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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Second Day at Maleme

page 129

The Second Day at Maleme

The night 20–21 May at Maleme had been a time of crisis for both sides; but in the course of it the enemy gained an advantage which was to prove in the end decisive: the battalion guarding the airfield withdrew. This move, ordered by the CO, seemed at company level incomprehensible. Certainly it appeared thus to Williams and Cade and their OP party on Point 107 and their band of sailors, soldiers and airmen who were still full of fight. Williams had to leave this group during the night because he had been wounded and was losing a good deal of blood. When he reported to a nearby RAP for a dressing he was persuaded to stay, travelling back with the RAP as it withdrew. In the confusions of the night the RAP group met several parachutists and Williams got the impression that they were not dangerous opponents unless organised. They fired wildly and panicked easily. In daylight on the 21st the RAP came under fire from both sides and later in the day was captured. Williams was taken to the German headquarters across the river, and there he learned that the Germans had not expected to survive the counter-attack which they all expected to strike them with overwhelming force in the night 20–21 May.

To Major Philp at the headquarters of 27 Battery the events of the night were extremely puzzling. Captain Beaumont had been in conference at 5 Brigade Headquarters and returned at 1 a.m. on the 21st. At 2.30 a.m. the telephone rang and Philp learned that the battalion guarding the airfield had withdrawn. He at once went to another conference at the headquarters of 23 Battalion. Emergency arrangements had to be made to bring down fire on the airfield during the coming day, since there was no OP. Waking Lieutenant Gibson, he discussed with him the possibilities that seemed open. Later Gibson arranged with Captain McElroy30 of 21 Battalion that the infantry would send a signal whenever an aircraft landed on the runway and the guns would then fire.

As soon as it was light Major Philp climbed the ridge behind 23 Battalion Headquarters to observe for the guns. He found snipers numerous and troublesome. The Luftwaffe was up early and in force and high-velocity shells from one or two of the Bofors near the airfield were soon streaking up the hillsides, page 130 setting the scrub on fire. The enemy was bringing mortars into play and many requests came from the infantry to shell suspected enemy positions. The guns of A and B Troops opened fire regardless of the many fighter aircraft machine-gunning the area; but they ceased fire when Stukas came over and were not bombed. The enemy's chief concern was now to get more men on the ground and more ammunition and other supplies. The airfield was in his hands and he was determined to use it. At 8.10 a.m. one of the Dorniers which had been bombing the area came swiftly down and landed. In a matter of moments it attracted fire from the guns, the red earth spurted upwards around it, and it did not wait for more. In the next few minutes more bombers, fighters and troop-carrying aircraft came down in spite of the gun fire and took off again. Shortly after 9 a.m. some 60 transport planes dropped parachutists to the west and these were shelled at once.

There were targets in profusion and the question was how to engage them. There was no OP, communications were still difficult, and reports from the infantry were intermittent and unreliable. Moreover, shooting by map reference was unsatisfactory. Most of the firing in the early part of the day was simply a matter of waiting for the dust cloud which rose when an aircraft landed and then letting off a few rounds at the airfield. The most that could be said for this method was that it was better than nothing.

The enemy was getting together a considerable force west of the airfield and by the middle of the morning he began to exert pressure against 23 Battalion. The paratroops were supported by heavy machine guns, mortars, a few light field guns, the captured Bofors, and the countless fighter and bomber aircraft at their disposal; but they made negligible progress. What was more serious was that aircraft were landing on the airfield and taking off and that other aircraft were crash-landing on the beaches and at some points inland. Wherever and whenever possible these landings were shelled; but the enemy was evidently prepared to accept severe losses to secure a foothold in this vital region. His other landings in Crete offered no immediate hope of success.

The French 75s of C Troop were the only guns which could bring down accurate fire on the landing strip and for the gunners of this troop the battle grew bitter indeed. The gun position was by now well known to the enemy and attracted intense fire. Bofors rounds came spitting up at the guns when- page 131 ever they fired, bursting inside the open gun position and wounding one man after another. C Troop could not silence this fire, though it tried to engage the Bofors from directions given by an Australian officer who had commanded some of the light anti-aircraft guns on the airfield. By some miracle no bombs landed near C Troop; but machine-gunning from the air was a constant menace, causing casualties and even marking the gun barrels. Bullets and cannon shells picked off one gunner after another, but did not silence the guns. The work of the gun sergeants, Ames, Dolamore, Paterson31 and Stevenson,32 and their men was watched by the engineers below, by stretcher-bearers who came up for the wounded, and by all others within sight and all marvelled at their courage and persistence. Their accuracy, moreover, was confirmed by infantry below, especially of the Maori Battalion. Captain Baker33 of this unit, who was moving along the beach at the time, remarked later that this ‘battery, which was under the command of Captain Snadden, gave a first-class exhibition of gunnery and accounted for the six planes nearest us. Certainly in practically all cases they were set on fire before the occupants had a chance of alighting and out of the six planes I saw only twenty men who ever left that beach.’ (Each troop-carrier carried 11 men besides its crew.) Another Maori report stated that troop-carriers were landing on the beach and that ‘our arty, showing great form, put four of them on fire in quick succession.’

The tempo of the enemy landing on the airfield increased in the afternoon and troop-carriers began to arrive like trams at a main terminus, halting for a minute or two and then taking off. The Bofors became very troublesome and Captain Snadden tried hard to neutralise it. To get a better view of Maleme village he took his assistant, Gunner Storey,34 up to a higher terrace. While they were there the gun position was severely strafed from the air and Snadden hurried back. He found Second- page 132 Lieutenant Hume35 dying from bullet wounds in the back. Hume had been an inspiration to the men and this was a sad loss; but later in the afternoon it was avenged. Sergeant Ames scored a bull's-eye on a Bofors near the road in Maleme and turned it upside down, to the delight of the other gunners. Smoke from burning aircraft on beach and airfield marked other successes; but the steady arrival and departure of planes continued.

Late in the afternoon the men of C Troop, sweating from their exertions on the open hillside, were treated to a magnificent spectacle. A parachute landing took place right on top of 18 Army Troops Company below them. The enemy force, about 260 men, suffered terrible loss inflicted by the sappers and Maoris. All but a handful were killed or captured within an hour. In a matter of minutes the cornfields and vineyards were strewn with dead and wounded Germans. But the gunners had little time to sit and gaze. They kept firing and the enemy kept firing at them. All the gun commanders were wounded and their places were taken by lance-bombardiers or gunners. By the end of the day C Troop had lost 15 men, a third of its strength.

One incident during the afternoon caused some annoyance. Lieutenant-Colonel H. W. Strutt of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment had been made temporary CRA of the New Zealand Division and eight of his guns, at first stationed at Georgeoupolis where they were not needed, came under divisional command, as well as two 2-pounders of the 106th RHA. Planning for a counter-attack on Maleme was in its initial stages at Creforce and Divisional Headquarters, both of them rather out of touch with conditions on the Maleme front. The idea at this stage was that Strutt's guns and the RHA ones would move forward and support this night attack and the RAF would bomb the airfield, while 27 Battery fired ahead of the attacking troops, who would fire green Very lights to indicate their forward positions. Had he been asked, Major Philp might have explained how unrealistic this scheme was; but he could not be consulted.

At all events, Strutt came forward in the afternoon to 5 Brigade and saw Brigadier Hargest.36 Word had come through, page 133 either then or earlier, of the heavy casualties of C Troop, and Strutt must have gained the impression that 27 Battery was intending to cease fire to cut down losses. He therefore ordered the battery to continue firing. Philp would have been indignant had he received this order; but he did not do so. His A and B Troops, it is true, ceased fire from time to time, but only when Stukas were overhead. Late in the afternoon they were shelled by guns west of the airfield and briefly ceased fire. The only guns to which Strutt's order could have applied, therefore, were those of C Troop; and neither Snadden nor anyone else at the gun position had any thought of ceasing fire. They were determined to carry on regardless of what was fired back at them.

A and B Troops had meanwhile carried on as best they could. They fired on the airfield with little or no knowledge of the effect they created. At intervals throughout the day they shelled a gully south of the runway which had become a centre of enemy activity. One B Troop gun, switched at right angles to its normal line of fire, shelled Maleme village in response to an infantry request. As the guns became hotter the cartridge cases began to swell and the gunners had much trouble with them, having to ram them very hard to get them into the breeches.

It was mid-afternoon before Lieutenant Cade got back to 27 Battery, after a night of many adventures with his mixed party from Point 107 and a morning of danger and difficulty. He was worn out; but he at once went to B Troop and climbed up from there to a ridge 1000 yards to the west where he began to observe for the Italian 75s. The indomitable Sergeant McLeay followed him and set up a visual signalling station on the open slope behind, just out of sight of the enemy on the ground, and there, 100 yards behind Cade, he relayed fire orders to the guns. Cade's OP on the forward slope, in an open region of vineyards, was swept from time to time by small-arms fire; but Cade stayed there through the heat of the afternoon and until dark. On Cade's directions B Troop engaged many targets beyond the river and did much to hamper the development of the enemy's efforts to gain full control of the airfield and its environs.

30 Lt-Col H. M. McElroy, DSO and bar, ED; Auckland; born Timaru, 2 Dec 1910; public accountant; CO 21 Bn Jun 1943-Jun 1944; four times wounded.

31 S-Sgt R. A. Paterson; born Hamilton, 4 Jun 1916; warehouseman; wounded 23 May 1941; died Lower Hutt, 12 Nov 1962.

32 WO II J. K. P. Stevenson; Rotorua; born Wellington, 11 Apr 1916; cabinetmaker; twice wounded.

33 Lt-Col F. Baker, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; born Kohukohu, Hokianga, 19 Jun 1908; civil servant; CO 28 (Maori) Bn Jul-Nov 1942; twice wounded; Director of Rehabilitation, 1943–54; Public Service Commissioner, 1954–58; died Wellington, 1 Jun 1958.

34 Gnr G. Storey; Paparoa, Northland; born NZ 5 Dec 1917; clerk; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

35 2 Lt L. H. Hume; born NZ 3 Mar 1918; accountant; killed in action 21 May 1941.

36 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Gk); born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; Member of Parliament, 1931–44; Otago Mtd Rifles, 1914–20 (CO 2 Bn, Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde May 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped, Italy, Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.