Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon


I: New Zealand Arrivals from Greece

page 22

I: New Zealand Arrivals from Greece

AT four o'clock in the morning of 25 April 1941 the first convoy of New Zealand troops, on the Calcutta, Perth and Glengyle, left Porto Rafti, a beach not far from Athens. The greater part of the infantry of 5 Brigade were aboard (21, 22, 23 and 28 Battalions), the Rear and Main Headquarters of 2 NZ Division, and 5 and 6 NZ Field Ambulances. From almost all of these elements were missing, some still with units of the rearguard, some left on the beach in the confusion of the embarkation.1

Only less serious than the loss of men—perhaps more serious, since many of those not evacuated made their way out of Greece— was the loss of equipment. For GHQ Middle East had ordered that arms should not take precedence over men,2 and some embarkation officers and naval officers appear to have treated the order so literally as to demand that the troops leave even their rifles. Luckily men and officers resisted an order which would be absurd to any trained soldier and few came away without the personal weapons they had so grimly carried the length of Greece. But though the battalions evacuated this night and afterwards were to land in Crete with at least their rifles and a fair complement of Bren guns (lacking AA tripods),3 weapons heavier than these had for the most part to be sacrificed. The artillery and transport were to be sorely missed.

Few troops at this time could have been so much concerned with where they were going as with what they were going away from, and the continual attacks of the Luftwaffe together with the

1 This account treats only of the evacuation of NZ troops. It should be borne in mind that the Navy had also to take off the other components of W Force, and that of these 19 Aust Bde and many British troops were also to be landed in Crete and ultimately take part in the battle.

2 C-in-C Med to Fleet, 4.20 p.m., 24 Apr.

3 23 Bn, for example, brought out 31 LMGs, two A-Tk rifles, 26 SMGs, two 2-inch mortars, and 499 rifles. One man reached Crete, ‘with 500 rounds, 6 Bren magazines, a Bren gun, his rifle and a shovel’.—Lt-Col D. F. Leckie, diary, 25 Apr. Similarly, 5 Fd Regt reached Crete with more small arms than its establishment.—Maj W. D. Philp. 28 Bn, besides its Brens and mortars, brought away its four W/T sets.— Lt-Col G. Dittmer.

page 23 formidable hospitality of the Navy were enough for the moment and for the average soldier. But, however great the appearance of chaos inevitable to evacuation, there lay underneath it an effective enough plan. Already on 17 April a Joint Planning Staff committee had met in Athens and it had been decided that, because of the shortage of shipping, a large proportion of the evacuated force would have to be landed in Crete so as to give the ships engaged a quicker turn-round.1 In consequence orders had been issued for the provision in Crete of tentage, blankets, and drill uniform for 30,000 men and camps for 50,000. General Weston had begun to prepare the camps as soon as he took command.

Thus, when the first convoy arrived in Suda Bay about two o'clock in the afternoon of 25 April, there was some sort of organisation ready to receive the troops it carried. As they came ashore, in an assortment of small craft, they were ordered by the shore authorities to dump their Bren guns and mortars where they would become part of a general dump for future reallotment.2 Then, harried by shore authorities whose zeal did not permit the unit officers time to sort out their own men,3 the troops streamed back towards the camps prepared for them. On the way 1 Battalion, the Welch Regiment, dealt them out cigarettes, oranges, chocolate, and the hot tea always prescribed for emergencies and almost always there.

The New Zealand camp, Camp A, was about half-way between Canea and Perivolia and, like the rest, a camp only by courtesy. It was no more than a bivouac area. Cooking utensils, so far as they existed, were petrol tins, and there was scarcely any messing equipment. And so the first day of the evacuation—not yet thought of as the first day of a new campaign—ended with weary troops straggling in till late at night to wrap themselves in the one blanket which, if they were lucky, was waiting for them.4

That night no New Zealand units were evacuated from Greece. But next night, that of 26 April, the NZ Divisional Cavalry—RHQ, A and B Squadrons, less about 150 left behind—the major part of 4, 5 and 6 NZ Field Regiments, 7 NZ Anti-Tank Regiment, 27 Machine Gun Battalion, 7 Field Company and 5 Field Park Company, and the Provost Company, embarked from Rafina (C Beach) and Porto Rafti (D Beach). And a group which had

1 Supplement to The London Gazette, 18 May 1948, Admiral Cunningham's Despatch; Supplement to The London Gazette, 2 Jul 1946, General Wavell's Despatch.

2 Not all the battalions did this and their reluctance was justified in the sequel. See page 28.

3 28 Bn was apparently lucky: ‘We did move by Coys and foregathered at Refreshment Point. We thought the people who supplied the refreshments the best ever.’—Lt-Col Dittmer.

4 Creforce to Mideast, 26 Apr, says there were 4000 men on that date with no groundsheets and very few blankets. And the Cretan nights were cold.

page 24 been left behind on the night of 24 April and had meanwhile crossed by TLC1 to Kea Island was picked up. Two transport vessels were engaged in the operation: the Glengyle evacuated Rafina with three destroyers—Nubian, Decoy, and Hasty—in support; and the Salween evacuated Porto Rafti, supported by the destroyers Kandahar and Kingston and the cruiser Carlisle.

The plan on this occasion was for the transports to go direct to Egypt and for the naval vessels to go to Crete, returning thence to convoy duties. The greater part of the artillery were meant to have gone aboard the Glengyle and the Salween. They would thus have reached Egypt and been available for service in North Africa. This plan bad weather to some extent frustrated: at Porto Rafti the only craft available to take the men between shore and ship were three caiques and a TLC (which was busy till midnight in collecting troops from Kea Island). In a choppy sea many troops were unable to make the difficult climb to the decks of the transports. The naval vessels had to use their own boats and take the troops aboard themselves. Thus only a portion of 4 and 5 Field Regiments came to board the Salween, and the remainder, boarding the naval vessels, ended up in Crete instead of Egypt. At Rafina the plan was more successful, 6 Field Regiment and the greater part of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment boarding the Glengyle and arriving safely in Egypt. Some 700 troops—200 of them New Zealanders—were left behind.

Of 27 MG Battalion, the greater part of HQ Company and parts of 1, 2, 3, and 4 Companies embarked on the Salween. Those that did not came off in naval vessels and were ultimately made up into the MG company that fought on Crete. In much the same way a large part of the Divisional Cavalry left on the Salween for Egypt; about 150 men, of A and B Squadrons, were left behind, however, and one whole squadron, C Squadron, was in the Peloponnese. The main body of 7 Field Company, on the other hand, apparently came off in naval vessels, for it landed on Crete.

On the same night another evacuation was taking place at Navplion in the Peloponnese. Here the New Zealand troops involved were a section of 4 RMT2 and a medical group. This convoy endured a severe gruelling from the Luftwaffe; and the medical group, after being sunk with the Dutch transport Slamat and picked up by the destroyer Diamond, was again sunk with that ship, was picked up by the destroyer Wryneck, and was again sunk. Only one member of the group survived. The RMT section was luckier and reached Crete on the afternoon of 27 April.

1 Tank Landing Craft.

2 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company.

page 25

Meanwhile the convoy from Rafina and Porto Rafti left about three in the morning of 27 April, and the section of it bound for Crete arrived there after the usual hammering from the air about ten o'clock that night, while the Glengyle and the Salween went on to Alexandria, where they arrived two days later.

From NZ Division there were now still in Greece the large party that had been left behind on C Beach from the previous night, 4 Brigade, 6 Brigade, and Battle HQ of the Division. Fourth Brigade was scheduled to depart on the night of 27 April from D Beach at Porto Rafti, and there at the due time appeared the cruiser Ajax and the destroyers Kingston, Kimberley, and Havock. The last named was then sent to C Beach at Rafina to pick up the troops left there, while the others proceeded to embark Brigade HQ, elements of 27 MG Battalion, the three battalions (18, 19, and 20), some of 7 Field Company, part of 4 Field Ambulance, 4 RMT, and the beach embarkation staffs. Havock meanwhile embarked those who had remained at C Beach.1

The convoy seems to have got off to a quicker start than its predecessors and reached Suda Bay before ten o'clock on the morning of 28 April. The troops then disembarked and made their way to the camp at Perivolia, where they found the blanket issue was exhausted.

Last of the Division to leave Greece were Battle HQ of NZ Division, three troops from C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry, part of 6 Field Company, 6 Brigade (24, 25, and 26 Battalions), and 4 Field Ambulance. These, together with elements from the British, Australian and Greek forces, were embarked at Monemvasia aboard the Ajax and four destroyers—Havock, Hotspur, Griffin and Isis—and, leaving about a quarter to four in the morning of 29 April, reached Crete about eight o'clock the same morning.

At this stage General Freyberg2 and his staff believed that the whole division was to go back to Egypt. They knew that 5 Brigade was on the island but thought that the halt there was only a stage in its return. When the convoy reached Suda Bay, therefore, General Freyberg, his GSO 1, and his AA & QMG went ashore in order to arrange their own onward passage to Egypt by air and to take the opportunity thus afforded of visiting 5 Brigade. In their absence ashore the New Zealand troops who had crossed

1 Some of these had made their way to D Beach and embarked on Ajax; others commandeered a boat and, leapfrogging from island to island, reached Crete on 8 May.

2 Lt-Gen Lord Freyberg, VC, GCMG, KCB, KBE, DSO and 3 bars, m.i.d., Order of Valour and MC (Greek); born Richmond, Surrey, 1889; CO Hood Bn 1914–16; commanded 173 Bde, 58 Div, and 88 Bde, 29 Div, 1917–18; GOC 2 NZEF Nov 1939–Nov 1945; twice wounded; Governor-General of New Zealand 17 Jun 1946–15 Aug 1952

page 26 with them were transferred to two transports, the Thurland Castle and Comliebank, and at midday these two ships joined others in convoy and set off for Egypt, which they were to reach on 2 May.

The troops from the New Zealand reinforcement camp near Athens had been engaged by a German advanced guard at Kalamata that same night while waiting for the ships to come and take them off, and although they had counter-attacked and taken 180 prisoners, their evacuation had thus been prevented. When morning came they had no course but to surrender. Apart from these and various small parties who had been left behind or cut off, the whole of the New Zealand Division was now free of the mainland. Men were to come filtering through to Crete by various hazards in the weeks to follow, but there could be no serious additions to the strength evacuated.

The remarkable feature about the operation of which this is only a summary and partial account was its success—as an evacuation. That so large a proportion of the expeditionary force, with outnumbering German columns close on their heels and the German Air Force in command of the sky, should have got out at all says much for the organisation that underlay the embarkation, for the troops who took part in it, and above all for the Navy that made it possible at such cost to its own men's endurance and its ships.

But, this said, the evacuation had its less fortunate aspects. The individual accidents, the confusions of detail, were inevitable in a combined operation carried out by night and in grave difficulties. But it was unlucky that orders for the abandonment of weapons were so strictly interpreted by embarkation staffs, and it would have been worse if the troops had not evaded the order wherever possible. And it was unfortunate, too, that men of the first convoy to reach Crete were not allowed to retain these weapons. More serious still was the misfortune that landed so many artillerymen and other specialised troops in Crete, where the effort to evacuate them was to be an additional burden on the administration and where ultimately a large proportion of them were to be wastefully used fighting as infantry. And most serious of all was the misfortune that a whole infantry brigade—6 NZ Brigade— should have been shipped off to Egypt so incontinently when its presence with its two sister brigades would later have proved so welcome.

For these misfortunes the divisional command was not responsible. Headquarters NZ Division had no part in making the plans for evacuation and, indeed, had no inkling of the role in store for the Division. It was not until 30 April that General page 27 Freyberg learnt that any of his troops were to take part in the defence of Crete.1

1 General Freyberg's report; statement by Col K. L. Stewart.