II: Behind 42nd Street
II: Behind 42nd Street
While the two brigades at 42nd Street kept their line unbroken, behind the front the various headquarters were struggling against chaotic conditions and hopelessly inadequate communications to make the withdrawal orderly and arrange for its protection. What the one road of withdrawal was like may be gathered from General Freyberg's description:
The road from Suda Point over Crete to Sphakia traversed steep hills and went through mountain passes to one of the most inhospitable coastlines imaginable and was well described by someone that night as the ‘via dolorosa’. There were units sticking together and marching with weapons —units of one or other of the composite forces which had come out of the line—but in the main it was a disorganised rabble making its way doggedly and painfully to the South. There were the thousands of unarmed troops including the Cypriots and Palestinians. Without leadership, without any sort of discipline, it is impossible to expect anything else of troops who have never been trained as fighting soldiers. Somehow or other the word Sphakia got out and many of these people had taken a flying start in any available transport they could steal and which they later left abandoned on the road to give away to the enemy what was taking place …. Never shall I forget the disorganisation and almost complete lack of control of the masses on the move as we made our way slowly through that endless stream of trudging men.
Just south of Stilos the HQ of NZ Division, which had broken up during the march, established its nucleus about 4 a.m. An hour later came a message from 5 Brigade: could the guns be sent up? The only reply possible was that 5 Brigade was under General Weston's command and that the guns could not be traced. Fourth Brigade and its units, all that was now under divisional command, took time to locate, but eventually Brigade HQ, 18 Battalion, 20 Battalion, and Major Leggat's company from 22 Battalion were found. C Squadron of 3 Hussars also turned up, having missed 5 Brigade in the withdrawal. It was put under command of 4 Brigade.
Fourth Brigade HQ had moved along with 20 Battalion in the night, Brigadier Inglis having learnt en route from Brigadier Puttick that the brigade was to go on to Stilos. The 18th Battalion had spent the night south-east of Suda, and its commanding officer had been awakened by Major Lewis with the news that the Composite page 384 Battalion had been ordered to move towards Sfakia. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray reasoned correctly from the weakness of the brigade that no active role was intended for it and that similar orders had probably been meant for him. He decided to continue south and reached Stilos about 9 a.m.; his B Company, which had overshot the turn-off and gone on to Kalivia, caught up with the battalion about midday. Leggat's 22 Battalion company was located also during the day, but rather later.
The 5th NZ Field Park Company, which had been near Canea throughout the earlier phases, had worked from the beginning at various engineering jobs and had done a good deal of patrollin in liaison with 1 Welch. On 26 May it had got orders to withdraw, and late on the 27th it began its march from Suda, keeping on till eleven o'clock that night. The 7th Field Company and 19 Army Troops were forward at 42nd Street all day.
The Composite Battalion was still no more than a collection of groups: the Petrol Company, the Supply Column, 4 RMT, and those members of 4 and 5 Field Regiments who had been fighting as infantry or who had been in 27 or 28 Battery and had lost their guns. At Stilos these groups halted by the DID and had a meal— for some of them the best they were to have till the end of the war. And here the gunners sorted themselves into two groups, Major Bull leading one and Major Bliss the other—Major Lewis had gone forward and was out of contact. A third party of gunners was with Captain Snadden in 5 Brigade.
As if the confusion of troops, more or less unattached, now passing through Stilos or halting near it were not enough, enemy aircraft were soon overhead. Strafing and bombing went on all day, at their worst about 6 p.m. and continuing till an unusually late hour.1 Three trucks, a petrol dump, grass and trees were set on fire.
During the morning—perhaps because no one seemed to know where General Weston was and the situation was so confused— NZ Division asked under whose command 5 Brigade was. Creforce replied that if Weston could not be found Creforce itself would control the forward brigades. For Freyberg seems at this stage to have planned to get Brigadier Puttick to prepare a defence line farther south.
1 ‘Many remarked that the German Pilots were only after the “overtime”.’—WO II E. T. Pritchard.
At 3.30 p.m. General Freyberg himself visited Division, ordered Puttick to move his HQ to the plain, and explained that Creforce would look after the brigades, failing General Weston. Then, later in the afternoon, Weston appeared.
At 7.15 p.m. Division's written orders to 4 Brigade provided for a company to be posted about three miles east of Vrises and to stay there till General Weston ordered it to retire. Meanwhile 4 Brigade had produced its own orders for the move to the plain: the move would begin at half past eight, Brigade HQ leading and 20 Battalion, 18 Battalion, and 3 Hussars following in that order. Guides would be awaiting their arrival and the brigade would keep up its role throughout 28 May.1
These arrangements complete, Divisional HQ itself set off at 8.45 p.m. Hardly had it gone when an LO arrived from 5 Brigade with a message timed 6.30 p.m. This reported the day's fighting and said that 5 and 19 Brigades intended to continue to withdraw that night in conjunction with Layforce. Artillery to cover the move and trucks for the wounded were urgently needed. Fifth Brigade's next HQ would be Stilos.
Evidently Brigadier Hargest still felt that his best hope of getting what he needed was from Brigadier Puttick. Indeed it is hard to see where else he could apply; for he had had no contact with General Weston since early morning and did not know where Suda Area HQ was. The only remedy for this would have been for Weston to have given explicit orders that morning about the further conduct of the withdrawal or to have made some definite statement about where he could be found if he could not again get forward.
With Division gone, all Major Peart could do was show the LO where ammunition and rations were dumped and send the message on to Puttick.2
1 4 Bde Op Inst No. 10, 5.20 p.m.
2 At 9 p.m. C Sqn was ordered, as it passed through Div HQ, to send a tank back to 5 Bde, and did so.
Lieutenant-Colonel Young found that the only suitable place for his main delaying position was Babali Hani. It was well to the south and so less likely to be outflanked by enemy cutting across the hills to the rear; it was less impossibly narrow than any alternatives farther north; and although the two withdrawing brigades could hardly be expected to get farther south than Neon Khorion on the night of 27 May, it was no doubt assumed that A Battalion would still be providing cover, although it was supposed to leave Suda on the night of the 27th.
Orders along these lines were given to Colonel Laycock by General Weston or Lieutenant-Colonel Wills some time before dawn, and three I tanks which had apparently come from Heraklion were put under his command. Suda Area HQ itself passed most of the day moving south. It can hardly have reached Neon Khorion much before midday, and at half past six it moved again for a position not far from Vrises. It moved again during the night and arrived at Sin Ammoudhari at 7 a.m. Since General Weston could not get back along the roads, had no signals, and had a staff which was exiguous and untrained for such operations, there was nothing he could do to control the rearguard. The only way to have done so would have been to be with it. And once he had gone south this was impossible.
Little is known of the actions of A Battalion, Layforce. It began its withdrawal from Suda shortly after the two brigades and went on towards Babali Hani. Captain Baker says he was overtaken by a company of commandos on his way to Stilos and that their commander complained that their training had never envisaged an operation of this kind. Indeed, Laycock had already pointed this out to General Weston and General Freyberg, and explained that his men were armed only with rifles, tommy guns, and Brens.
In the event the enemy seems to have cut off a good part of A Battalion north of Stilos, though many of them got back to Sfakia. The battalion was so disorganised by the withdrawal and its failure to disengage completely, that daylight found no covering force in front of 5 Brigade at Stilos except the ‘Spanish Company’ and Captain Royal's two companies at Beritiana; somewhere between Beritiana and Stilos also were two of the Layforce I tanks and the light tank sent back by C Squadron.page 387
D Battalion, meanwhile, had reached Babali Hani about midnight and Lieutenant-Colonel Young put his men into the area which they were to occupy. In this way the detailed defensive plan for this position could be worked out at dawn with the minimum delay.
At Retimo the garrison's bad luck was now moving into the ascendant. An attempt by the RAF to drop supplies during the night had failed because there were no flares for recognition signals and the pilots could not locate the airfield. The attack on Perivolia broke down again because one tank lost a track on a mine, while the other was hit by an anti-tank shot and set on fire. Previous experience had shown that the stronghold was too well defended for infantry alone and so the attack was called off. The two companies which had made it were pinned down all day in front of the German outposts which they had almost reached and were attacked from the air as well. They could not be extricated till nightfall. Thus the last hope, had Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell known it, of breaking through to join up with the main force round Canea and Suda was gone.
Unaware of this, however, he once again pondered his determination to eliminate the enemy post. This time he decided he must try a night attack, and so plans were made for it to be put in at three o'clock next morning.
But it was not only communication by aircraft and land that had failed. Wireless messages to and from Creforce had to be in clear and it was too risky to send evacuation orders even in guarded language. Moreover, when Force HQ left Suda, General Freyberg was still without authority to order evacuation and without details of how evacuation could take place if it were authorised. He had arranged the night before for the MLC (Motor Landing Craft) to try and get through with a share of the supplies that had come with the commandos. Lieutenant R. A. Haig, RN, who commanded the vessel, was waiting near Suda Point with the intention of trying to get through to Retimo on the night of 27 May. Freyberg therefore thought there would be time to get the evacuation orders through to him for Retimo. We shall see in the sequel how here, too, misfortune played its part.
Heraklion, too, was troubled by poor communications among its other problems. Unable to get direct touch with Creforce, Brigadier Chappel sent a message through Middle East. The enemy was page 388 posted in strength so as to cut the roads leading west and south of the town and had strongpoints on the high ground to the south-east. From these positions he commanded all the positions of the defence, which must take in the town of Heraklion as well as the airfield now that the Greek forces, after heavy casualties, had had to withdraw to the Knossos area. Enemy strength in automatic weapons was increasing daily while the garrison was running steadily more short of ammunition. It was clear that the enemy was building up for an eventual attack. The only courses open to the defence were to hold on in the present positions; to try and clear the roads to the west if that seemed advisable; to open the road to the south; to try and clear the high ground to the south; or to attack the enemy positions in the south-east. Chappel proposed to continue holding where he was and then, if supply policy made it desirable, to clear the western or southern roads.
But the pace of events elsewhere was to solve his problems in a way not to be foreseen when he drew up this appreciation. Middle East HQ sent him his orders for evacuation on the night of 28 May. A warship would arrive about midnight and would have to be clear by 3 a.m. on 29 May. Rear parties which covered the evacuation and could not be got off by sea that night would have to go south to Tymbaki.
From now on Brigadier Chappel had only to hold his perimeter, keeping his own counsel about the plans for evacuation until the time came to organise the troops in preparation for it.
For General Freyberg this was a trying day. He had been forced to act as if evacuation were to take place before he had received General Wavell's authority to do so. Most of the day he was still waiting for that authority to come. Then there was the worry about the disappearance of General Weston and what consequences this might entail for the two brigades still at 42nd Street. And he was full of concern for the garrison at Retimo.
As soon as it was possible he sent off a message to General Wavell, at 11 a.m. The situation in the battle area was obscure, but the enemy was thought to be held up north-west of Suda and the Layforce rearguard was in readiness east of Suda. Most of the troops from the Base area, some troops who had come back from the main front, and some of the wounded were back in the area of Stilos and Kalivia. Those still at the front were under heavy pressure and enemy aircraft were everywhere active. There was really no choice about what must be done and he urged an page 389 immediate decision in favour of evacuation so that plans could be made.1
This was followed up by a further message in the early afternoon to report that a seaplane had landed in Suda Bay behind 42nd Street, and that 5 and 19 Brigades were out of touch but might be able to fight their way out after dark. His own HQ was to move to Sfakia that night and, though he was still waiting for orders, his hand was being forced. There were rumours of enemy landing trucks in Almiros Bay, and he suggested that Middle East should land parties to protect Porto Loutro, Sfakia, Frango Kastelli [Frangokasterion], Ay Galene, and Tymbaki. Rations should also be landed.2
In fact, General Wavell was himself waiting for orders from London. At 9.30 a.m. he had telegraphed to the Prime Minister reporting collapse on the Canea front, a temporary line at Suda Bay, and no possibility of reinforcement. He explained that the enemy air superiority had made prolonged defence and administration impossible, and reported just having received a message— no doubt that sent at 3 a.m.—that General Freyberg considered the only chance for his forces was to withdraw to the southern beaches by night, that Retimo was cut off and short of supplies, and that Heraklion was almost surrounded. He ended by saying that it would now have to be accepted that Crete could be held no longer and that the troops would have to be withdrawn in so far as that was possible.3
This message elicited a response from London at 7.30 p.m. It ordered Wavell to evacuate Crete at once, giving the saving of men an absolute priority over that of material. Admiral Cunningham was to prevent any landings by sea that might interfere with the evacuation.4
But already Wavell had accepted the inevitable, and at 3.50 p.m. he sent a further message to the CIGS explaining that he had ordered the evacuation of Crete according to whatever opportunity there was.
A copy of the message to General Freyberg is not available, but it is plain enough what it must have contained: the order to evacuate, and perhaps some details of the ships available and the times. The order reached Freyberg ‘during the afternoon’.
As soon as Freyberg received this his first thought was for Retimo. He at once wrote a message for Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell which ran as follows:
3 General Wavell to War Office for PM, 9.30 a.m., 27 May.
4 War Office to Commanders-in-Chief, 7.30 p.m., 27 May.
We are to evacuate crete. Commence withdrawal night 28/29 May leaving rear parties to cover withdrawal and deceive enemy. If liable to observation move only by night and lie up by day. Embark plaka bay east end night 31 May/1 Jun. Essential place of embarkation be concealed from enemy therefore you should be in embarkation area and concealed by first light, 31 May. Make best arrangements you can for wounded. Most regrettable we can do nothing to help in this matter. Hand prisoners over to Greeks. This goes to you by hand of Lieut Haig RN, Comd MLC. Acknowledge receipt of this in clear by wireless tomorrow. We will be on move tonight. You and your chaps have done splendidly. Evacuation is due to overwhelming air superiority in this section. Cheerio and good luck to you.1
Unluckily for Campbell's gallant force and Freyberg's hopes, the liaison officer who was given this vital order to take to Lieutenant Haig at Suda Point got there only to find that the MLC had already gone. All that Haig could tell Campbell on arriving that night was that he had orders to report next to Sfakia. From this the most that Campbell could infer was that evacuation was probable and that in part at least it would take place from the south coast.
Meanwhile Freyberg reported to Wavell that the orders to Retimo had been sent on and that they had been told when to expect the ships and where. He himself hoped to have troops at Sfakia for protection purposes next morning. The Naval Officer-in-Command was separately informing Admiral Cunningham about the numbers to be taken off, the beaches from which they would go, and the times they would be there.
This was in hand, and the Naval Officer had reported that the plan was to embark 1000 men on the night of 28 May; 6000 on the night of 29 May; 5000 on the night of 30 May; 3000 on the night of 31 May—all these from Sfakia—as well as 1200 of the Retimo garrison from Plaka Bay on this last night.
With the universal recognition that there was now nothing for it but to evacuate, one more phase of the battle for Crete had ended. For the Navy this meant a reorientation of plans. From concentrating on preventing invasion, it would have to turn to the problem of finding ships to transport or escort troops across the hazardous seas between the beaches and Alexandria.
Till now the Navy had been operating without fighter cover except for the one occasion when the aircraft of the Formidable had been available. From now on there was some prospect of a slight relief from these hard conditions. Air Marshal Tedder promised that he would try and put fighters into the air but said that, because of the distance from his bases, cover would be only meagre and inadequate. To co-ordinate what protection was possible with the movements of the fleet, an RAF liaison officer was attached to Admiral Cunningham's HQ.
Over Crete itself the RAF continued to do what it could. After another night raid Blenheims and Hurricanes came back by day and shot three Junkers 88 down over the sea. At dusk more Blenheims attacked Maleme airfield and a further attack by night was made by Wellingtons.