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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Landing in the Prison Valley

The Landing in the Prison Valley

The day at Galatas had started in much the same way. The difference there was that the troops in the neighbourhood had not become used to fierce air attack on the immediate locality: the enemy was almost entirely ignorant of the defensive dispositions there. Composite Battalion on the right flank did not suffer at all from the preliminary bombing and strafing. Galatas and the ground to the south-west, occupied by 6 Greek Regiment (poorly trained and almost unequipped), received a little page 125 attention. The unoccupied ground by the prison and reservoir was heavily attacked. Major Sprosen reported from Wheat Hill that there was heavy bombing, but ‘not on us’. Everyone saw the gliders and was impressed by their uncanny quietness, but it was not clear where they landed. The mass of paratroops falling thickly around the prison, east of it near the village of Pirgos, and in the area of 19 Battalion around Karatsos, however, was in full view of the infantillery. They had heard the heavy throbbing of the invasion aircraft and the ringing of the church bells and then they saw the clumsy-looking Junkers fly in low from over Theodhoroi Island, passing Ay Marina and flying in a deep arc inland and round towards them, getting bigger and bigger until they filled the sky with their bulk and thunder as they passed overhead. As the noise of the planes decreased it was replaced by the jerky crackling of rifles and machine guns in the valley and among the trees around Karatsos.

black and white map of parachute landing

parachute landings at galatas, 20 may 1941

Men of the 4th Field had ended their early-morning stand-to at 7.30 a.m. and only pickets were left on Red Hill when the alarm went. Captain Nolan ordered his men to take cover while he observed from the crest. When the paratroops began to fall the men were called to man their positions. None landed in the neighbourhood and the only firing was against aircraft. A few paratroops and a number of supply canisters drifted down towards the RMT lines just to the north. At least one parachutist was shot in the air by Second-Lieutenant Carson, another three were hit when they reached the ground, and three more were rounded up next day. The small arms and ammunition in the canisters was quickly put to good use. The left-hand part of the 4th Field position consisted of 2 Echelon of the Supply Column on Ruin Hill, and these men began to engage paratroops around the prison at a range of some 1200 yards. A handful who landed closer were killed or driven off, a task the NZASC men shared with others of the 5th Field on Wheat Hill. After this these gunners, under Major Sprosen, could do no more than watch the landing in the prison area. They had been forbidden to leave their positions and attack. For Sprosen, who was itching to put into effect the training instigated by Oakes, it was exasperating in the extreme. He had been told, however, that if Galatas was lost he was to counter-attack and recapture it and in the late afternoon it seemed that he would have to do this.

To Sprosen's left front the Petrol Company held Pink Hill overlooking the road that led past the prison. Paratroops page 126 attacked along this road towards Galatas early in the afternoon supported by mortar fire and much small-arms fire. Captain McDonagh was killed, the only other officer wounded, and the NZASC men fell back, taking their wounded with them. A runner reached Sprosen with orders from Colonel Kippenberger to regain the town. The infantillery around Wheat Hill were warned accordingly and were on the point of moving when Kippenberger himself arrived and cancelled the order. He had decided to abandon the town in the meantime. But he had no need: the situation had righted itself. Greeks charged across to Cemetery Hill, fire from Wheat Hill picked off one parachutist after another, and the Germans who had tentatively stationed themselves on Pink Hill withdrew by mistake after dark. But the chance of decisive action had passed. The enemy had suffered heavy loss and the survivors assembled around the prison expecting a counter-attack. Overwhelming strength was available for this; but it was not used. Too many reasons were adduced, at Divisional level and below, for doing nothing. The Germans near the prison congratulated themselves on their good fortune. The infantillery on Wheat Hill and Red Hill, on the other hand, felt emotionally flattened and their eagerness began to drain away.

A platoon under Second-Lieutenant Dill25 in Kissel's company came under fire from a gun beside the prison in the afternoon and two gunners were wounded before they could take cover.26 Later a platoon under Lieutenant MacLean27 of about 35 men was withdrawn from Nolan's company to act as brigade reserve, together with 26 RMT drivers under Carson. Both undertook their tasks with great zeal. The rest of the Composite Battalion was capable of the same kind of effort; but nothing was asked of them.

F Troop of the 5th Field with its three light howitzers was south-east of Galatas in the area of 19 Battalion and across the valley, outside the battalion area, was 1 Light Troop, RA. Captain Dawnay, RA, had asked at the last moment for infantry support and an infantry section reached him at first light to prepare a platoon position. The landing prevented the rest of the platoon from coming, however, enemy appeared on the scene in great strength, and the howitzers were overrun, though page 127 page 128 not before an English gunner bravely carried out under fire the vital task of disabling three of them. The fourth, which he could not possibly reach, was later used against 19 Battalion. Dawnay and about 15 RA gunners eventually reached F Troop and some other RA gunners made their way to headquarters of 19 Battalion.

black and white map of battalion position

composite battalion, galatas, 20 may 1941

This left only the mixed lot of howitzers under Captain Duigan to support 4 and 10 Brigades. The only OP which could cover the landing was the one on Cemetery Hill, 300 yards south of Galatas; but this, too, had no infantry cover after 6 Greek Regiment dissolved, which it soon did, and the OP could not be occupied. There was no shortage of action at the gun position, however, for paratroops landed close at hand in all directions. The howitzers opened fire at short range over open sights on houses occupied by the enemy. Shortly afterwards the gunners had to fight off an attack on the gun position, which they managed to repel, capturing a German officer and 10 other ranks.

Towards evening Major Sprosen was ordered to send out fighting patrols towards Galatas and he quickly did so. His gunners, though inexperienced, were keen and they advanced readily. At Pink Hill they ran into considerable fire, however, and suffered some loss. Bombardier Santi, who had won a magnificent DCM at Thermopylae for his gun-laying, was mortally wounded. Sergeant McCarthy, whose gun had fired the first NZA rounds of the war over the Aliakmon, was hit in the stomach and later died. Second-Lieutenant Caughley28 was slightly wounded and later WO II Bissett29 was also wounded.

Another patrol in the afternoon led by Second-Lieutenant Brown of the 4th Field went out to find the Divisional Cavalry detachment under Major Russell in the reservoir area and bring it back. But Russell had already decided to withdraw and Brown met him. Russell moved through Bliss's company on Red Hill and then round into Galatas, which was then noman's land. By degrees a line was established with the Cavalry between Pink Hill and Cemetery Hill, the Petrol Company behind Pink Hill, and the 5th Field on Wheat Hill. The few Boys anti-tank rifles—not very effective against tanks, but useful for long-range sniping—were withdrawn and handed to the Cavalry. But by this time it was the morning of the 21st.

25 Lt J. P. Dill, m.i.d.; born England, 30 Aug 1915; fur merchant; wounded 25 May 1941; died of wounds 2 Jun 1941.

26 Gnrs R. F. Sheargold and T. N. Ellis.

27 Maj G. MacLean; Wanganui; born Wellington, 13 Nov 1915; farmer; twice wounded.

28 Maj A. M. Caughley, MC, ED, m.i.d.; New Plymouth; born Christchurch, 9 Apr 1916; bank officer; twice wounded.

29 WO I A. H. Bissett; Christchurch; born NZ 30 Jul 1913; Regular soldier; twice wounded.