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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Retreat from Galatas

Retreat from Galatas

The coast road and the so-called Valley Road which led from the Prison Valley direct to Canea carried thousands of marching men in a night of apparent confusion. Yet the plan of defence was somehow put into effect, and the morning of the 26th found a line manned from the coast just east of the hospital to a point across the Valley Road where it linked with 19 Australian Brigade. The only gunners other than those with the gun group who are known to have served in this line are Sergeant Tavendale and his Breda gun team, minus their gun, who stayed with 19 Battalion (on the left), and Gunner Crompton and three or four others originally of Boyce's C Troop gun team, who had joined a group 150-strong, mostly of 7 Field Company (on the extreme right).

The new line was shorter and crossed far more open ground than the former line guarding Galatas. To the Luftwaffe it offered far more distinct targets and air attack became almost intolerable. F Troop of the 5th Field was much handicapped by it. This troop (now including the remaining C Troop gun) badly needed observation ahead, and Captain Bevan and Second-Lieutenant Caughley tried to set up an OP in a house high up on the opposite bank of the stream. But every time they tried to cross the intervening open ground they were viciously attacked by German fighters and they had many narrow escapes. In the end they gave up trying. The available telephone line was too short to reach any other vantage point for observation and it was therefore connected to the circuit of the nearby Australian troop, which had gained limited observation of the front. Most of F Troop's firing, however, was by map reference (which was unsatisfactory because of the defective propellant charges). The firing was limited by shortage of ammunition and also by the fierce air attack which each outbreak of gun fire attracted. It was a day of brilliant sunshine, and the day above all others in which the Luftwaffe had the advantage. Even individual soldiers on the move found themselves frequently attacked.

The various detachments of gunners had all reached the Perivolia transit camp by mid-morning and all were ordered to march eastwards from there along the route to Suda. They page 156 set out in fairly good order; but there were many other troops on the road, including 18 Battalion, and air attack turned the move into a series of breathless dashes to take cover from the bullets and bombs, interspersed with short walks along the road or footpath. All made the best pace they could; but control inevitably broke down. Groups and detachments were intermingled and broken up. Cowie's 5th Field group had been sent to get rations for the gunners and to take them towards Suda until they caught up with the main body. They collected the rations, but in the constant scurrying for shelter the party dwindled to about 15 men. Cowie met Freyberg on the way and was told to carry on eastwards until he was stopped. He did so, meeting no gunners, and was not stopped until he reached Kalami, six miles beyond Suda, where he was told to rest for the night beside a stream. His men were by that time weary beyond words with carrying the rations and dodging the planes and they needed no encouragement to sleep. The other parties eventually halted at various points, all out of touch with the rest of the gunners. Such orders as they received on the march were conflicting and the guides they were told they would meet did not appear.

Despite the fierce air attacks, Tavendale's little detachment with 19 Battalion did not have a strenuous day. They saw two tanks come forward to support the infantry and then one of them return at top speed, chased by a twin-engined Messer-schmitt, which raised a line of dust behind the tank. The greatest excitement was when a German motor-cyclist drove straight into the battalion area. Two Bren guns opened fire on motor-cycle and side-car and the driver dived into a ditch, where one of Tavendale's men promptly shot him. Booty from the side-car included two machine guns, two rifles, and two pistols, all most welcome, and a kitbag with bolts of RAF cloth, obviously taken from Maleme airfield. After dark 19 Battalion moved back without haste and Tavendale stayed with it.

Crompton's detachment on the right had a much harder day. To their right front was the general hospital, now containing only such patients as could not be moved, with enough staff to care for them. Behind, in a rather prominent building, was a dressing station. The Germans did not recognise the whole headland on which the hospital was sited as being protected by the Red Cross and they brought down damaging flanking fire from it, as well as making repeated frontal attacks on the line. There were many local emergencies; but Crompton's little page 157 group did its best to return the enemy's fire and did not move until the infantry and sappers around them started to withdraw about 10 p.m.

The good order was lost, however, when the troops withdrew, and in the course of the night Crompton's party joined the only body of men they came upon in the darkness which seemed to be under firm control, the Maori Battalion. The gun group, after a terrible day of air attack and of exertion which the gunners, weakened by days of hunger and thirst, could scarcely find the strength for (many of them were suffering from dysentery), came under long-range machine-gun fire before dusk. After dark the group withdrew. The French 75, formerly of C Troop of the 5th Field, still had its one and only round in the breech and it was abandoned when one of the Australian towing vehicles broke down. Boyce's truck towed the Australian gun instead—an Italian 75 which still had some ammunition, as well as instruments Boyce's gun lacked. F Troop and the Australian C Troop drove to a position six miles east of Suda and a mile inland, and there they stayed for the rest of the night and the whole of the next day, 27 May.

The only gunners in or near the firing line this day seem to have been those with Gunner Crompton, who were with the Maoris, Captain Snadden, who had left hospital at Suda with a small party of infantry, and a few others. The line ran along a sunken road called 42nd Street, and as Snadden's men found their own units there they left him. He therefore attached himself first to a party of Australian infantillery. Later he heard that some New Zealand gunners had collected with 23 Battalion and was ordered to take command of them. Meanwhile Crompton's party joined the Maoris in a rousing counter-attack which took them more than a mile. A German battalion had been all but annihilated; but fire was now coming from the rear. Crompton's party and some Maoris thereupon charged in the reverse direction and overcame a German detachment which had been by-passed in the main advance. In so doing Crompton was wounded and he ended up in enemy hands. Fighting flared up again in the evening and then it died down. After dark Snadden attended a conference and was given command of two companies (acting as one) of 23 Battalion.

The New Zealand Division and all other troops who could do so were now retreating over the mountains to the south coast, where it was hoped they could embark for Egypt. Two routes led south from the coast road, one from near Beritiana page 158 and the other from farther east at Kalami, and they linked near Stilos before starting to climb the White Mountains by way of Vrises and the Askifou Plain to the little fishing village of Sfakia. Which of the two routes the gunners took was a matter of luck.

The rough and narrow roads were so congested with men who had lost contact with their units, a hopeless mixture, in parts extremely disorderly, that the officers of a large gathering of infantillery east of Suda decided to break their group up into manageable detachments, each under an officer or senior NCO. In this way they hoped to retain some control and prevent the gunners from deteriorating, as many other groups evidently had, into a formless rabble. The detachments were formed and they set out at night, trying to keep together as much as possible. The jostling throng on the road, however, defeated all attempts to hold the detachments together. The men had to have water, moreover, and the scene at each of the few wells on the way was like bedlam. Captain Bliss had 50 men with him when he reached the foot of the mountains, but at the top of the pass at dawn on the 28th there were no more than half a dozen. By next evening, at Sin Kares in the Askifou Plain, his party had built up to over a hundred. Cowie and his 15 men at Kalami were lucky enough to find a truck and drove back in it towards Suda until ordered southwards to Sfakia. In the evening of the 27th they found another and the two vehicles drove over the mountains, picking up men who could no longer walk and reaching the end of the road above Sfakia in the afternoon of the 28th. The gun group of 28 Battery was not allowed to take its guns over the mountains: with very little ammunition and imperfect charges they were not much use, whereas vehicles were in great demand. After destroying their guns, therefore, the crews set out at intervals to drive over the mountains and picked up on the journey those who seemed in greatest need, including Captain Hardy, who was utterly exhausted and who died a few days later. At the end of the road they handed wounded men over to medical units and assembled in the foothills above Sfakia. Boyce and 12 gunners marched in good order, keeping together admirably, and in due course reached the same area. Major Bull worked ceaselessly to keep his gunners together or to reunite them when they separated, and when he reached Imvros he carried on this work.