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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II

The Operations of the 2nd New Zealand Division in Greece and Crete — 25 — Report by Major-General B. C. Freyberg to the Minister of Defence1

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The Operations of the 2nd New Zealand Division in Greece and Crete

Report by Major-General B. C. Freyberg to the Minister of Defence1

1 This report was presented to both Houses of the General Assembly on 9 Oct 1941.

12 September 1941

By the end of March the New Zealand Division was concentrated in Macedonia. The 5th Brigade Group had arrived from England, thus the three contingents were together for the first time in the history of the Division. Their first role was preparing a defensive position, in conjunction with the Greeks, from the coast south of the River Aliakmon to Veria Pass. The long front was too vulnerable for the forces available and, following the enemy's attack on Yugoslavia and Greece on 6 April, the Division was ordered to retire to a strong position on the line of the Passes, the 4th Brigade Group to Servia, the 5th and 6th Brigade Groups to Olympus. A quick withdrawal was made in rain and snow. This was accomplished without loss of equipment or supplies, the troops showing a high standard of discipline and endurance in their first trial. Rain and overcast skies were a blessing, as no enemy aircraft molested our forces. This retirement was completed by 10 April.

On the 12th the Australians and New Zealanders were formed into the 2nd Anzac Corps, giving great satisfaction. From the 10th the Division fought several actions mainly as three separate brigade groups, each comprising all arms. The Machine Gun Battalion detachment on the Yugoslav frontier fired the first New Zealand shots at Veve at 9 p.m. on 10 April. On the 13th the Divisional Cavalry and Artillery on the Aliakmon River fought delaying actions, retiring over Olympus Pass on the 14th. The 4th and 5th Brigade Groups under Brigadiers Puttick and Hargest2 respectively came into action simultaneously at the historic Servia and Olympus Passes. The 4th Brigade Group held Servia Pass while Imperial and Greek troops from the Florina Gap withdrew. The infantry action was severe and the Germans suffered heavy casualties. The 5th Brigade page 17 Group, plus the Maoris, were holding the long line of the Olympus position, and the 21st Battalion held the coastal defile and railway tunnel near Platamon. At Olympus the Artillery, firing a phenomenal number of rounds, smashed the German tank advance, the infantry beating off heavy attacks made through the woods under cover of mist. The success of the German thrust against the Greeks on the left threatened the rear of the Olympus position and a withdrawal to the Thermopylae line was ordered for 16 and 17 April, Brigadier Barrowclough's1 6th Brigade Group moving to a covering position south of Elasson. After fighting with great determination and repulsing heavy attacks, the 4th and 5th Brigade Groups and the Australians retired again under the cover of mists to the south of the 6th Brigade Group. Meanwhile, the 21st Battalion had been forced back from the tunnel by tremendous odds, including a large armoured force. Later, with Brigadier Allen's2 Australian Brigade Group, they held the Peneios Gorge position. The 21st Battalion suffered heavy casualties. The stands at Peneios and Elasson, where British, Australian, and New Zealand artillery took toll of enemy tanks, breaking their attacks, were vital.

2 Brigadier J. Hargest, CBE, DSO, MC; Member of Parliament, 1931–44; commanded 5th NZ Infantry Brigade, 1 May 1940 – 27 Nov 1941; p.w. Sidi Azeiz, 27 Nov 1941; escaped 29 Mar 1943 from prison camp near Florence; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.

1 Major-General H. E. Barrowclough, CB, DSO, MC, ED; commanded 7th NZ Infantry Brigade in United Kingdom, 1940; commanded 6th Infantry Brigade, May 1940–Feb 1942; GOC 2nd NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3rd NZ Division, Aug 1942–Oct 1944.

2 Major-General A. S. Allen, CB, CBE, DSO; commanded 16th Australian Infantry Brigade, 1940–41; GOC 7th Australian Division in Syria and New Guinea, 1941–43; GOC Northern Territory Force, AIF, 1943–44.

Withdrawal from Greece

The force was finally disengaged on the night of 13 April and the Division withdrew 100 miles to the Thermopylae line. The remarkable success of this withdrawal surprised both the enemy and ourselves. The Division now prepared a line at the historic Thermopylae Pass while the Australians barred the other Athens road. This was destined to be only a temporary position as the collapse of the gallant Greek Army made the continuation of the fight impossible. Brigadier Barrowclough's force, with Divisional Artillery and British batteries, held the Pass. At dusk on Anzac Eve they beat off a strong German attack, 25-pounders destroying a large number of tanks. Disengaging by dark, the 6th Brigade Group withdrew through the 4th Brigade Group and the Australian artillery holding a covering position south of Thebes. That night the 5th Brigade Group successfully embarked for Crete. The Artillery and other Divisional troops, totalling 3600, embarked on the night of 26–27 April. On the 27th the 4th Brigade Group, after being cut off by parachute attacks on the Corinth Canal, fought a determined rearguard action almost on the beach at Porto Rafti, near Marathon, keeping the enemy at bay and embarking safely. page 18 Meanwhile the Divisional Headquarters and the 6th Brigade Group moved to the Peloponnese, crossing the Corinth Canal just ahead of a parachute attack on the morning of the 26th. The 26th Battalion attacked and held the airborne troops, and subsequently, with the remainder of the 6th Brigade Group and the attached British and Australian troops, continued the withdrawal through Tripolis and Sparta to Monemvasia. The final evacuation took place on the night of the 28th.

I very much regret the loss of so many of our first-line reinforcements and details of Headquarters left at Athens. The party reached Kalamata, but owing to the temporary occupation of the town by the Germans and the subsequent loss of contact between ships and the land, it was only possible to embark a small party. All branches of the service reached a high standard. The achievements of the infantry, and of the Artillery under Brigadier Miles, have already been mentioned. The demolition of roads and bridges by the Engineers, by delaying the enemy continually, was a great contribution to successful withdrawal. Signals maintained communications during most difficult operations. The Army Service Corps, including the Reserve Motor Transport Company, played a great part in supplying the forces throughout the whole of the operations and in carrying troops. The Medical Services carried out their duties with great efficiency. Almost all the wounded who could be moved were evacuated. The 6th Brigade Group and the 6th Field Regiment were ordered to Egypt, the remainder disembarking at Crete.


In Crete the New Zealand Division, commanded by Brigadier Puttick, comprised the 4th Brigade Group (Brigadier Inglis),1 5th Brigade Group (Brigadier Hargest), and 10th Composite Brigade Group (Colonel Kippenberger),2 the last including an improvised New Zealand battalion of Artillery and ASC personnel and two Greek battalions. Living conditions were hard owing to the shortage of blankets, clothing, cooking utensils, knives, forks, spoons, &c. The first twenty-days' period was spent in preparation, digging,

1 Major-General L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO, MC; CO 27th NZ (Machine Gun) Battalion, Jan–Aug 1940; commanded 4th NZ Infantry Brigade, 1941–42, and 4th Armoured Brigade, 1942–44; commanded 2nd NZ Division, 27 Jun – 16 Aug 1942 and 6 Jun – 31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in the British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50.

2 Major-General Sir Howard K. Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO, ED; CO 20th NZ Battalion, Sep 1939 – Apr 1941, Jun–Dec 1941; commanded 10th Infantry Brigade, Crete, May 1941; commanded 5th NZ Infantry Brigade, Jan 1942 – Jun 1943, Nov 1943 – Feb 1944; commanded 2nd NZ Division, 30 Apr – 13 May 1943 and 9 Feb – 2 Mar 1944; commanded 2nd NZEF Prisoner of War Reception Group in United Kingdom, 1944–45; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories.

page 19 wiring, and putting in guns as quickly as available supplies and equipment arrived. Supply difficulties increased as the air attacks developed. The number of planes available, the exposed position of the aerodromes, and the scale of the enemy air attack made it impossible for the RAF to operate from Crete. I asked that the few remaining fighter aircraft be sent to Egypt to avoid the useless loss of lives of the pilots who had fought gallantly against tremendous odds. The Egyptian aerodromes were too far away to give effective help and the Germans had complete air superiority.

The battle started on 20 May with a tremendous air bombardment followed by glider and parachute landings over the Canea-Maleme area. The [New Zealand] troops were in the Maleme-Canea sectors where the main attack was launched. The majority of the parachutists were mopped up but some gained a footing in the areas away from the defences. The Greek King was nearly captured. The Maleme sector was vital, and here the 5th Brigade Group, including some battalions of the 4th Brigade Group, met the attack from the west while the 4th and 10th Brigade Groups fought along Galatas Ridge. On the first day relays of enemy aircraft strafed our positions and fierce hand-to-hand fighting raged on Maleme aerodrome. At the close of the day the forces faced each other on the east and west of the aerodrome. On the second day, although the aerodrome remained no-man's-land and was under fire from captured Italian guns manned by our Artillery, troop-carriers landed there and beyond the aerodrome in the riverbed, regardless of losses. Parachute reinforcements also arrived and the savage air bombardment continued. A three-hour attack on Galatas was repulsed. That night we watched the Navy send seaborne invaders to the bottom. A counter-attack before dawn on the third day reached Maleme aerodrome but heavy dive-bombing at daylight made further progress impossible, and later in the day an attack by the enemy on our flank forestalled our plan for another counter-attack and forced us to withdraw to a shorter line. Heavy fighting continued on the fourth and fifth days on the new line and at Galatas, where the attacks were again repulsed. Sunday, the sixth day, was critical and hard for the tired Australian and New Zealand troops. After continuous air strafing all day a strong enemy attack took Galatas in the evening, but the British light tanks and New Zealand infantry retook it at the point of the bayonet. In my opinion this was one of the great efforts in the defence of Crete. With Maleme aerodrome no longer under fire, the troop-carriers poured in reinforcements of men and equipment. Tired troops could not withstand this indefinitely and on Sunday night the New Zealand Division and the Australians were ordered to withdraw to a new line west of Suda.

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Between Canea and Maleme the New Zealand Division, later supported by Brigadier Vasey's1 Australian Brigade, had fought for six days without respite. More than twenty fierce bayonet counterattacks were carried out. The fighting was the most bitter of this war and such fierce hand-to-hand fighting has seldom been seen, while the scale of the enemy air attack was unprecedented. With Brigadier Vasey's brigade, our 5th Brigade covered the withdrawal from Suda. Here at the finish of our real defence the men in the front line said, ‘Let's fix bayonets and go for them.’ A joint New Zealand and Australian bayonet charge drove the enemy back over 1000 yards, but the position could not be held. On the withdrawal to Sphakia Beach our battalions fought rearguard actions together with Australians and Royal Marines. The bulk of the fighting troops were evacuated but losses were heavy. Many of our wounded had to be left behind with doctors and medical orderlies who had spontaneously volunteered to stay with them.

The above is only a brief outline, largely confined to a record of our own units, in an effort to give a picture of the campaign to those at home. We pay tribute to all our comrades—British, Australian, and Greek—who fought so gallantly in both campaigns. Our greatest admiration and gratitude goes to the Royal Navy, who guarded Crete so effectively from seaborne invasion and brought so many safely back from Greece and Crete. History will show these campaigns in their true perspective.

Fresh facts are coming to hand. In Crete the enemy underestimated our strength and expected to capture the island with parachutists alone. He failed and had to lay on a full-scale attack which used up in all 35,000 highly trained and perfectly equipped troops. Although successful, his losses were great and he was severely mauled. He lost at least 4000 killed, 2000 drowned, and 11,000 wounded.2 By having to fight he was delayed a month in

1 Major-General G. A. Vasey, CB, CBE, DSO, DSC; then commanding 19th Australian Infantry Brigade; GOC 7th Australian Division; later Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Allied Land Forces, South-West Pacific Area; killed in aircraft accident, 5 Mar 1945.

2 This estimate, based on contemporary reports and on the assumption that the number wounded bore the usual relation to the number killed, now appears to be too high. From figures quoted in reports by the German XI Air Corps (dated 11 Jun 1941) and the German Fourth Air Fleet (28 Nov 1941), and from a strategic survey by the German 12th Army on operations in the Balkans, the enemy casualties in Crete were as follows:

Missing (incl 324 lost at sea when convoy intercepted)1995

From the same sources, it is now known that about 21,000 German troops were engaged.

The ratio of German wounded to killed and missing (practically all the latter must have been killed) appears abnormally low. The New Zealand figures were 643 killed, 1535 wounded; a ratio of approximately 4:9. It is probable that the great majority of the German casualties on the first day (parachutists who dropped in occupied areas) were killed.

page 21 his plans, and when the time came he had neither material nor troops nor the inclination to face further air landings in either the Western Desert or in Syria. What is more important, he has now no illusions about the fate which awaits any attempt at airborne operations against Great Britain.1

1 See also Volume I, Greece and Crete.