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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

5 Brigade Withdraws

5 Brigade Withdraws

Philp first heard of the withdrawal about 4 a.m. on the 23rd, when he was given an hour's notice to move. There was no time to lose. Very little of A Troop's 600 rounds or B Troop's 1000 rounds now remained, and the gunners could at least console themselves with this thought when it came to leaving their guns behind. A few stayed behind to disable the guns by taking out firing mechanisms, removing dial sights, and ramming rounds down the barrels and up the breeches. Then they followed their comrades across country to Platanias, ‘an arduous trip for tired, ill-fed men’, as Philp remarks. There they assembled near Brigade Headquarters. A Troop at the rear was machine-gunned on the way, but most of the gunners arrived safely.

page 140

C Troop was better off for ammunition and four 15-cwt trucks arrived to tow the guns back. But the drivers of these trucks had been shaken by the air raids of the preceding days and were unsteady. One of them drove his truck over a steep bank and another truck was found to have no towing attachment and no rope. Two guns therefore had to be left behind, to the great disappointment of their crews. They were disabled very thoroughly. The other two guns reached the road safely and were towed back towards Platanias. The remaining gunners were picked up by a 30-cwt truck. After they left, Snadden and a sergeant went back to the gun position to look for stragglers and found none. Satisfied that they were the last to leave, they descended to the road and there met Second-Lieutenant Boyce and a few others who were waiting for them. It was then daylight, there were no other troops on the road, and all drove back to Platanias in a damaged truck, being comforted on the way by the sound of two 6-inch guns at Suda which were shelling the airfield and the road at Maleme. The new gun position, chosen by Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt, was off the road near Ay Marina.

Strutt had been doing his best to get together an adequate gun group to support 5 Brigade. The withdrawal and consequent loss of seven guns destroyed his hopes of achieving this; but he set about making the best of what was left. It seems that on the morning of the 23rd he had a troop of four Italian 75s of his own regiment, two Bofors of 156 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA, two 2-pounders of 106 Battery RHA, and the two French 75s of C Troop. (Snadden recalls that Strutt was very annoyed when he heard that two of C Troop's guns had been left behind.) These guns (if this list is correct) were all in position around Platanias and Ay Marina in the morning of 23 May and ready to give what help they could to the weary infantry of 5 Brigade.

The two guns of C Troop went into action just west of the lane which runs from the coast road to Ay Marina, among olive trees. The gunners found sugar and potatoes in a little house behind the gun position and hungrily ate them. They had received no rations since before 20 May and were famished. The guns were sited facing Maleme according to a compass bearing and elevated to 15 degrees. There were no orders to fire and no way of telling where the rounds landed if they did fire. At this stage Snadden left to get information and at the same time have his wounds attended to. Second-Lieutenant page 141 Boyce, who was then in command, did not dare fire for fear of hitting his own men. Later in the morning an Australian troop took up position 200 yards to the north and Boyce took the opportunity of speaking by telephone to its observation officer. He explained that he had C Troop's two guns ready and wanted fire corrections. The guns were duly fired and after a long pause (for the FOO was busy directing the fire of his own troop) he heard that the rounds fell just beyond an enemy-occupied village. Boyce thereupon made the necessary correction of elevation and opened a steady fire on the village. It was a rough and ready system which probably did little damage to the enemy, though the sound of the guns was comforting to the New Zealand infantry.

After a short time a mortar of fairly heavy calibre scored a direct hit on one of the two guns. Boyce was away at the Australian gun position and he hurried back to find Sergeant Stevenson wounded and a gunner gravely hurt.39 Nearby ammunition had been set on fire and there was danger of further explosions, so Boyce ordered the men away from the guns. He then noticed a newcomer to the gun team, Bombardier Buchanan40 (who had come forward with the 4th Field reinforcements from Red Hill), go up to the gun, look for a moment to see if there was immediate danger of explosion, and then calmly shovel earth on to the flames until he put the fire out. It was a brave action and Boyce mentioned it later to Colonel Strutt, who in due course recommended Buchanan for an MM.

C Troop did not fire again that day. The only tempting target was a party of Germans approaching along the coast road. The Australian troop engaged them; but the telephone was too busy for Boyce to get fire corrections. The two Bofors guns near Platanias were captured in the morning by a sudden enemy advance, but later in the day they were recovered. One of the two-pounders was sited to the left rear of C Troop; but no targets presented themselves.

The rest of 27 Battery had become infantillery. They numbered about 100, of whom 80 were armed. At Brigade Headquarters, in an area littered with band instruments (the bandsmen, sent at the last moment to Crete, had also become infantry), they found some food and ate it ravenously. The armed party went off to help the Maoris, coming in for heavy mortar fire. page 142 While talking to the Maori Battalion commander, Philp was wounded by a stray bullet and was sent, much against his will, to hospital. Before he went, however, Brigadier Hargest relayed to him General Freyberg's congratulations on the fine work of 27 Battery. He was fiercely proud himself and delighted that his men should receive this well-earned recognition.41

The Australian gunners were the only ones able to bring down fire in the afternoon against the enemy in the Platanias area and they did so effectively. They shelled a gun which had been brought forward and forced the Germans to withdraw before it fired a shot. They also shelled enemy infantry around Platanias so accurately and persistently that one party of them were seen by the Maoris to make off back across country towards Maleme, looking as though they had had enough. Two German light guns discovered later were both put out of action. When two motor-cycles drove up to these and their drivers tried to remove them, the Australian gunners destroyed one of the motor-cycles. In the afternoon, too, a few Maryland bombers flew over, dropped their bombs on the airfield, and disappeared, leaving at least six aircraft burning and greatly cheering the weary men of 5 Brigade.

The halt at Ay Marina, however, could be no more than pause. The enemy was free to outflank 5 Brigade and would certainly do so as soon as he was strong enough. In the evening the brigade was ordered to withdraw behind 4 Brigade at Galatas. Snadden returned to C Troop late in the evening with orders to hook on the guns and drive back to the Galatas turn-off, and there the troop came to rest in the early hours of the 24th. The armed party of 27 Battery had come under machine-gun fire, but had not come to grips with the enemy. After dark these gunners trudged back along the road eastwards and settled down just before dawn, foot-sore and unutterably weary, not far from C Troop.

39 Gnr T. Conroy, who died of wounds after being taken prisoner.

40 Sgt M. J. Buchanan, MM; born Auckland, 5 Mar 1913; Regular soldier; wounded 30 Nov 1941; killed in action (sinking of Chakdina) 5 Dec 1941.

41 Among those he deemed specially worthy of mention, other than those already named in this history, are Sgt J. B. Kroupa, L-Bdr G. T. W. Ingham, Gnrs R. B. Laird, T. L. Charlesworth and M. Johnston. But he was proud of them all.