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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery


page 102

IT was a matter of luck whether gunners from Greece reached Egypt or Crete: few knew their destination when they set sail. The first to reach Crete were Rear Headquarters and 1 Survey Troop, who had sailed in the 10,000-ton invasion ship Glengyle in the night 24–25 April, experienced a Stuka raid at sea, and were taken off in various small craft at Suda on Anzac Day. The surveyors brought valuable instruments with them and these were stored in a wharf shed and picketed before the troop moved on.

The next arrivals were those members of Forward (or Battle) Headquarters and the 4th and 5th Field who left Porto Rafti in the night 26–27 April in the Carlisle or Kandahar: the Salween and also the Glengyle from Rafina, both with gunners aboard, sailed in the same convoy but carried on to Egypt. The latter two ships, as it happened, carried most of the headquarters men of all four regiments. The faster ships of the Royal Navy remained within striking distance of Greece and put off their passengers at Suda. The Carlisle was an antiaircraft cruiser and produced a heavy volume of fire. Her record of 24 aircraft shot down was increased on the voyage by three more. A near miss on the Glengyle buckled some plates and caused a few casualties, none of them gunners. Through it all the hospitality of the sailors was memorable and all gunners, including Brigadier Miles (in the Carlisle), were deeply grateful.

The last large party was of gunners, mainly anti-tankers, who left Rafina in the Havock early on the 28th and reached Suda without incident the same morning after a fast voyage. Others who came in other ships included Major Bull, who had stayed with 4 Brigade at Kriekouki and embarked with the Australian gunners at Porto Rafti.

Contradictory orders and confusion were to be expected at Suda and on both counts gunners were not disappointed. The port was overcrowded, landing barges and other small craft hurried hither and thither, and the dockside and sheds were piled high with military stores. The first argument with army authorities ashore was usually about handing in arms and page 103 equipment brought from Greece: sometimes the gunners won and kept their possessions; sometimes they were persuaded against their better judgment to part with them.

What the gunners brought with them was remarkable. Their guns, it is true, were left behind; but despite many attempts by evacuation staffs to get them to discard their personal weapons, small-arms ammunition, and optical and other gunnery instruments and stores, they mostly kept them. The 5th Field, for example, brought out all their dial sights, sight clinometers, and optical stores: they remembered Dunkirk and the subsequent troubles of RA units in getting replacements for what they had left there. But they also brought with them an astonishing armoury of weapons picked up at various points in Greece, much of it carried for many miles before they embarked. The diary of Major Philp1 of 27 Battery, 5th Field, gives this startling information:

‘April 28 … Pass through the outskirts of Canea and finally arrive at another transit camp…. The equipment is collected and a guard left. Quite an imposing array. We now possess more arms (rifles, Bren guns, anti-tank rifles, and a Lewis gun) than the Regiment has ever owned. What hours of sweat and discomfort this pile has cost the people concerned! Even wireless sets have been lugged along part of the way.’

The italics have been added. The pity was that much of this equipment was taken from the gunners and stored at Canea or Suda, where without further use it fell into enemy hands. Gunners who had sweated to get it away from Greece, even endangering themselves by clambering with it up rope ladders in the dark, and in some cases had carried it for hot, dusty miles in Crete, did so in vain. Some of the valuable instruments, however, were taken to Egypt before Crete was invaded.

Rather than part with gun stores and small arms, gunners had discarded their personal possessions, spare clothing, blankets, greatcoats and eating and cooking utensils and they soon regretted doing so. It would not be easy to remedy these deficiencies. Not only was there a shortage of all such stores in Crete, but most of those trained in administration—adjutants, quartermasters, clerks, cooks and suchlike—had gone on to Egypt. The page 104 long, straggling columns of gunners who were despatched from Suda along the coast road towards Canea were therefore anything but smart. Their uniforms in many cases looked like dusty remnants of a bargain sale and their boots were much the worse for wear.

They passed sandbagged emplacements of Bofors guns among the palm trees which lined the waterfront and then cut across the base of the Akrotiri Peninsula along a powdery white lane. It was thirsty walking and a roadside refreshment centre, buffet-style, two or three miles from the docks, was welcome. Few men had even their mess-tins or knives, forks and spoons. Soon the shady lane narrowed to a footpath, passing camouflaged sheds of military stores set in vineyards and olive groves. Villagers produced barrowloads of oranges and quickly sold them. Crossing a small pool by a causeway of rocks, they found themselves in a spacious bivouac in the Perivolia olive plantation. There they were sorted out into units and representatives were sent to collect rations. After a meal cooked in benzine tins over open wood fires, they settled down under ancient olive trees and slept.

Nearly all the New Zealand gunners had reached this transit camp halfway between the large town of Canea and the village of Perivolia by the morning of 29 April and many had been sent farther west. But it was still too early to take accurate stock of the bits and pieces of regiments that had reached Crete.

Before this could be done the artillery groups moved on to the broken country south-east of the village of Ay Marina, halfway between Canea and Maleme airfield. They rested under trees in narrow, steep-sided valleys about a mile from the coast road, making the most of their few possessions. A tally indicated that about two-thirds of the 4th and 5th Field had assembled there, some 80 officers and men of the 6th Field, 90 of the 7th Anti-Tank, and almost all of Headquarters, Divisional Artillery, and 1 Survey Troop. All of the regimental commanders, Lieutenant-Colonels Parkinson, Fraser, Weir and Duff, had gone on to Egypt and there ensued a good deal of shuffling and reshuffling of temporary appointments. Once again gunners were to become ‘infantillery’, and in the last days of April and the early days of May they formed coastguard patrols, pickets, and ‘companies’ of riflemen — a role well-remembered by the Second Echelon gunners.

1 Lt-Col W. D. Philp, DSO, ED; Palmerston North; born Christchurch, 5 Apr 1905; PWD foreman; CO 4 Fd Regt Mar-Dec 1943; 6 Fd Regt Aug 1944-Feb 1945; wounded 23 May 1941.