II: The Other Battalions and 5 Brigade HQ
II: The Other Battalions and 5 Brigade HQ
The preceding account has shown 22 Battalion conducting its battle in isolation and yet continually expectant of counter-attack by one or both of the two units—21 and 23 Battalions—for which that role was intended. The failure of the counter-attack to eventuate largely accounts for the situation in which Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew found himself at the end of the day, and no doubt contributed to the state of disheartenment in which he made his decision to withdraw, even if it cannot be taken as justifying that decision. It will be necessary therefore to take each battalion in turn and see why no counter-attack took place.
The 21st Battalion had been given three roles, each one excluding the other two. It was to move to the Tavronitis in the event of attack, or to take over the positions of 23 Battalion should it move to counter-attack in support of 22 Battalion, or to remain and fight in its original positions. Just what conditions were to determine which course to be adopted is not now clear. No doubt Lieutenant-Colonel Allen1 considered that he was to hold himself ready to carry out any one of the three and decide, according to the situation or according to subsequent orders from Brigadier Hargest, which was the action required.2
1 Lt-Col J. M. Allen, m.i.d.; born Cheadle, England, 3 Aug 1901; farmer; MP (Hauraki) 1938–41; CO 21 Bn 17 May–28 Nov 1941; killed in action, 28 Nov 1941.
2 It is possible also that the orders may have been verbally expanded though we have no evidence of this, both principals being dead.
3 Col D. F. Leckie, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Invercargill; born Dunedin, 9 Jun 1897; school-teacher; served in Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regt, Anzac Mounted Division, 1916–19; CO 23 Bn Aug 1940–Mar 1941, May 1941–Jun 1942; commanded 75 Sub-Area, Middle East Force, Aug 1942–Mar 1944; wounded 25 May 1941.
On the morning of the battle the battalion was disposed on either side of the road which ran from the main coast road to Kondomari and the positions of 21 Battalion. East and west across the front lay the canal, and the bulk of the battalion had its company lines immediately south of this canal. On the extreme west of the battalion position was Headquarters Company 1,1 with the battalion mortars and a platoon of MMGs under Lieutenant MacDonald. Between Headquarters Company 1 and the Sfakoriako river was D Company. Between the Sfakoriako and the road was A Company. Right of the road were B Company and Headquarters Company 2. South of all these and in the centre of the battalion position was C Company.2 The RAP and Battalion HQ were in a gully on the southern edge of C Company. A Battle HQ had been prepared in the area of Headquarters Company 1 but the nature and direction of the attack prevented it from being used. Good observation towards Maleme could be had from the high ground held by Headquarters Company 1, and there was observation from a high feature a hundred yards west of Battalion HQ. This feature was occupied by signallers and the Intelligence section.
From these points, and in spite of a much more intense bombing and strafing than usual, the landing of gliders and parachutists over Maleme was observed and reported, though there was no communication with 22 Battalion after seven o'clock, no doubt because the lines were cut. By the time the turn of 23 Battalion itself came all troops were at their stations and as far as possible under cover from the air. Shortly after nine o'clock Leckie reported to Brigade HQ that parachutists were landing between his battalion and 22 Battalion but that so far all was well. In half an hour landings were taking place within the battalion's own perimeter. In fact the greater part of the Assault Regiment's III Battalion must have come down there.
The first lot seemed to curl over us and land on the ‘drome, the second lot seemed to go over the back of us towards 21 Bn and we began shooting though most of these were out of our range.
1 HQ Coy was divided into two groups, 1 and 2. For all these dispositions see map facing p. 97.
2 23 Bn company commanders were: Capt. C. N. Watson (A Coy), Capt J. B. Gray (B Coy), Maj H. H. Thomason (C Coy), Captain I. O. Manson (D Coy).
Suddenly, they came amongst us. I was watching the 21 Bn area and a pair of feet appeared through a nearby olive tree. They were right on top of us. Around me rifles were cracking. I had a Tommy gun and it was just like duck shooting.1
Paratroops landed everywhere in the battalion positions. All companies were at once briskly engaged and without having to move from where they were did terrible havoc. The excitement was tremendous. Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie himself killed five from his HQ in the gully, while the Adjutant, Captain Orbell,2 accounted for two without getting up from his packing-case desk. The battalion's losses at this stage were slight, though it was in these first few minutes that Mayor Fyfe,3 the second-in-command, was killed.
As soon as those actually within the positions had been dealt with the companies sallied out to despatch those who had landed outside the perimeter. D Company cleared the area west of the Sfakoriako, A Company the road to its front, B and Headquarters Company 2 the north-east flank, and C the area to the immediate east. These operations were very successful. Thus 15 Platoon of C Company, under Lieutenant Thomas,4 killed thirty enemy for the loss of one killed and two wounded.
The counter-attack for which he might be called upon made the fortunes of 22 Battalion a matter of prime interest to Leckie. Soon after the invasion began a party of signallers had been sent into position on the western slopes of the battalion area by a plan prearranged with 22 Battalion, and their task was to make contact by means of visual signals. This, however, they were unable to do. Nor were the flares sent up by 22 Battalion observed. But the observation posts reported that 22 Battalion's Headquarters Company seemed to be holding strongly, and Headquarters Company 1 could see that runways on the airfield were all covered by fire. The fact that the enemy, as observed through binoculars, evidently did not care to move in the open suggested that 22 Battalion was firm.
1 Report by Capt Watson.
2 Maj R. M. S. Orbell; Greymouth; born Oamaru, 17 Feb 1915; shipping clerk; wounded 18 Aug 1942.
3 Maj T. Fyfe; born Pakanui, 3 Oct 1892; school-teacher; killed in action 20 May 1941.
4 Lt-Col W. B. Thomas, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d., Silver Star (US); London; born Nelson, 29 Jun 1918; bank officer; CO 23 Bn Jun–Aug 1944, Oct 1944–May 1945; twice wounded; wounded and p.w. May 1941; escaped Nov 1941; Hampshire Regt, 1947–.
At 2.25 p.m. there came a message from Brigade HQ which gave a positive endorsement to his waiting policy:
Glad of your message of 1140 hrs. Will NOT call on you for counter-attacking unless position very serious. So far everything is in hand and reports from other units satisfactory….1
The reason for this surprising message will be discussed when the situation is considered from the point of view of Brigadier Hargest.2 For the moment it suffices to explain why Leckie made no move to the support of 22 Battalion. It should be added that although 23 Battalion could make no contact with 22 Battalion by visual signals, the Intelligence OP reported that 22 Battalion's Headquarters Company seemed to be holding out; and when Leckie sent his 17 Platoon to try and get in touch with it, the platoon could not do so because Headquarters Company was firing on all movement.
Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, however, knew nothing of this message. About five o'clock he had called for the counter-attack but had been told by Hargest that 23 Battalion was too busy with its own paratroops. Half an hour later Hargest had told him that two companies were being sent.
In consequence Leckie got orders in the late afternoon to send a company. Accordingly, Captain Watson set off with A Company about dusk.3 The rest of the battalion, in high fettle and with casualties of only seven killed and 30 wounded against perhaps as many as 200 enemy killed in the air, in the trees and on the ground,4 settled down for the night, confident of the morrow.
The message sent by 5 Brigade to 23 Battalion at 2.25 p.m., the failure of 23 Battalion to see Andrew's flares, and the fact that Hargest evidently thought that Captain Watson's company and Captain Royal's would be all the reinforcement required by 22 Battalion sufficiently explain why 23 Battalion did not carry out the attack for which it had been prepared. The fact that it did not do so also helps to explain the actions of 21 Battalion on 20 May.
1 23 Bn WD. Line communications between 23 Bn and Bde HQ were cut during the morning and at 2 p.m. were still so. These messages therefore were presumably passed by LO.
4 11 Air Corps estimates that 400 out of 600 men in III Bn were killed, including the CO, Maj Scherber. But all these would not have fallen to 23 Bn.
Lieutenant-Colonel Allen had disposed his rifle companies along the vineyard ridge west of Kondomari and the Sfakoriako. Battalion HQ and Headquarters Company were in Kondomari and on the ridge to the south of it. In addition the battalion had, as has been seen, a platoon of A Company on the east bank of the Tavronitis and an observer detachment overlooking Kastelli.1
The arrival of the gliders over Maleme found 21 Battalion at breakfast, the early morning strafing having apparently died down. All those not already in position at once took post and watched the parachutists landing ‘away to the west’.2 Some had landed closer, however, and about half past eight the troops became engaged with a group of about fifty who had come down north-west of D Company. These were followed an hour later by a string of a score or more who dropped round Battalion HQ and north towards 23 Battalion. Of these one was taken PW, two were wounded, and the rest killed.
In these circumstances Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, having himself accounted for one parachutist, had to decide which of his three roles he was to adopt. There was no sign at this stage of 23 Battalion counter-attacking, nor did there seem occasion for it to do so. He had no reason as yet to think his battalion was needed on the Tavronitis. And it seemed likely that the paratroops who had already landed would be followed by others. He therefore decided to hold his battalion where it was but to send a second platoon of A Company held ready for the purpose to the Tavronitis, clearing the villages of Xamoudhokhori and Vlakheronitissa on the way. From its progress he would be able to judge how things were going to the west. The platoon left at 11.30 a.m.
With the beginning of the battle the line to Brigade HQ was cut and, as the battalion had no wireless, communication from then on must have been by runner to 23 Battalion. It was perhaps by this means that Brigade HQ learnt at 1.45 p.m. that 21 Battalion had dealt with all the parachutists dropped in its area, and that it was reconnoitring to the south where others had been seen to drop.
1 See pp. 62–3. This detachment consisted of a section under a sergeant. It was cut off as soon as battle began, kept trying to make its way round the enemy flank and join the main force, and eventually succeeded in joining the withdrawal towards Sfakia.— Pte L. R. Stone, letter dated 4 Apr 1948.
2 21 Bn WD.
Unfortunately Allen did not draw the correct inference from the presence of such a force in Vlakheronitissa. He presumably thought that his platoon on the Tavronitis was cut off, or destroyed, or had joined 22 Battalion. Yet he might well have considered that the situation had now arisen where he might make the move to the Tavronitis envisaged in his orders. No doubt it would have been a difficult operation with the enemy planes as strong in the sky as they were that day; and he had perhaps heard from 23 Battalion that its counter-attack would not be called for, a circumstance which implied that Brigadier Hargest, in touch with Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, saw no reason for concern.
Even so, Allen might have argued, Hargest presumably knew nothing of the presence of this force round Vlakheronitissa. He can hardly be blamed for not having so argued but, had he done so and at once attacked with his battalion, he would have given Stentzler's force a severe jolt and by making contact with 22 Battalion might have so altered the situation that Andrew's withdrawal would not have taken place.
Meanwhile a message had come through from the AMES that small parties of enemy were operating in that quarter, and a second patrol was sent under Lieutenant Smith1 to mop them up. The patrol met no enemy and returned according to orders about seven o'clock.
In this kind of patrolling the battalion passed the day, an occupation varied by the experience of a severe dive-bombing towards evening. This visitation was no doubt due to the solicitude of Major Stentzler, who could not have felt happy about the presence of a large body of troops within striking distance. Even the presence of the patrol east of Vlakheronitissa disturbed Stentzler, as we may infer from the fact that it had to return after dark to avoid being surrounded.
Of the platoon on the Tavronitis Allen had of course no news, and he was not to learn till the following morning of the various vicissitudes it had been through.
1 Capt H. H. W. Smith; Matatoki, Thames; born Waitotara, 11 Jan 1914; farmer; p.w. 29 Nov 1941.
From the local point of view then, 21 Battalion had not had a bad day. It is all the more to be regretted that a force which was so close to the critical area, and itself relatively free of trouble at the very time of crisis for 22 Battalion, could not have been put to more effective use.
This account of the three forward battalions cannot be complete until the situation at 5 Brigade HQ has been more closely scanned. But it will be well, before turning to this, to conclude the story from the point of view of the units engaged by relating what happened to those lying farther back from the main battle area.
The 28th Battalion was grouped forward of Platanias so as to cover the beach and road in that area. The most westerly of its positions was held by D Company—a road bridge about a mile west of Platanias and the area on either side. Back along the road was Headquarters Company, grouped about the village itself; while A, B, and C Companies1 held the slopes just south of Platanias.2
Being farther from the scene of the main landings, 28 Battalion saw less action than the other battalions of 5 Brigade this day. Not till about the middle of the morning did it get its chance. First a glider and then a troop-carrier crash-landed on the beach about half a mile west of D Company. Before crashing they were already being attended to by all the Bren guns within range, by the three-inch mortar with 28 Battalion, and by C Troop of 27 Battery. Both aircraft were set on fire but not before some of the enemy that landed with them escaped: for, about an hour later, enemy were observed collecting in a building about 600 yards in front of the NZE positions. C Troop was called upon and scored at least one direct hit. But the enemy remained in the area, and at half past two Captain Baker,3 second-in-command of D Company, took out two platoons to deal with them. His account of what followed gives a good idea of the conditions and the spirit in which this operation, typical of many in these days, was carried out:
1 28 Bn company commanders were: Capt E. Te W. Love (HQ Coy), Capt L. J. Bell (A Coy), Capt R. Royal (B Coy), Capt A. T. McL. Scott (C Coy), Maj H. G. Dyer (D Coy).
2 See map facing p. 97.
3 Lt-Col F. Baker, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Kohu Kohu, Hokianga, 19 Jun 1908; civil servant; CO 28 Bn Jul–Nov 1942; twice wounded; Director of Rehabilitation.
This was the main event of the day on the front of 28 Battalion, though there were minor excitements elsewhere like the landing of two paratroops near Battalion HQ—followed by their swift capture. The adventures of B Company under Captain Rangi Royal, who set off at 7 p.m. to the support of 22 Battalion, have already been described.
The other infantry defences in 5 Brigade sector consisted of two groups: the NZE Detachment—7 Field Company (Captain J. B. Ferguson, who also commanded the whole detachment), which held both sides of the main road east of 23 Battalion, and 19 Army Troops Company (Captain J. N. Anderson) which held a similar area from east of 7 Field Company to D Company of 28 Battalion— and the Field Punishment Centre, which was located south of 7 Field Company and about half a mile west of Modhion.
About the same time as the landings on 23 Battalion, between a hundred and a hundred and fifty parachutists landed on the west flank of 7 Field Company. These met with much the same fate as those in 23 Battalion area, though some survived long enough to give the engineers a day's hunting. The 19th Army Troops were too far west to receive more than a sprinkling and towards evening sent over thirty men to assist 7 Field Company.
The Field Punishment Centre was commanded by Lieutenant Roach. The prisoners were without rifles, though a store was kept for issue in case of attack. When the enemy arrived the men were page 129 having breakfast—cooked in kerosene tins and eaten from bully-beef tins. ‘I think it's it,’ said Sergeant Hulme.1 ‘Get rifles, grab gear and move to 23 Bn as in orders,’ said Roach.2
The prior plan had been to move along the canal and join B Company. But parachutists were dropping in that direction and so Roach decided to make for the southern companies of 23 Battalion. More parachutists then began to land there also. Roach decided to hold the nearest high ground. He divided his men into three sections, each under an NCO, and they settled down in time to see more paratroops drop over the Aghya plain and ‘thank Christ they were not coming here.’3
Then two parachutists dropped about half a mile south-west of Modhion, and while Roach was watching them through his glasses they began to drop in large numbers all over his own area—forty yards west of it, then on top of it, then from a hundred to two hundred yards south of it.
Those who had weapons were by this time firing and those who had not were busy stripping the dead enemy. Once the paratroops were all landed and the obvious targets dealt with, Roach ordered out short patrols with orders ‘into them’. On one of these, five enemy were killed and five captured. Besides the valuable addition of three spandaus to the unit's fire power, this encounter yielded an aerial photograph showing positions of the defence in the area, including those of C Troop and its ammunition dumps. A recent change of camp by Lieutenant Roach had apparently eluded the enemy reconnaissance and may have saved the guns from an unpleasant attack.
Shortly after this a patrol from 7 Field Company under Lieutenant Hector4 passed through in search of an enemy mortar. It had not gone far when it ran into enemy fire and Hector was killed.
The rest of the day passed for the FPC at a slightly less hectic tempo in dealing with snipers, evacuating prisoners and wounded, collecting enemy equipment from the containers dropped, making contact with the other forces in the area, and a move after nightfall into a position closer to 7 Field Company so as to prevent infiltration.
1 WO II A. C. Hulme, VC; Pongakawa, Te Puke; born Dunedin, 24 Jan 1911; farmer; wounded 28 May 1941.
2 Report by Lt Roach.
4 Lt J. R. M. Hector, m.i.d.; born Wellington, 17 May 1913; civil engineer; killed in action 20 May 1941.
For the gunners of A, B, and C Troops the day had more hazards and excitements than usually fall to the lot of the artillery. A and B, not being dependent on direct observation, were skilfully hidden and were not discovered by the enemy air force, but C Troop had to be sited more or less openly so as to be able to use open sights and so took its full share of the bombing and strafing with which the battle began. Once the parachutists began to land in the areas east of Maleme all three troops had to look to their personal defence as well. This was not necessarily easy, as they were badly off for personal weapons; thus of the eleven men on one gun in B Troop only one had a rifle. At this stage the scene at B Troop as described by the Battery Commander, Major W. D. Philp, may be taken as not untypical:
Lts. Gibson and Francis get to work with a rifle each and I frantically try to tell Lt. Gibson that he is firing too high and also that there are three blokes under one tree just where he is firing. The Troop Riflemen are still below ground and so we raise them and organise them along the front ledge of our position. After the first excitement … they settle down to a little duck shooting, another load of Parachutists having toppled out. Troop Bren Gun is back at Cookhouse and so I go and send Bdr. Tyler and the gunners up. Return to B.H.Q. and send Gnrs. Cantlon and Marshall off with our Bren and they do excellent work. B.H.Q. now receive a “carrier” load right in our front garden and we get into the fun. One Hun is only about 25 yds away in grape vines. A few rounds are fired but he may be lying “doggo”. Gnr. McDonald sets our anxiety at rest by coming up from opposite direction walking straight up to Hun and saying, “You'd look at me like that, you bas…. would you?” with appropriate action. Another poor devil gets his on the wing. His ‘chute catches in an olive tree and he finishes up by leaning on a rock wall, head on hands almost as if he had been meditating by the wall when death caught up to him. Dead Germans everywhere—’ chutes caught in trees and still fluttering in the wind….
But to defend themselves against these enemy on the ground was only a secondary task for the gunners. Their prime concern was to fire their guns. This became difficult from the first because of the failure of the line to the OP. Heroic efforts to mend it were made by Sergeant McLeay1 of B Troop and others, but it was impossible and he and his party were constantly distracted into fighting along the way.
1 Sgt K. A. McLeay, MM; born Napier, 22 May 1918; clerk; wounded Nov 1941; lost at sea (SS Chakdina) 5 Dec 1941.
The gunners of C Troop, excellently placed for observation as they had to be, also did worthy execution against troop movements east of the airfield,1 concentrations in houses, and aircraft and gliders landing on the beach. But their position was an exposed one. Before long at least one enemy gun was brought to bear on them from near Maleme, and Captain Snadden, the troop commander, was wounded. Moreover, enemy fighters soon discovered the troop's positions, and their attentions were so persistent that C Troop had either to fire while themselves under fire from the air or remain silent. They chose to fire and kept on firing.
The account of the position as it was with the various units actually engaged is now complete and it is time to turn to 5 Brigade HQ. From Battle HQ in a gully south of Platanias, Brigadier Hargest's staff saw the gliders come in low overhead and then veer west towards Maleme. The Brigade Major, Captain R. B. Dawson, at once reported them to Divisional HQ and found that they had also been seen from there. Reports soon came from 22 Battalion that there had been glider landings in their area, and similar reports about the passage of gliders and parachutists came in from the other battalions. By 9.20 a.m., when the line—except for that to 23 Battalion, the NZE detachment and the artillery— failed,2 the situation seemed in hand. Wireless contact was then sought and established about 10 a.m. with 22 Battalion, though subject to interruption at both ends of the link.3
1 The most gratifying shoot of the day occurred when a detachment of paratroops was observed in close formation near Pirgos. The first round from Capt Snadden's guns landed in the middle of the column.
2 Reports about the exact time when line to 22 Bn failed and the time when wireless contact was made are contradictory. The above is based mainly on the reports of Capt Dawson and of Capt W. W. Mason, Staff Captain, 5 Bde HQ. It seems likely enough that one or two early messages about the landings were got through by line and that there was then a short delay after the failure of line while wireless contact was made. The main point is that the first soon failed and that the second grew weaker as the day wore on and the batteries began to run down.
3 It seemed to 5 Bde that they got special attention from the enemy aircraft every time a wireless message was passed.
Brigadier Hargest had been in Platanias village when the invasion began and had had to dash and crawl through a storm of machine-gun fire from enemy aeroplanes in order to reach his Battle HQ. When he reached it he took up an observation post in a slit trench from which he could observe Maleme. He was confident that the brigade would hold its positions and took the breakdown in communications as the sort of mishap inevitable in battle.
At 10.30 a.m. he was able to pass on to 27 Battery the request for searching fire in the Tavronitis area and to watch the unsuccessful attempts of enemy planes to silence the guns. True, the report from 22 Battalion at 10.55 that communications with companies had gone must have been disturbing, but the Brigadier no doubt interpreted it as cheerfully as was natural to one of his sanguine temper and concluded that it was only temporary and that, sited as they were for all-round defence, the companies would be able to hold their own against the isolated parties to whom the interruption would be due. And his confidence would have been encouraged by the report from 23 Battalion at 11.40 that its area was well under control. A similar report to similar effect from 21 Battalion at 1.45 p.m. may have made him hope—if so, by a mistaken assessment of the force of the enemy attack in the different areas—that what two of his battalions had been able to do the third would also manage. All that he himself could do he evidently felt he was doing, and although 22 Battalion reported shortly after noon that they had been bombed and were being harassed by guns and heavy machine guns from the west, at least his guns were doing all in their power to retaliate.
Galatas, intended and actual landing areas of 3 Parachute Regimnt, 20 May
1 The reference to gliders and a plane on the drome was mistaken.
This confidence ought to have been more difficult to sustain as the afternoon went on. At 2.55 p.m. came a report from Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew that his Battalion HQ had been penetrated and at ten minutes to four his report that his left2 flank had given way and his request that Headquarters Company should be contacted because he badly needed reinforcements. Again, as we have seen,3 about five o'clock Andrew asked Hargest to order the counter-attack and was told after a pause that 23 Battalion could not carry it out because it was busy with paratroops.4
It was during this conversation, apparently, that Andrew told Hargest that if no support were coming from without he would have to counter-attack with the two I tanks. And it may be that Hargest had such confidence in this local reserve that he thought nothing more would be necessary.
If so, Andrew's next message for him, some time after 5.45 p.m. and probably about six o'clock,5 must have been a severe disappointment: the local counter-attack had failed. But even before this and while the local counter-attack was going on, the Brigadier had evidently felt some assistance must be sent: for at 5.15 Brigade HQ reported to Division that two companies were being sent to the airfield.6
1 Report by Capt Dawson (Dec 1946).
4 This is odd, since 23 Bn had informed 5 Bde at midday that the situation was under complete control. Perhaps, after hearing from Lt-Col Andrew, Hargest was able to make contact with Lt-Col Leckie or had reason to believe that the situation had deteriorated since the midday message. Telephone seems to have been restored then or soon afterwards.
5 ‘No news from “I” tanks …’—Bde WD entry for 5.45 p.m. Lt-Col Andrew says he was told of the coming of the two companies between 5.30 and 6 p.m., presumably when he reported the failure of the counter-attack.
6 NZ Div Intelligence log.
7 Capt Dawson.
It would be another matter if Brigadier Hargest had hastened to increase the strength of the reinforcement when he learnt about six o'clock that the counter-attack had failed and Andrew first began to speak of withdrawal. But he did not do so; nor does he seem to have considered that any special action was called for after his last conversation with Andrew between 8.30 and 9.30 p.m. The optimism implicit in this inaction is to be found also in a message sent from 5 Brigade HQ to Division that night at 9.45. According to this 23 Battalion and 7 Field Company were reported to be ‘tired but in good fettle’; there were ‘hundreds of dead Germans in their areas’. All units would be keeping a sharp watch on the beach that night. The 23rd Battalion's casualties were seven killed and 30 wounded. Nothing was known of casualties in the other units beyond the fact, reported by 22 Battalion at six o'clock, that its casualties had been severe. The message went on to say that a company from 23 Battalion and another from 28 Battalion had been sent to help 22 Battalion, the first being expected to arrive at 8.45 and the second at 9 p.m. Communications with 22 Battalion had been lost at 8.30 p.m. In general, the situation was ‘quite satisfactory’.1
If Hargest, although he knew that the local counter-attack with tanks had failed and that Andrew was considering a limited withdrawal, regarded the situation as ‘quite satisfactory’, we can see why he did not feel called upon to launch a major counterattack with 21 and 23 Battalions. But how he could possibly take such a view remains completely puzzling. Since he himself did not survive the war to explain what he did and what he left undone, no satisfying solution is available.
The absence of an explanation for what was done, however, hardly absolves the historian from the necessity to consider the action taken in the light not only of its results but also of what might have been the results of a different course. And as the events of this twenty-four hours were largely to determine the development of the whole battle for Crete, it is particularly necessary to pause and recapitulate the main points of the day's action with an eye to suggesting the courses open to Brigadier Hargest and scrutinising the course he did take in the light of the defence he would probably have advanced for it.
1 NZ Div WD. It is interesting that the message mentions that communications with 22 Bn had been lost at 8.30 p.m. If this time is right, as seems likely, and if communications were not subsequently restored, Lt-Col Andrew is mistaken in thinking his last conversation with Brig Hargest took place between nine and half past. And the optimism of Brig Hargest is all the less explicable.
Already before noon Hargest was reporting to Division that the main enemy activity appeared to be directed against 22 Battalion. Nothing that happened subsequently could have given him grounds for departing from this appreciation, and indeed, since 22 Battalion commanded the airfield and the airfield was the obvious objective, nothing could be more likely than that the appreciation was correct.
Again, by early afternoon Hargest knew that 21 Battalion had disposed of the paratroops in its area and that 23 Battalion, though more heavily attacked, also had its situation well in hand.
It would have been natural, therefore, from midday on, to discover Brigadier Hargest issuing or preparing to issue orders to either or both 21 and 23 Battalions to proceed to the support of 22 Battalion, where the obvious Schwer punkt of the enemy's effort lay. Yet, instead, he issues at 2.25 p.m. a message to 23 Battalion to the effect that he will not call upon it to counter-attack unless the position is very serious.
The only inference one can draw from this is that, although he knew the main attack was directed against 22 Battalion and that the enemy was in force west of the Tavronitis, he thought it necessary to defer using his reserves as long as possible, and that he did not think the situation was as yet very serious.
The case for keeping 23 Battalion where it was rests mainly no doubt on the fact that the same intelligence which had predicted the airborne invasion so accurately had also foretold an invasion by sea. The 23rd Battalion had a coastal defence role, and presumably Hargest did not want to move it to a position where it would be unable to carry this out unless he was absolutely forced to. And, if he was going to move it, the somewhat confusing battle plan for 21 Battalion laid down that it was to replace 23 Battalion. With communications as bad as they were this might have been a difficult reshuffling of forces to carry through; even so, the most that can be said is that hesitation to embark on the manœuvre was natural.
Again, at 2.25 p.m. Hargest does not seem to have realised that 22 Battalion was already in jeopardy—there is no evidence to show that he was yet aware of the breach at the Tavronitis bridge.
Finally, the fact that 23 Battalion at least still had a good deal of mopping up to do, and the grave difficulties involved in moving large formed bodies of troops in daylight under complete enemy air superiority, also favoured a policy of waiting until the situation had become clearer and the need for counter-attack more indisputable.
When all this has been said, it is still difficult to see the wisdom of sending a quite gratuitous message to the effect that the counter- page 136 attack would not be called for unless the position grew very serious.
As the afternoon proceeds the case becomes more difficult. By 2.55 p.m. Andrew had reported the penetration of his HQ area. By 3.50 he was reporting that his ‘left flank’ had given way but that the position was believed to be in hand. Even if we assume that Andrew did not put his predicament as strongly as he might have done, this ought surely to have forced Hargest to reconsider his counter-attack policy so far. If he did reconsider it, he did not alter it.
Then, about five o'clock, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, having already put up flares in vain, got in touch with Hargest once more and asked for counter-attack by 23 Battalion. The reply was that 23 Battalion could not counter-attack because it was engaged against paratroops. Unless we assume that Hargest in his unrecorded telephone conversations with Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie formed an exaggerated estimate of the importance of the mopping-up operations then going on in 23 Battalion area, it is hard to explain why he should have answered Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew with what was in effect a repudiation of the battle plan which had been formed expressly to meet the situation that had now arisen. In fact, he seems to have had afterthoughts; for the message by which Division learnt of the plan to send forward Watson's and Royal's companies was received at 5.15 p.m., and so we may assume that it was after the above conversation that Hargest decided to send them.
Two companies, however, and those not sent till dark, were a sadly inadequate force to send to the help of the sector that was not only the worst beset but the most important.
Hargest's next news of the Maleme front was Andrew's report that the counter-attack with tanks had failed. In the same conversation—about six o'clock—he also learnt that Andrew, his reserve gone and no counter-attack having come, might have to consider withdrawal. He replied by agreeing to that withdrawal if it had to be.
These conversations seem crucial to the interpretation of Hargest's attitude. But no record of them survives and Hargest did not discuss them with his staff. We are dependent for information about them on the recollection of Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, and he can throw no light upon the conclusions Hargest drew from them. Moreover, with weak signals, the forward troops under heavy attack, and a confusing situation, full allowance must be made for the possibilities of misunderstanding, never so rich as in time of battle.page 137
Yet the minimum that Brigadier Hargest could have gathered was that the situation was bad. The counter-attack with tanks had failed, there was no further reserve, and the local commander had mentioned withdrawal as a possible contingency. The inference that, even with the extra two companies and even if he held on, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew would have to meet a heavier attack next day without having the tanks available as a counter-stroke ought surely to have been inescapable.
It is difficult to resist the view that Hargest's wisest course at this time would have been to issue a warning order to 23 Battalion and perhaps 21 Battalion, to have gone forward to 23 Battalion and seen for himself the situation there, to have joined Watson's company and gone through with it to Andrew's HQ.1 Once there he could have summed up the situation, raised the spirits of the beleaguered battalion, called up one or both the other battalions to restore the line of the Tavronitis, and if all went well ordered them to launch a night counter-attack across the river. The Assault Regiment had by now lost one of its battalions more or less completely and the others were in a very battered state.2
Again, at half past eight or somewhat later, Andrew got in touch with Hargest by the last effort of the No. 18 set and, though the messages were weak, ‘told him I would have to withdraw to B Coy ridge.’ A glance at the map should have told Hargest that such a course was tantamount to giving up the position. Then, if ever, was the time for some such course of action as that already suggested.
Instead, he sent the message to Division that has already been recounted—a message which gives no indication that Andrew was contemplating even a local withdrawal, though this news would surely have been thought of the greatest importance.
1 The problem of where he is to be is always a difficult one for a commander. Had he gone forward he would have been for a long time out of touch with both Division and his forward commanders. As will be seen, other senior commanders found the problem as baffling. At a later stage in the war no experienced commander when in doubt would fail to realise that going forward was the only safe course.
2 In Andrew's view the most even a force of two battalions counter-attacking on 20 May could have done would have been to restore the situation. Even this would have been better than nothing; but both General Student and General Ringel agree that the Assault Regiment could not have withstood a battalion counter-attack at this time.
Looked at in this light the factor that probably weighed most with him, the need for the battalions to be in a position to carry out their coastal roles, dwindles to its true importance. For if the airfield were lost the enemy could build up his invasion independently of the success or failure of the seaborne expedition. And unless the defence counter-attacked at once, not merely to restore the original position but to hit the enemy's build-up across the Tavronitis the hardest blow possible, it would be only a matter of time before the airfield belonged to General Meindl.
In short, Brigadier Hargest misread the situation. That he did so can be blamed partly on the fact that he was still tired from the campaign in Greece; on his being over-impressed with the success of 23 Battalion and too ready to believe that 22 Battalion would have equal success in weathering the storm; on the circumstance that this was a kind of battle new to him and one where hours counted, not days; and on the fact that communications were peculiarly bad and advice from a trained Intelligence staff quite absent. But the conclusion is inevitable that he began with a battle plan which gave his battalion commanders too much choice of role with too little guidance on which roles were prior, that in the battle itself he failed to give his commanders firm directions, that he would have been better able to deal with the breakdown of communications had he taken up beforehand an advanced HQ much closer to Maleme, the vital point, and that once things had begun to go wrong his wisest course would have been to go forward as far as possible to see for himself what the situation was.