Episodes & Studies Volume 2
One road from near the prison led up to Galatas, the other direct to Canea. Both routes were blocked and the task of opening them was beyond the resources of the paratroops in the valley. They had tried and failed after the landing on 20 May and again on the 22nd. Since then the weakened units of 3 Parachute Regiment had been on the defensive, determined to hold the prison, which was packed with their wounded. It was uncomfortably close to the front; the cottages of Galatas village were little more than a mile away and the enemy outposts were nearer still, well within range of Colonel Richard Heidrich's nearby headquarters.
Every day for a week it had got hotter and now, Sunday the 25th, it was stifling. Paratroops in their cumbersome uniforms were sweaty and ill at ease, and the alpine troops who had been filtering into the area for the past two days (after a gruelling fight and a rough march from Maleme airfield) were also feeling the heat. Two battalions of 100 Mountain Regiment, commanded by Colonel Utz, had arrived; the ship carrying the third had been sunk off Crete by the Royal Navy and only an officer and 35 men, nearly naked but still with their weapons, had so far reported in. Utz came in on Heidrich's left, and beyond him towards the sea Colonel Bernhard Ramcke was assembling the survivors of the Assault Regiment, which had landed at Maleme by glider and parachute and gained, at terrible cost, the first German toehold on Crete.
Major-General Julius Ringel, commander of 5 Mountain Division and in command of all troops on this front, favoured outflanking movements, but further delay was out of the question. Galatas had to be captured at once. Always seeking to cut down losses, this bearded, powerfully built Austrian had as his motto ‘Sweat saves blood’. Here, in the sweltering approaches to Galatas, he could save little of either, for there was no choice but frontal assault.
Ringel had under him a capable team of officers. Utz, who had the main role in the attack on Galatas, was one of the best of the mountaineers, a calm man, skilful and decisive in action and personally brave, though inclined to be shy. Of his unit commanders, Lieutenant-Colonel Max Schrank of I Battalion was tireless, confident, with sound judgment, ‘far above average as a battalion commander’; Major Otto Schury of II Battalion was an ex-policeman noted for careful but energetic leadership and ‘very conspicuous personal bravery’. Heidrich was a skilful tactician who had trained his paratroops well; though ‘recklessly hard and severe’, he was liked page 9 by his men. His unit commanders differed greatly in character but not in ability: Captain von der Heydte of I Battalion was a man of strong personality and brilliant leadership whose political sympathies held up his promotion; Major Ludwig Heilmann of III Battalion, on the other hand, was an ardent Nazi, ruthless and unscrupulous but reckless and successful in action and popular among his men. Ramcke, who had volunteered as a paratroop at the age of 51, was almost too strict and uncompromising and lost no chance of saying to his subordinates, ‘I demand toughness and discipline’—demands which must have been met, for he was a successful commander. At least two of his battalion commanders, Major Stentzler and Captain Walter Gericke, were outstanding leaders. Ringel's artillery commander, Lieutenant-Colonel August Wittmann, not a strong personality, was a ‘gallant and hard-working commander in action’ and of firm character. The subsequent record of all these officers is impressive.1
Utz had been asked to attack the day before but had refused. It was a formidable task, calling for heavy air and artillery support and careful preparation. He knew little about the enemy except that he appeared to be strong (he had given 3 Parachute Regiment a rough handling), clever at hiding himself (his guns, effective far beyond their numbers and weight, had still not been found), and a sharpshooter, as one reporter put it, who held his fire ‘like a hunter at his shooting stand until the quarry is close.’ The few positions already located in this close country were well constructed and wired and resolutely defended. Two New Zealanders captured in the early morning stated that they had been short of food and water for five days, but there was little encouragement in this for the paratroops in the valley could say the same.
Whatever Utz thought of his prospects, the Germans in the valley, alpine and parachute troops alike, knew the impending attack would be hard. Their enemy came under the inclusive heading of ‘Tommy’ and they had grown to respect him. ‘Never before’, a paratroop sergeant-major, Karl Neuhoff,2 remarked, had the paratroops ‘run up against men who could stand and shoot and would stay to fight it out…. disciplined troops who could hold their fire until the last moment.’ Of 700 men of his battalion who had landed by the prison only eighty—ten of them lightly wounded—were still in the fight. Ramcke's men in the coastal sector had been heavily counter-attacked and thrown back off a ridge they had seized the previous evening, and the morning, with its Stukas and Messerschmitts, brought them no relief from the heavy defensive fire.
* * *
The defenders were not picked marksmen as some of the Germans thought; most of them here were not even trained infantrymen. They were, as the Germans faced them, 19 Battalion on the right fringe of the assault; then a detachment, 180 strong, of Divisional Cavalry; then on Pink Hill, a cactus- and aloe-covered spur just south of the village and dangerously open to fire from the valley, a ‘platoon’ of 4 Field Regiment, reinforced in the afternoon by another from the 19th; then the Divisional Petrol Company and a ‘company’ of 4 Field Regiment; then A Company of 18 Battalion on Wheat Hill, with the rest of that unit and more gunners page 10 and drivers stretching round northwards to the coast. Two anti-tank guns of 106 Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, guarded the southern entrance to the village. F Troop, 5 Field Regiment, with four guns was to the east, and C Troop, 2/3 Australian Field Regiment, north-east. The gallant survivors of a makeshift regiment of Greeks were in and around the village, and a few light tanks of 3 Hussars, together with the remainder of 4 and 5 Infantry Brigades, were in reserve. A few Vickers guns without tripods were manned by 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion. All units were low in numbers, under-equipped and ill-fed; under almost continuous air attack nerves were ragged.
The attack from the valley was against Cemetery Hill on the right, which was undefended but covered with fire, Pink Hill, Wheat Hill, and the intervening approaches to the final objective, the village of Galatas. It was therefore directed chiefly against troopers, gunners, and drivers fighting as infantry. The attack along the coast was against 18 Battalion, reinforced also by gunners and drivers.
* * *
Ramcke, whose three weak battalions had scarcely more than the strength of one, was to attack Galatas from the north-west, Schury from the west, and Schrank from the south. Heidrich was to support Schrank with heavy weapons and make what progress he could towards Canea. As the troops moved up during the morning they were harassed by the hidden field guns, which grew increasingly troublesome, provoking a stream of complaints. Utz got impatient. Zero hour for the attack was 12.20 p.m., but Stuka attacks supposed to precede this did not take place. At 12.45 he signalled Ringel that he had started according to plan but ‘When do we get Stuka support?’ Half an hour later he asked again: ‘Request an immediate answer whether there will be any more Stuka attacks. The battalion is waiting.’ Raids would take place, he was told, at 4.30 p.m. and 4.45.
But the attack could not wait. A platoon of infantry guns dropped shell after shell on Cemetery Hill, thinking it harboured a mortar. Then, in the early afternoon, Schrank personally led a company onto this feature. He found it unoccupied—as Heidrich's paratroops could have told him; for both sides had found it untenable and had left it for some days in no-man's-land-but on its bald crest he came under heavy fire and still could do nothing to silence the guns.
Ramcke's paratroops were able to get up close under cover of a ridge outside the defences. They drove off a counter-attack in the centre during the afternoon, then Gericke led his men through olive groves to the spur abutting the coast. They came under heavy fire but, with good support from their own guns and mortars, they pressed on and by four o'clock gained the crest, taking fifty prisoners. The newly won positions—the first real breach in the line—were strongly counter-attacked but the paratroops held. They could now enfilade the centre of the coastal sector from the north while Schury could do the same from the south.
Schury's battalion, however, was striking trouble. It was getting more than its share of enemy shells, was raked with bullets from Wheat Hill, and was still not sure where the next Stuka raid would fall. The men, not wanting to get caught, were inclined to hold back.
Schrank's men had no time to think of such things. They were under fire from the olive groves south of the village and from the cactus and aloe thickets and cottages on Pink Hill, and they were losing heavily. Pink Hill had to be taken but was hard to attack. Its southern face page 11 was steep and bare and both flanks were covered with fire. Every gun within reach, directed by an aerial observer, was turned on this hill, and the Stukas, too, were called up. They came promptly but many of their bombs landed in the German lines. An alpine company working round to the left suffered badly from flanking fire. A platoon climbing up from the south was counter-attacked and driven below the crest. Hand grenades were lobbed backwards and forwards among the aloe thickets, while other defenders in the cottages on top continued their damaging fire into the valley. It was perhaps this counter-attack, straight after the bombing, which prompted an observer to write:
These hammer blows seem to affect the New Zealanders like mineral baths. Frantic, hellish fire keeps raking us whenever we raise our heads…. They even try a desperate counter- attack on the left of No. 1 Company. They want at all costs to get out from under the Luftwaffe without giving up the hill. So their only course is to ‘withdraw’ forwards. Their gallant onrush is halted by a heavy machine-gun section and an infantry gun. Our casualties are already heavy.
The success on the coast had meanwhile been used as a lever to loosen the whole of the defences on that part of the front. Wheat Hill, threatened from west and south and heavily bombed and shelled—its wide trenches were among the few targets visible in this dense greenery—was gradually subdued. Between there and the spur on the coast the defenders, under fire from all directions, had to run for their lives. Ramcke Group could see many men moving back towards Canea and pressed on to exploit this promising situation. On the coast road the paratroops met increasing resistance which grew solid as a rock in a matter of minutes [reinforcements to the defence here included part of 20 and 23 Battalions, a brigade band, and the Kiwi Concert Party], but the way inland to Galatas was clear. Elements of Ramcke Group and II Mountain Battalion, taking this route, reached the western outskirts of the village about an hour before dusk.
The line in the south, however, still held and the struggle there grew even harder. Utz threw in his last reserve, the small party of III Battalion, and called for more Stuka support. The dive- bombing tore a gap in the line, but it was quickly filled and could not be exploited. But the end was in sight. The defenders, finding Germans in the streets behind them, knew the battle was lost and began to withdraw. Alpine troops—both Schury's and Schrank's—followed up closely, but not recklessly. They were taught caution by incidents like the following, which one of them later described:
One fellow as tall as a tree climbs out of a slit trench. He has pulled two egg-shaped hand grenades. One of them explodes prematurely and takes off his left hand, but he still throws the second one to the feet of the Germans only three paces away.
With Pink Hill in their hands, Schrank's men gained relief from the fire that had plagued them all afternoon and they pressed on into Galatas from the south.
At eight o'clock, not long before dark, 100 Mountain Regiment reported that elements of II Battalion ‘had penetrated into Galatas after bitter fighting and were engaged in fierce house- to-house fighting.’ Schrank's Battalion arrived shortly afterwards. Staff-Sergeant Burghartswieser of this unit, who was later decorated for this work, described his entry into the village:
It is getting dark as we reach the southern edge…. Paratroops and mountain troops of another company join us; we strike no opposition as far as the church.
Suddenly the Tommy appears in and from all streets. He is met by rifle salvos and hand page 12 grenades. We struggle to the northern outlet. Then a puzzling noise—tanks! Soon the first one rolls here, firing with everything it has… two grenade throwers on the outside of the tank, fed continuously, are especially troublesome. We are as blinded as we are stunned. The infantry shoot with all they have and we throw hand grenades until finally the tank's track is broken. In spite of this he continues to shoot and makes great gaps in the company. I cannot understand how anyone stays alive…. But worse is coming. A second tank… and infantry behind it…. We have thrown all our grenades; our ammunition is gone. I let the tank pass through and attack the following infantry, about a platoon strong. A bitter hand-to-hand fight ensues in the pitch-black night. Friend and foe are hard to distinguish….
In the town itself things go mad; everywhere bitter individual combats take place….
The story is taken up by a corporal of a machine-gun battalion:
… Our machine guns are one after another silenced… their crews all wounded or dead…. [the survivors] hold their positions… with grenades and pistols…. With a heavy heart the lieutenant decides to evacuate the town with his small group…. So we grasp our wounded comrades under the arms… and carefully withdraw them between the ruins of smashed houses…. Dripping with sweat, beaten and tired to death, we arrive … at the battalion outposts. Yet even the enemy draws back; he has had enough.
Heidrich's men were not supposed to have taken direct part in the attack on Galatas but some of them apparently did, for Neuhoff, speaking of this phase, said:
We were firmly convinced that this was much more than a local counter-attack; it was a general counter-offensive along the whole line which we had been expecting for some days. The appearance of tanks confirmed this view and we were quite sure that the whole battle was turning against us. The men had reached the limit of their endurance…. My commanding officer [Major Derpa] had just been killed… our morale was very low…. We were both amazed and relieved that the counter-attack, after clearing the town of Galatas, advanced no further, but that the enemy appeared to be retiring.
* * *
The New Zealanders had not, however, been driven from the village after their counter- attack (by two companies of 23 Battalion and elements of the 18th and 20th, a patrol of 4 Mechanical Transport Company, among others, and two light tanks of 3 Hussars) had won it back. They withdrew during the night on orders from Divisional Headquarters to a shorter line just to the east.
* * *
In the early morning—the Tommy had disappeared—I combed through Galatas with my platoon and saw evidence of the night fight. The enemy had had heavy losses and we also had lost many comrades. The success honoured their sacrifice. Galatas was ours!
|Sources: From Serbia to Crete.||Mountain Troops on Crete, Wilhelm Limpert-Verlag, Berlin, 1942.|
|Extract from ‘In the Fighting for Crete’, an article by Kurt Neher, June 1941.|
|Personal reports on German officers.|
|Extracts from the war diary of 5 Mountain Division and its appendices.|
|An interview with Captain Karl Neuhoff, August 1945, after his capture in Northern Italy.|
Panzer Attack in Greece
The ruined castle dominating the ridge at Platamon
from a German publication
German transport driving south on the railway at Platamon. The villa is prominent also in the photograph on the right
The railway, villa, and coastline looking south from Platamon castle
New Zealand positions at Platamon castle under bombardment. Mounts Ossa and Pelion are in the background
from German publicationspage 15
A tank followed by infantry with a light mortar and machine-gun forces a way through scrub and over boulders
G[gap — reason: unclear]s
Mountain troops (note edelweiss cap badges) in a transport aircraft on the way to Crete
Ramcke's paratroops in the fore[gap — reason: unclear] with Schury's machine-gunners in action aga [gap — reason: unclear] NZ Battalion
Bombing south of Galatas as se[gap — reason: unclear] Germans from the prison. Pink Hill i[gap — reason: unclear] left
from Ge[gap — reason: unclear]licationspage 17
Major-General Ringel, commander of 5 Mountain Division, decorating one of his officers after the capture of Crete
Ruweisat Ridge, September 1944
The Left Hook at El Agheila
Trucks of the New Zealand Division on the move around El Agheila
Panzer Grenadiers in the Senio Bridgehead
1 All of them won the Knight's Cross on Crete; only two failed to gain the command of at least a division. Ramcke, after commanding a brigade in North Africa, gained the highest possible award for his defence of Brest. Several of these officers fought the New Zealanders again either in the Desert or at Cassino, where Heidrich commanded 1 Parachute Division and Schrank 5 Mountain Division.