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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

A Cruel Ending to the Campaign

A Cruel Ending to the Campaign

Captain Bliss had gone on with his party on the 29th until told they could go no farther, when they slept on the hillside. Next day he saw Inglis, who told him the artillery had gone on ahead and told him to do likewise. Somehow he missed the page 163 control posts which had been set up on the way and which directed all but ‘fully-formed units’ to the assembly area in the Komitadhes ravine. On the beach he could get no orders and no rations and took his 4th Field party up the hillside above Sfakia. They watched the village being bombed and heard where Major Bull's much larger group had assembled. Bliss sent a message that he and his party would join Bull's when the latter came through to the beach. The reply from Bull asked Bliss to send any 5th Field men (and there were a few with Bliss) to him in the Komitadhes ravine, an instruction which Bliss ignored, feeling it unfair to send weary and famished men on an unnecessary climb of several miles. Bliss had also heard that the evacuation authorities had misjudged the rate at which men could be embarked the previous evening and had been ‘screaming out’ for another 700 men. Had any been at hand they could have gone. He therefore determined that whatever happened his men would be down on the beach and ready to embark that night. They were there as planned and in due course were taken off—in the cruiser Phoebe, or one of the destroyers Jackal, Kimberley and Hotspur, or the fast minelayer Abdiel. Bliss's judgment was sound: there was room enough for his men and this turned out to be the last night of the evacuation. His group and Snadden's and one or two other detachments were the only gunners who got away from Crete, apart from some of the wounded (several of whom, including Philp, had been evacuated from Suda) and a few who had got away on earlier nights.

Major Bull was not, of course, to know this. What he did was what seemed best at the time. He was a magnificent organiser and had the evacuation been left to him many more would certainly have got away from Crete. Had he not done what he did, the evacuation officials would have had immense trouble with stragglers. He had first started to collect stragglers in the neighbourhood of Imvros on the 29th and had gathered a large group, including NZASC men and others. That night he was told to move to Komitadhes and did so. There, on the 30th, he assumed control of the area, arranged pickets from among his gunners, dispersed the troops in the ravine, and organised them into parties of 50. The artillery officers compiled nominal rolls of their parties and the total rose to more than 3000 troops. Bull tried hard to get food and water for them all, but the best he could manage was one tin of bully beef for each group of page 164 50 men. He sent Second-Lieutenant Allison58 down to the beach again with a party of men, but no rations could be got. A beach officer ordered Allison to embark that night, but Allison refused on the grounds that his duty was to report back to Bull.

The men under Bull in the Komitadhes ravine were ravenously hungry, but many were too weak to do anything about it. Bull conferred with Brigadier Hargest and was told that his group could not be taken off that night, 31 May 1 June, that ships would be sent to pick them up the following night, and that six artillery specialists could go at once. Bull refused this last offer, thinking it would be bad for the morale of the remainder and accepting Hargest's assurance that the evacuation would not end that night.

By this time Bull had some 3500 troops under his command (of a total of 5000 apart from those who were to leave that night). They were hungry and enfeebled and the morale of some of them was low. The great majority, however, behaved well and obeyed orders. It was their misfortune that the evacuation was being organised by infantry commanders. There was much talk of getting the fighting men, the formed units, off before the stragglers, as if only the infantry had maintained good order and only the other arms supplied the stragglers. This was unjust, as was later realised, to the gunners and NZASC men who had fought as hard and well as any troops on Crete and were ready to the last to do what was asked of them. In fact the infantry battalions supplied as high a proportion of stragglers as any of the divisional units. Moreover, the 4th and 5th Field men under Bull included a great many specialists that the New Zealand Division could ill afford to lose and could certainly not replace at short notice. Bull himself was first-class in every way; he and many others should have had high priority. The gunners were particularly unlucky that Brigadier Miles was not there to speak up for them.

Bull and his men did not taste the full bitterness of it all until next day. The night passed quietly and the morning of 1 June came with no outward change. Rumours started to circulate in the ravine that the force was capitulating, but Bull refused to believe them. In the end he began to take notice of them and sought confirmation. He saw the written order signed by Major-General Weston (who had left by flying-boat) and with a heavy heart set about putting it into effect.

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For the first time his men were reluctant to accept his orders. They were thunderstruck. The thought of surrendering smacked of treachery. When a white flag was put up some of them tore it down. Slowly they came to realise that there was no other way. For the troops left on Crete there was only the prison camp. It was a sad ending to the campaign, not only for them, but for their friends back in Egypt. Lieutenant Gibson, for example, had taken a party of gunners straight through to the beach on the 30th, had helped with the evacuation arrangements, and his party had been taken off that night in the Nizam or Napier. He had not dreamed that the rest might fail to get away. He waited at Alexandria and next day saw 20 or 30 more of his unit arrive. Still thinking that the remainder would follow, he searched the embarkation rolls for the names of his friends and was dumbfounded to learn that there were no more to come. ‘It was hell returning to the regiment at Helwan,’ he wrote later, ‘to tell them the news’.

The story of the gunners on Crete, however, does not end here. Some of the men who had served the guns under appalling conditions at Maleme or Galatas or (like the gallant defenders of Pink Hill) had been rock-like in their determination to hold on when the line was crumbling in front of Galatas—some of these men resolutely refused to accept the fate to which the evacuation officials had condemned them. Some made off into the hills at once, as fast as their weak and weary legs would carry them. Others bided their time and escaped, either in Crete or later on the European mainland. The people of Crete saw many of them in the months and years to come and recognised some of them as heroes of the Resistance. Some gunners made their way back by boat to North Africa or by island-hopping in the Aegean to Turkey and elsewhere. A few came to know Crete so well before they left that they were sent back there by the Middle East authorities. Staff-Sergeant Moir59 of the 4th Field and Bombardier Johnston60 of the 5th Field organised a party a year later and sailed to Sidi Barrani. Moir, who went back on special service, won the DCM and Johnston the MM. page 166 Gunner Perkins,61 who was to have left with them, got away in a Greek submarine a little later. He, too, went back. Perkins had given an indication of his mettle in the Pinios battle in Greece; as a special agent he gave evidence of extraordinary ability and as ‘Captain Vassili’ (he was actually a staff-sergeant and the ‘commission’ was not assumed, it was bestowed by grateful and admiring Cretans) he became known from end to end of Crete. After he was killed in ambush early in 1944 his grave was kept adorned with flowers. Above all others of the Resistance, his name lives on in Crete.62

New Zealand Artillery casualties in Crete were as follows:
Killed in ActionDied of WoundsWoundedWounded and Prisoner of WarPrisoner of War (Unwounded)Total
4th Field152251267121
5th Field1914322194279

Since only 361 of the 5th Field and 177 of the 4th Field served in Crete, together with a mere handful of men from the other units, this was a very high rate of loss indeed: more than 68 per cent of the 4th Field in Crete and 77 per cent of the 5th Field. The figures tell slightly less than the truth, for many men who were wounded were not officially reported as such, especially among those taken prisoner.

58 Capt D. C. Allison; Auckland; born London, 4 May 1918; Regular soldier; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

59 S-Sgt T. Moir, DCM, MM; Kiangaroa, Rotorua; born Gisborne, 4 Jan 1916; service station attendant; p.w. 1 Jun 1941; escaped 18 Jun 1941; returned to Egypt, Apr 1942; seconded to MI 5, May 1942, and returned to Crete; recaptured 5 Jun 1943.

60 L-Bdr B. W. Johnston, MM; Auckland; born Thames, 11 Nov 1913; fitter; p.w. 1 Jun 1941; escaped to Egypt, Apr 1942.

61 S-Sgt D. C. Perkins, m.i.d.; born NZ 23 Feb 1915; art student; p.w. 1 Jun 1941; escaped 18 Jun 1941; returned to Egypt, 1942; seconded to MI 5 and returned to Crete, Jul 1943; killed in action, 25 Feb 1944.

62 For further details of these and other NZ gunners on Crete after the evacuation, see Davin, Crete (War History Branch, 1953), Appendix VII.

* *Major Queree, who served with Creforce Headquarters.