffe, in due course reached its destination outside Kalamata. There the party destroyed its trucks and lay up to await embarkation. Air attacks and enemy armoured vehicles on the route leading to the town caused confusion and the parties split up, taking cover where they could find it. O’Donoghue, who with a mixed bag of New Zealand troops was machine-gunned off the side of the road, took to the swamp along the riverbed which ran parallel to the main route from the north. In their flight from the German AFVs the men were forced to abandon everything except weapons, then after a difficult trek through the sedge and reeds they reached the coast and went along the beaches in the direction of Kalamata once more.

Greek civilians confirmed that the town was already occupied by the enemy. Turning back, the New Zealanders hurried to a bay where they had seen three small boats close to the water’s edge. It was now dark but the party split up and put to sea, taking turns at the oars and keeping close to the western shore. At dawn they landed, but during the night one of the larger boats had lost contact and now only two remained. They held fifteen men. Without rations or water, their situation was grim. A little bread, some pork, and several stone jars to hold water were obtained from the nearest village, sails were found in the boats, and after a council of war it was decided to head for Crete via Cape Matapan and the islands of Kythera and Antikythera.

There were only two men in the party with experience in sailing, and O’Donoghue took command of one of the boats. It was the smaller of the two, eleven feet long, decked over except for a four by four cockpit, and into it six men were crowded. The two boats put out into the bay at dusk and, once clear, sail was hoisted. O’Donoghue’s little craft page 122 sailed well but her speed, the working of the mast, and the heavy load opened her seams, and her skipper was forced to head her towards land. At daylight there was no sign of the other boat.

On shore they caulked the gaping seams as best they could and lay low on the island until night fell. Then, heading for the tip of Cape Matapan, they set sail once more. At dawn the little craft was battling with heavy seas; the wind was against her and the crew all became seasick. Reluctantly she was put about to run before the south-east gale. In the early afternoon she was edged into a small cove, and the shaken and famished party landed on an island five miles further back than the one they had left the previous evening. Three goatherds living with their flocks on the island welcomed, housed and fed them. For the next two days the party lived on a diet of goat’s meat and goat milk, then, when the weather moderated, they put to sea in another night attempt to reach the cape.

This time the trip was without incident. Putting into a rock-bound bay at dawn, a cave was found into which the boat was hidden away from the enemy air patrols which were systematically searching the coast during daylight. A villager who had a smattering of English told the party that, on the other side of the cape, a boat called nightly to take off British stragglers. After a rest the party set off again in daylight to round the cape and make for the spot which had been described to them. The weather was rough but, determined to make the rendezvous, the crew headed the boat hard into the wind and sailed up the eastern side of the cape until a bay which seemed to answer to the landmarks they had been given was sighted. They put in, but in the heavy surf were almost overturned. Some of their arms and equipment were washed overboard in beaching the boat; however, she was finally dragged ashore, and after a breather the party headed for the village in the bay. Here they received disturbing news of a Hun launch patrol which was active in the area. It was then too late and too rough to make another attempt to find their rendezvous, so it was decided to set off again at daylight next morning.

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At first light the boat was launched. It promptly sank. The villagers helped to salvage it, and when the little craft was beached once more it was found that the keel had carried away. The damage was so extensive that it was decided to abandon the boat and make off overland for the next village, in which it was reported there was a small launch and a schooner. The owner of the launch agreed to take the party on to Crete. As fare he would accept their only pair of field-glasses, plus all the money they could muster as good faith payment; then when they were landed in Crete, they were to arrange for the Army to reimburse him still further. He agreed to sail that night, but warned the men to keep clear of the village till dusk as German patrols were frequently in the area. At his insistence they reluctantly handed over their glasses and their drachmae and headed for the hills, to return again at 8 p.m. On their way out of the village they saw the schooner beached and full of holes from a well aimed burst by a German plane.

Hiding in the hills behind the village, they found another party of New Zealanders who were on the lookout for a boat also. It was agreed that they would all try to make it in the launch and, after exchanging news, the two parties settled down to wait for dusk. At eight o’clock they returned to the village, only to be told that a German patrol had arrived that afternoon, commandeered all the diesel fuel and the field-glasses from the owner of the launch, and as a precaution against its being used by escaping troops, had put the engine out of action.

Corporal O’Donoghue’s party decided to go back and try to repair their wrecked boat, and they retraced their steps to the little fishing village which had been so hospitable to them. On arrival they found that the locals were already attempting to make the craft seaworthy. It was a hopeless task. After spending much time and patience on the job, the boat had to be abandoned. Food, too, was a pressing problem, for the villagers themselves had barely enough to exist on, so back into the hills the party went.

That night an English-speaking Greek, wearing part uniform, arrived and, producing papers to prove his iden- page 124 tity, told them that they would be taken off by the customs boat from Crete at dusk the following night. He had documents for their signatures, crediting him with their rescue, and he told them of the arrangements for their embarkation.

Next night, moving circumspectly in the dark, they made their way down to the bay where they had been told to pick up the boat. The chugging of an engine, and shortly afterwards a hail, stilled their fears. The escapers waded out and scrambled aboard. The Greek crew put them beneath the hatches and set off along the coast for their next rendezvous.

All went well till midnight; then the engine spluttered to a stop and refused all resuscitation. The boat drifted dangerously close to the shore until, using the anchor as a holdfast, she was warped onto the beach. While the engineer set about constructing a cylinder gasket out of the lid of a fibre suitcase, the six men with some of the crew went ashore. The repairs took most of the day, but at last they were completed and the crew scurried away to take the boat out on a trial run to test the new gasket. Away she chugged out of sight around the point, and a few minutes later another sound was heard. Round the corner came the Hun patrol boat.

Before the German officer in the stern could get ashore the New Zealanders had faded silently away. They hid that night in the hills, but were sought out by a party of Greeks who took them to their village, gave them food and cigarettes, and bedded them down in the local church. The skipper of their boat arrived and told them how the German patrol launch had accosted him during the trial run, had put his engine out of commission, placed a guard aboard and instructed him to sail to the patrol headquarters. He had seen the Germans put into the bay, and once the patrol boat was out of sight they managed to disarm and kill the guard, put about, and make away to the opposite side of the cape.

Next night, after an arduous cross-country trek, the party once more boarded the customs boat and sail was set for page 125 Crete. In a favourable wind and in heavy weather, the island came in sight at dawn. Above the clouds they could hear the roar of enemy planes returning to their bases after bombing raids, but they were not seen and managed to creep unmolested into Kisamos Kastelli.

1 The battalion’s casualties in Greece were: Killed in action or died of wounds 22, wounded 20, prisoner of war 146 (including 17 wounded), missing but later contacted Allied Forces 3.

2 L-Cpl C. Hiskens; Balmoral; born Belfast, Ireland, 3 Apr 1904; scrub cutter; wounded 13 Apr 1941.

3 L-Cpl A. McRae; born NZ, 18 Feb 1909; hotel employee; killed in action 16 Apr 1941.

4 Cpl D. M. O’Donoghue, EM; Wellington; born Wellington, 12 May 1918; mechanic; injured c. 26 May 1941.