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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Counter-attack on the Airfield Fails

The Counter-attack on the Airfield Fails

The night of 21–22 May at Maleme was a time of feverish waiting, quick decisions, and the belated start of the counter-attack on the airfield. For fear of a seaborne landing—which General Freyberg still considered a more dangerous threat than the existing one from the airborne troops—20 Battalion just west of Canea could not be released to take part until relieved page 135 by an Australian battalion from Georgeoupolis. The fear seemed justified by the gun flashes seen at sea as the Royal Navy intercepted an invasion fleet, and the defenders of the island were not to know that this was no more than a follow-up force quite incapable of making an opposed landing. Because of this delay only two companies of the 20th reached the start line for the counter-attack by 3.30 a.m. on 22 May, nearly three hours late. The bombing of the airfield promised by the RAF did not eventuate. The eight guns of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment did not arrive. Two light tanks that came forward could do little except drive along the road to Maleme. Such support as the infantry got for their advance came chiefly from the nine guns of 27 Battery.

To Major Philp it was disappointing and in some ways exasperating. He had no communications to the attacking troops, no FOOs, the timetable was shattered before the start, and his guns could do little to help. ‘A and B Tps bashed the aerodrome area once more but were in the dark re our own troops after a while and so held fire until a definite location … was supplied’, is how he explained it later. His nine assorted guns, even under ideal conditions, could scarcely have turned the tide of battle; but as things were they could do almost nothing. C Troop answered some calls for fire on the flat below, shouts which could be heard from time to time above the noise of battle. When daylight came the French 75s could do a little more; but the situation was still very confused.

By this time, too, Philp was worried about ammunition. Existing stocks were small and it was reported that no more rounds could be got for the French 75s. Fortunately this was incorrect. Lieutenant Dyson37 of the 4th Field had been appointed DAQMG, New Zealand Division, and he managed to locate more ammunition and, harder still, three lorries to carry it. With these he arrived in the 5 Brigade area early on 22 May, attracting much attention from the Luftwaffe. At least one lorry was set on fire and its precious cargo lost. One lorry-load of French 75-millimetre ammunition was safely delivered to C Troop. Gunners already aching with weariness had to carry it up the steep hillside. A and B Troops had to go without. It is doubtful if lorries could have reached them in any case; for the enemy covered the only road to the gun positions.

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The infantry of 20, 28 (Maori) and 21 Battalions meanwhile pushed on. The 20th reached the edge of the airfield before being driven back by murderous fire, particularly from the air. The 21st carried on during the day and made quite good progress in the hills to the south, though Brigade Headquarters was unaware of this. The gunners did what they could to help. Troop-carrying aircraft were by now running a taxi service to the airfield. Many of them were hit and the area became strewn with derelicts, but the taxi service continued. The guns kept pounding the airfield and did much damage; but they could not halt the inexorable build-up of enemy strength. The Luftwaffe in turn did its best to silence A and B Troops; but its efforts took the form of bombing and strafing suspected gun areas and it seemed doubtful that the actual gun positions were discovered from the air. Philp's headquarters, however, had a narrow escape. Philp had decided to move it and had just done so when a bomb scored a direct hit on the schoolhouse which he had used, causing the roof to collapse. Philp worked from then onwards alongside the headquarters of 23 Battalion.

Lieutenant Cade again went to his OP position on the open hillside and for the third day running Sergeant McLeay went forward to establish communications. Cade came under small-arms fire from the ground and McLeay, who for most of the day worked the visual signalling station by himself, was constantly threatened by air attack and more than once attacked in decidedly personal fashion. From this ridge Cade managed to get quite good observation over the airfield. The firing he controlled was accurate: targets were well registered. As soon as troop-carriers started to glide down for a landing shells would start to fall on the runway. Cade did not have the satisfaction of seeing a plane hit before its troops got out, but several were set on fire on the ground. Other targets were groups of men. The alpine troops who landed followed set routes and Cade soon had these taped. He saw many men hit and quite a lot of them must have been killed; for their bodies lay all day in the open. Enemy accounts make much of the intensity of the fire which met the alpine troops as they landed and dashed for cover. One Italian howitzer of B Troop suffered a broken buffer-spring late in the day and had to cease fire; but this made little difference to the output of the troop, for ammunition was by this time severely limited in supply. As night approached gunners were beginning to think seriously of destroying their guns and fighting on as infantry.

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C Troop had no such worry; but it had plenty of other troubles. So few men remained to carry out the elaborate preparation of its ammunition that the rate of fire was affected. But the gun crews continued to fire on the airfield almost regardless of the fire that came back at them. By the end of the day the troop was down to about half its original strength.

The great struggle of 27 Battery, however, was coming to a close. With the failure of the counter-attack and the strengthening of the enemy the odds against 5 Brigade were increasing, and it was eventually decided to withdraw to Platanias for fear of losing contact with the troops on the Galatas front. There was no hope of withdrawing the guns of A and B Troops and little hope of getting the C Troop guns out. It would mean, moreover, the loss of Crete; for there was no chance of holding out for long against an enemy who could reinforce at will. Such reinforcements as the defence had had since the battle started were negligible and there was no possibility of significant addition to them.

37 Col R. H. Dyson; Bangkok; born Christchurch, 4 Dec 1917; public servant; CO 5 Fd Regt Aug-Dec 1945; now Regular Force; Military Planning staff, SEATO.