II: Galatas and Canea Fronts
II: Galatas and Canea Fronts
Daylight of 21 May found the Germans of 3 Parachute Regiment defensively disposed in accordance with Heidrich's appreciation that a counter-attack was to be expected, and that with only I Battalion and the Engineer Battalion fit to fight he had not the strength to get in first with a spoiling blow. His troops spent the day alert for any movement on the part of 10 Brigade and keeping the front under defensive fire. The Engineer Battalion settled in its positions about the reservoir and the men in general, ‘much weakened as the result of losses and the rigours of the fighting, dug themselves in.’2
Unfortunately 10 Brigade of itself was not strong enough to seize the initiative that Heidrich thus temporarily relinquished. The day began with the cancellation of the attack that A and D Companies of 19 Battalion were about to launch from the strongpoint in which they had settled down the night before. A message was got to them just as they were about to set out and the two companies returned without mishap.
At this time the 10 Brigade front was reasonably stable. Right of Pink Hill the night had not altered the situation. Pink Hill itself was now a no-man's-land. For the enemy had quitted it the night before as we have seen; and the Petrol Company, returning at dawn, manned its original line in such a way as to exclude the crest, which was too exposed to be easily tenable.3
3 Even so Capt Rowe found himself holding a front of about 1000 yards with about 130 men.
The left flank of the Divisional Cavalry and the right flank of 19 Battalion—still under 10 Brigade command—soon began to have a good deal to endure from the mortars and machine guns of enemy parties ensconced on Cemetery Hill. At Major Russell's request D Company of 19 Battalion was sent to assist the Divisional Cavalry, and during the morning it took up a position on the left of the Cavalry and astride the road which ran southward along the eastern slopes of Cemetery Hill. From here it was planned that there should be an attack against the enemy posts on Cemetery Hill itself.
The main force of this local counter-attack was to be D Company 19 Battalion. Lieutenant Farran's troop of light tanks were to give support; and the mortar platoon of 19 Battalion, assisted by F Troop of 28 Battery, was to give covering fire. C Squadron of the Cavalry was to help with infantry and fire support.
The need for preliminary reconnaissance, and bad communications, meant that the attack could hardly go in before midday. But by half past eleven the tank troop had left its squadron area and about midday infantry and tanks set off. Behind them Major Duigan1 of F Troop set up a precarious OP in an olive tree, calling out his fire orders to a gunner with a telephone below.
The part played by the tanks does not seem to have been much more than a preliminary spraying of enemy positions and the attack was predominantly an infantry affair. Captain McLauchlan of D Company attacked with two platoons forward and one in reserve. Heavy fire from machine guns and mortars enforced a pause at the foot of the hill, but the company commander pushed forward his reserve platoon—16 Platoon—and this, together with 17 Platoon, drove on to the top of the hill, those of the enemy left alive to withdraw falling back before the bayonets and the resolute men who bore them.
No. 17 Platoon had been intended to remain on the crown of the hill. But as the attackers halted there under the walls of the cemetery, ‘the mortars opened. The hill was completely bare, with no cover, and their range and observation were excellent. Poor devils were blown up all around us and we had to pull off carrying fellows with their chests blown in and bloody stumps where their fore-arms had been.’2
2 Letter from Capt Bassett, 3 Jun 1941.
The exposure to the enemy's fire had been all the worse because the troops had no tools with which to dig in, and this withdrawal was the only course possible As Bassett says in the letter already quoted: ‘Cemetery Hill became No Man's Land. Every time Jerry tried to occupy it and overlook us, we wiped him off it, and it deserved its name.’
The fighting had been bitter while it lasted. The 19th Battalion had lost five killed and several wounded, the Divisional Cavalry one killed and four wounded. But it brought considerable relief to the defence; for five mortars were destroyed and ten light machine guns—some of whose crews fought to the last man—were captured. And the enemy did not try to hold the hill again.1
This was the principal action on 10 Brigade front for the day, and elsewhere along it things were comparatively tranquil; though this tranquillity did not exclude constant trouble from enemy mortars and recurring attentions from the enemy air force whose harassing presence, or the threat of it, should be taken for granted at all points in this narrative.
The pause was used to strengthen the line in whatever ways were possible. Captain Smith and Captain Forrester continued to reorganise and hold together the remnants of 6 Greek Regiment. The main body was put in reserve in Galatas ready to be used in support of the Divisional Cavalry if called for, while a platoon was put into the line between the Cavalry and 19 Battalion.
Major Duigan of F Troop did his best to set up an observation post which would enable him to bring down more effective fire on the prison area, an obvious danger centre. But shortage of telephone wire defeated one attempt while another ended when D Company withdrew from Cemetery Hill. The guns did the best they could, however, by firing from map references whenever the infantry called for support—a difficult business ‘as the only instrument for measuring line and range off the map was a 9 inch protractor’.2 Severe dive-bombing attack which forced the guns to keep quiet while the Stukas were overhead, strafing, and punctilious attention from enemy mortars did not make it easy to maintain the concentration required for the use of this inadequate instrument. Ammunition, moreover, had to be rationed. All things considered, it is scarcely surprising that the guns did not make any appreciable progress in their efforts to silence the enemy mortars and that an enemy observation post on Mount Monodhendri or one of its subordinate features could not be eliminated.
1 Lt A. R. Lawson, OC 17 Platoon, took a patrol to Cemetery Hill that night, found none of his own men left behind, met no live enemy, and acquired a base-plate for an enemy mortar captured during the day's attack.
2 Report by Maj Duigan.
Thus when last light came the position had altered little from what it had been when the day began. But, however satisfactory this might seem from a narrowly defensive point of view, it could not be so considered in any larger sense. Time was on the side of the enemy, as indeed could be inferred from the fact that during this day he managed to land some more paratroops, though not many, and 300 containers of supplies. A decisive battle was about to be fought at Maleme; and this lodgment by 3 Parachute Regiment, even if it did no more, was pinning down forces which might otherwise have taken part.
Yet to Heidrich the situation must have seemed dark enough. He was hemmed in by 10 Brigade, the Australians and 2 Greek Regiment, with 8 Greek Regiment still far from subdued. The ground he held was not easily defensible and he had hundreds of wounded on his hands. The failure of the initial plan and the heavy casualties would have leavened any optimism. Among his troops the same misgivings must have been felt even more strongly and the evidence of CSM Neuhoff, though perhaps a little exaggerated, shows that there were some heart searchings:
…. It was particularly noticeable that a very large proportion of our casualties had been shot in the head. This fact and the controlled fire and discipline of the enemy led us to believe that we were up against a specialist force of picked snipers, of whose strength we had no accurate idea but which we judged to be far greater than ours.
… we were expecting the enemy to counter-attack… We had suffered heavy casualties and had encountered opposition far greater than anticipated or ever before experienced. Our Commanding Officer wished to retire to a better defensive position in hilly wooded country to the south-west of the prison…. It was eventually decided to remain in our original positions and we were greatly relieved when the expected counter-attack did not eventuate.
In 10 Brigade morale was still high and even the ad hoc units of the Composite Battalion, inexperienced as infantry, were in good heart, especially where they had been most heavily engaged. Only on the right flank perhaps, where the men had had little to do but sit in their trenches under the continual strafing and mortar fire, were there some signs of a feeling of futility. But this would have disappeared fast enough if the counter-attack that everyone was waiting for had been ordered.
Of the activity elsewhere on the New Zealand front this day little need be said. For 18 and 20 Battalions it passed mainly in patrolling and cleaning up remnants of opposition surviving from the day before's landings. The expectation of an enemy landing that night page 203 was reflected in arrangements for beach OPs and beach patrols, and the former unit used its B Company, back (except for one platoon) from its duties as royal bodyguard and with a good day's fighting behind it, for probing south as far as Galaria in order to give some protection to the south-east flank of 19 Battalion.
The comparative quiet in the brigade area gave an opportunity for the signallers to repair lines cut by bombing or paratroops. So far as 20 Battalion was concerned, the main event of the day was the arrival from Division at half past five of orders for the counter-attack. But as this development will be dealt with in detail in the next section, it seems best to make a minor sacrifice of chronology and leave the discussion until later.1
The discussion of developments on the Maleme front and of the plans for counter-attack in that sector will already have made it clear that the main preoccupation of Brigadier Puttick and his HQ on 21 May was with the night's counter-attack and the threat of invasion by sea.2 This meant, as has been seen, that there was little or no attention to spare for the Prison Valley, no attack on a large scale against Heidrich seems even to have been considered, and the front between Galatas and Perivolia remained uncoordinated. No doubt at the time the twin considerations of counter-attack at Maleme and defence against invasion by sea seemed overriding; yet it is impossible not to regret that another day was allowed to slip by without seizing the opportunity of Heidrich's weakness to bring up one or two fresh battalions and launch an attach which would destroy a threat in the centre of the defence—and a threat which time could only make more dangerous.
2 There were, of course, more routine matters: line to Creforce was cut by bombing in the morning and had to be repaired; the Provost Company was busy with a traffic point and a PW cage; the Postal Unit was trying to get mail forward to the units; unsuccessful efforts were being made to get supplies to the forward units of 5 Bde; the Intelligence section was trying to sort out captured information.
These were responsibilities, however, above the province of the units themselves, and 1 Welch, the only full-strength, fully-equipped battalion in the area, went on with mopping-up operations. Northumberland Hussars did the same. And 2/8 Australian Battalion, having established itself the night before in its Mournies positions, was able to clear Perivolia in co-operation with 2 Greek Regiment.
If Suda Force had little to contend with on the ground at this time, the enemy made up for it by his air activities. Continual bombing and machine-gunning disrupted communications and made all movement dangerous; in particular, communications between 252 AMES and the Gun Operations Room were severed and as a result the AA guns had to function individually instead of in concert. Even so, they already had so much to do that overwork was proving too much for some and barrels were becoming useless.