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III: The Decision to Withdraw 5 Brigade

page 238

III: The Decision to Withdraw 5 Brigade

At Creforce HQ and Division the hours passed anxiously on 22 May while the commanders waited for firm news of the counterattack and tried to weigh up the significance of the reports that reached them. By the middle of the afternoon it had become sufficiently clear that the attacking battalions had failed to establish themselves on their objectives. It was obvious to General Freyberg that the enemy was pouring in reinforcements of men and material and ‘quickly building up a formidable force.’

Freyberg's report continues:

The vital question was whether we could attack and dislodge the enemy from the Maleme Aerodrome area…. The enemy had absolute air superiority; not only could he bomb any movement but he could call upon about 400 fighter ground-straffers with cannon guns which would, and in fact did, prevent any movement during the hours of daylight. We had counter-attacked by night and succeeded, but our success had been temporary only as we were bombed off again as soon as it was daylight. On the other hand the possession of Maleme landing grounds was vital….

But if we had to regain Maleme and if we could not make the necessary moves by day, any counter-attack must be again by night. And if it was not too late it must be the coming night.

What forces were available? Some reserve must be kept in hand in case of failure, and whichever force was to be employed for the counter-attack must be capable of reaching the scene that night. In practice, the only troops available were 5 Brigade which, however weary, was on the spot; 18 and 2/7 Battalions of 4 Brigade; and 1 Welch. For 10 Brigade was already fully engaged, 2/8 Battalion had an important part in the line and, even if it could have been relieved quickly enough, was only two companies strong.

At 5 p.m. Freyberg called a conference and gave his orders for a fresh counter-attack. Fourth Brigade was to be brought forward and apparently 5 Brigade was also to take part, though the main thrust would presumably have had to come from 18 Battalion and 2/7 Battalion.

But the opportunity was now lost and the future belonged to the enemy. When Puttick—who favoured a further attack by 5 Brigade —returned to Division he found that the position had altered for the worse. There was ‘considerable enemy movement’ on 10 Brigade front and ‘the road between 4 and 5 Inf Bde HQs was commanded by an enemy detachment including a MG.’1 From Division he went to 4 Brigade HQ, where a Bren carrier was standing by to take him on to Platanias. But at 4 Brigade HQ he learnt of ‘a strong enemy attack against GALATAS from the direction of the Prison, while enemy movement from South to NW of galatas

1 NZ Div Report, para 97.

page 239 indicated the probability of important enemy forces attempting to cut the canea–maleme road behind or East of 5 Inf Bde. This road had always been commanded by enemy MG and mortar fire on several occasions.’1

These were important considerations: an enemy breakthrough either north to the main road or north-east through Galatas would have made the situation of 5 Brigade untenable; to commit further forces west of Platanias would involve the risk of having them also cut off along with 5 Brigade. Finally, Brigadier Hargest—no doubt in a discussion initiated by telephone or wireless from 4 Brigade HQ —‘represented that his troops had been severely attacked, were considerably exhausted, and certainly not fit to make a further attack.’2

The sequel shows that Hargest underrated at this stage the stamina and spirit of his battalions. The operations of 23 Battalion on 25, 27 and 28 May, those of 28 (Maori) Battalion on 26, 27 and 28 May, and the conduct of 21 Battalion throughout, sufficiently show that the troops were more than ready to do all that could be asked of them. And this is to select only the more conspicuous instances.

None the less Puttick, who now turned against the idea of further attack, was probably right in doing so. The enemy strength at Maleme was great enough for such an attack to have little chance of success even if every possible reinforcement had been contributed. There was still a chance, however slender, but to have pursued it would have been little better than gambling and failure would probably have destroyed any hope of orderly withdrawal.

Accordingly, Puttick got into touch with Freyberg by telephone and discussed the new situation, urging that 5 Brigade should be withdrawn from the exposed position. It was clear to Freyberg that such a move would mean a sacrifice of territory unlikely to be regained. But to replace 5 Brigade with 18 and 2/7 Battalions was not worth attempting. For what the five battalions now on the Maleme front could not hold could hardly be held by two.

In effect, then, to withdraw 5 Brigade was to accept the loss of Maleme. The third crisis of the battle had been reached—the first being the assault on Maleme on 20 May and the second the failure of the counter-attack. And the second and the third were both consequences of the first.

There seemed no help for it, however, and Freyberg told Puttick to discuss the situation at Divisional HQ with Brigadier Stewart who would have authority to decide on the action to be

1 NZ Div Report, para 97.

2 Ibid, para 98.

page 240 taken. Puttick, therefore, instead of going on to 5 Brigade, returned to Division. There, at 9 p.m.,1 he and Stewart met and decided to withdraw 5 Brigade, Brigadier Hargest's view as expressed on the telephone no doubt being a powerful consideration. And indeed it is clear from other sources that by now Hargest saw the situation more darkly. Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry ‘had R/T conversations with Brig Hargest during the evening, though I cannot remember now what was said except that he was pessimistic.’2 And if, as seems likely, the time 2107 hours is right, and the time 1107 wrong, for an entry in 5 Brigade war diary which reports Hargest as telling Division by wireless that ‘they should withdraw that night’, we get a further glimpse of the circumstances in which a decision was taken—a decision which as Stewart now comments ‘virtually amounted to accepting the loss of Crete.'3 Nor, all things considered, is it easy to see what other decision was possible.

A warning order was sent by wireless to 5 Brigade at 10.30 p.m. ‘Prepare withdraw tonight 22/23 May 28 Battalion to old posn remainder in rear of 28 Battalion details later. 32 vehicles being forwarded Strutt4 as rd clear. Sending you all spare trucks and at least 10 3 ton lorries salvage all possible.'5

The final orders for the withdrawal were worked out in detail by Gentry by 12.15 a.m. on 23 May and sent forward to all brigades concerned by special despatch rider. They ran:

Estimated enemy has 5 bns with heavy mortars and some motor cyclists vicinity MALEME aerodrome. An attack on 10 Bde front this afternoon by two enemy coys was repulsed with heavy loss.

Aust Bde came under comd Div 2200 hrs tonight.

5 Bde will withdraw night 22–23 May to defensive posn along coast between former posn held by 28 Bn and North and South line through 046572.

20 Bn and 22 Bn come under comd 4 Bde on arrival both moving to posn occupied by 20 Bn on 21 May. 20 Bn taking over from 2/7 Aust Bn who reverts to comd Aust Bde on completion of handover.

10 Bde will move right flank fwd to hold former FDLs including 047572 and hill 046559.

7 Fd Coy and 19 Army Tp Coy will move to area of sq 0656 coming under comd 10 Bde on arrival.

10 Bde will supply guides to meet these parties on the main road.

5 Fd Amb will move to area South of rd junc 077563.

Arty to be in depth in infantry localities about squares 0356 and 0456.

1 NZ Div Report.

2 Statement by Brig Gentry.

3 Statement by Brig Stewart.

4 That is, ‘under Lt-Col Strutt’.

5 5 Bde WD.

page 241

Comd 5 Bde may move one Bn to area SE of 28 Bn provided that area between 28 Bn and eastern boundary adequately held.

All moves to be completed before daylight if possible.

32 vehicles are being supplied for CRA. Two motor ambulances and one 3 ton lorry for wounded. All other spare trucks and lorries available being forwarded.1

The effect of the most important paragraphs in this order may be briefly summarised. Fifth Brigade's new front line was to be forward of Platanias and its battalions were to be disposed along the main coast road to link up with the slightly modified line of 10 Brigade. Fourth Brigade was to regain 20 Battalion and take over 22 Battalion, which should thus get a chance to carry out the reorganisation it so badly needed.

The advantages of the plan were that the line was shortened, the safety of the line of communication secured, and the junction between Group West and Colonel Heidrich's force, if it was to be made at all, would have to be made by means of a long detour to the south. Moreover, Puttick would have the advantage of holding a single front. The shortcomings of the plan are equally plain. It meant that the enemy could now build up without interference even from our artillery and therefore must inevitably become strong enough in time to force a continuation of the withdrawal.

1 5 Bde WD.