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II: The Counter-attack for Galatas

II: The Counter-attack for Galatas

Back at Galatas Colonel Kippenberger had barely had time to take comfort from the restoration of a line on his right and the news that further help was on the way from 23 Battalion when a message reached him of attack on Major Russell's front. The position seemed critical. So far as he knew Russell Force had not yet withdrawn. The enemy had entered Galatas, however, in the wake of 18 Battalion and the whole left flank held by Russell Force was therefore in danger. Worse, the enemy might still before nightfall renew his thrust and by debouching from the village deny 18 Battalion a badly needed chance to reorganise. Successful breakthrough in the centre would enable him to drive north for the coast road and cut off the restored right flank.

Then, a little before eight in the evening, two tanks appeared. Major Peck had learnt at 7 p.m. that Galatas had fallen and at page 310


page 311 once sent Lieutenant Farran to block the eastern exit, while two other tanks under Captain A. J. Crewdson went to block the entrance to Karatsos. Close behind Farran's tanks came C and D Companies of 23 Battalion.

Here was a chance for the anvil to hit the hammer. A hard blow now would give Russell Force the opportunity to disengage and would check the enemy for at least the hour or so needed till dark. Colonel Kippenberger acted quickly.

Farran stopped and spoke to me and I told him to go into the village and see what was there. He clattered off and we could hear him firing briskly, when two more companies of the Twenty-third arrived, C. and D., under Harvey and Manson, each about eighty strong. They halted on the road near me. The men looked tired, but fit to fight and resolute. It was no use trying to patch the line any more; obviously we must hit or everything would crumble away. I told the two company commanders they would have to retake Galatos with the help of the two tanks. No, there was no time for reconnaissance; they must move straight in up the road, one company either side in single file behind the tanks, and take everything with them. Stragglers and walking wounded were still streaming past. Some stopped to join in as did Carson and the last four of his party. The men fixed bayonets and waited grimly.1

There was a pause while the two companies organised for the attack. Then Farran returned, after having gone well into the town and sprayed each side of the road with machine-gun fire. ‘The place is stiff with Jerries,’ he said.2 Would he go in again with the two companies? Certainly he would; but the corporal and gunner of his second tank had been wounded. Could they be replaced? Kippenberger called for volunteers among the troops standing by.

Volunteers came forward and from among them two were chosen. Private Lewis,3 a machine-gunner attached to 23 Battalion, became commander of the tank. Private E. H. Ferry,4 a driver from 4 Brigade HQ, became gunner—for as a school cadet he had learned how to handle a Vickers. The wounded men were dragged out and Farran gave his new recruits a brief course:

This one-pipper bloke was a man of action, he gave us many words of instruction and a few of encouragement, finishing up in a truly English manner ‘Of course you know you seldom come out of one of these things alive.’ Well, that suited me all right—it seemed a pretty hopeless fight with all these planes knocking about and a couple of my bosom friends had been knocked.5

2 Ibid, p. 67.

3 Lt C. D. Lewis, m.i.d.; Auckland; born NZ 25 Oct 1913; draughtsman.

4 Cpl E. H. Ferry; Palmerston North; born Wanganui, 1 May 1917; civil servant.

5 Letter from E. H. Ferry, 5 Apr 1948.

page 312

The extra time got by this delay was not wasted. Kippenberger sent his batman to warn Lieutenant-Colonel Gray of the counterattack and tell him to join in. Captain Bassett, as indefatigable as his opposite number, Captain Dawson of 5 Brigade, went as well.

I … found that amazingly virile warrior, John Gray, who no sooner grasped Kip's message than he fixed his own bayonet, and jumping out of the ditch cried ‘Come on 18th boys, into the village.’ And blow me if most of the line didn't surge out after him.1.

Gray formed up these survivors of his battalion—at this stage a few dozen strong—on the eastern edge of the village. Here they were joined by a further party from Headquarters Company 20 Battalion, including the Bren carrier platoon. These men had been mustered by Major Burrows and had come forward from 4 Brigade with Bassett and Lieutenants Bain2 and Green.3. They now found Gray ‘personally directing operations and undaunted by all the enemy fire power from the ground as well as air going on round him.’4 Gray told them they were to clear the village with the bayonet —‘not a very bright prospect as the Jerries seemed to have MGs and Mortars everywhere. There was a terrific amount of fire coming from the village.’5

Other stout soldiers joined in. ‘I found the fair Forrester bare-headed, with only a rifle and bayonet, itching to go, and that great lump of footballing muscle William Carson, with a broad grin, licking his lips saying “Thank Christ I've got a bloody bayonet.” ‘6 For Driver Pope7 and about six men of Carson's patrol who had found their way out shortly before from the Petrol Company's lines, to see an attack preparing was to join it. And all sorts of men who had got cut off from their units and found themselves in the vicinity would not be left behind. The spirit of such men, the flower of those left from the day's fighting, may be dwelt on, if only to set off the less creditable—and indeed less typical—straggling that had taken place when the line broke. A quotation from Lieutenant Thomas of 23 Battalion will illustrate:

I rejoined my platoon. Their numbers seemed greater. Looking closer in the gloom I made out several unfamiliar faces.

‘We've got some reinforcements, Sir,’ said Sgt Templeton. ‘These chaps are from the 18th and 20th and want the chance of a crack at the Hun.’

A tall Lance-Corporal stood up. ‘Is it OK, Sir?’ a little anxiously. ‘The bastards got my brother today.’

1 Letter from Capt Bassett, 3 Jun 1941

2 Capt F. J. Bain; Waipara; born NZ 16 Mar 1916; warehouse assistant; wounded and p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

3 2 Lt S. J. Green; born Invercargill, 6 Jan 1910; commercial traveller; killed in action 25 May 1941.

4 Report by Sgt H. W. Kimber, 20 Bn.

5 Ibid.

6 Letter from Capt Bassett, 3 Jun 1941.

7 Dvr A. Q. Pope; Wellington; born Wellington, 16 Nov 1920; horsebreaker; wounded (twice) and p.w. 29 May 1941; escaped Apr 1945.

page 313

While this was happening the two 23 Battalion companies stood in two files on either side of the road, bayonets fixed. They had come forward through men demoralised in the withdrawal— losing their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie, wounded on the way—but were themselves thirsting ‘to get stuck into the Huns’.

The plan, for lack of time, was simple. C Company, under Captain Mark Harvey, was to attack on the right of the road, D Company under Captain Manson,1 on the left. And for the platoon commanders the orders were no more complex, as Captain Harvey's to C Company will show:

D Company will be attacking on the left of the road and we have two tanks in support but the whole show is stiff with Huns. It's going to be a bloody show but we've just got to succeed. Sandy, you will be on the right, Rex on the left. Now for Christ's sake get cracking.2

By now Farran was back with his second tank and its novice crew It was time to be off. Colonel Kippenberger gave his orders. He was not to go farther than the village square. ‘Now get going.’

It was not quite dark. Farran set off in the first tank towards the village, 200 yards away. The second tank followed. Behind came the infantry, marching at first and then at a run. All of C Company went up the road, and one platoon of D Company. The other two—16 and 18—swung left and came in from the flank. It was between eight o'clock and a quarter past.3

Almost at once there arose above the jabbering of small-arms fire a shout that swelled and spread into a savage clamour and left a memory that still vibrates in the minds of all who heard it.

… as the tanks disappeared as a cloud of dust into the first buildings of the village the whole line seemed to break spontaneously into the most blood curdling of shouts and battle cries. Heaven knows how many colleges and schools were represented by their ‘hakas’, but the effect was terrific— one felt one's blood rising swiftly above fear and uncertainty until only an inexplicable exhilaration quite beyond description surpassed all else, and we moved as one man into the outskirts.4

1 Maj I. O. Manson; Invercargill; born Otautau, 9 Jul 1905; clerk; 2 i/c 20 Bn Apr–Jul 1942.

2 Report by Lt Thomas.

3 According to a message from Colonel Kippenberger to HQ 4 Bde at half past eight, the attack began at 8.10 p.m. The message read:

2 Coys 23, 2 tanks, remnants 18 under Gray commenced attack on Galatos at 2010. Hard fighting in progress. No report back.

Have line of 1 Coy 23 and 2 pls 20 from EFI North and 1 Coy 20 abt Galatos main rd junction with gap on left. Don't know position N. of road. Have 2 Coys 23 (weak) in hand and cannot do more than complete line indicated.

Recapture position requires serious c/attack say at dawn. Tanks not returned.

4 Report by Lt Thomas. Again, Lt-Col Gray says in a letter dated 24 Jul 1941: ‘I shall never forget the deep throated wild-beast noise of the yelling charging men as the 23rd swept up the road.’ And Cpl H. M. Adams of 18 Bn: ‘It was quite dark now and suddenly from Galatas 400 yards away we heard the most ungodly row I have ever heard—our chaps charging and yelling and screaming to put the wind up them, cat-calls and battle cries, machine guns, rifles, hand grenades all going at once.’

page 314

The infantry charging down the main road soon found themselves under fire from the front and from both sides. Enemy signal lights called desperately for mortar support and the mortar bombs were not long in following. At first the New Zealanders stopped to clear the houses of enemy as they passed them. But they soon saw that by doing so they were losing momentum. So they charged on, ignoring the fire from their flanks, firing steadily to the front, and arrived at the main square, the enemy's mortar bombs by now bursting harmlessly behind them.

At the square the tanks had already preceded them. The leading tank was knocked out there. The second halted and turned back. An altercation with Lieutenant Thomas who had by now come up followed; for Private Lewis had been slightly wounded, had lost his grip of the speaking tube to the driver, and so lost control of the tank as well. But the tank now turned again and went on in front of the infantry once more. It then got stuck in a gutter and was heavily handicapped by a partly jammed traverse. The street in front seemed quiet, and the fighting sounded as if it were behind. So the tank turned back once more.

Meanwhile the infantry had found Lieutenant Farran lying wounded with his wounded crew in the square. A fierce battle began in the square itself. A German seized a C Company cook by the throat and began to use him as a shield against the bayonets of the others. Private Kennedy, of Sergeant Dutton's1 13 Platoon, finished off the German with a butt stroke.

But fire was coming from the other side of the square and the enemy was gathering. The New Zealanders decided to charge.

The consternation at the far side was immediately apparent. Screams and shouts showed desperate panic in front of us and I suddenly knew … that we had caught them ill-prepared and in the act of forming up. Had our charge been delayed even minutes the position could easily have been reversed. By now we were stepping over groaning forms, and those which rose against us fell to our bayonets, and bayonets with their eighteen inches of steel entering throats and chests with the same … hesitant ease as when we had used them on the straw-packed dummies in Burnham. One of the boys just behind me lurched heavily against me and fell at my feet, clutching his stomach. His restraint burbled in his throat for half a second as he fought against it, but stomach wounds are painful beyond human power of control and his screams soon rose above all the others. The Hun seemed in full flight. From doors, windows and roofs they swarmed wildly, falling over one another to clear our relentless line. There was little aimed fire against us now.2

1 Sgt C. H. Dutton; Motueka; born England, 24 Jan 1913; butcher and farmer; p.w. May 1941.

2 Report by Lt Thomas.

page 315

The square carried, the charge went on. More enemy appeared in the narrowing lane, fired and fell. Then Thomas himself was hit simultaneously by a bullet in the thigh and a grenade. His sergeant had already fallen. The platoon, led by Private Diamond1—‘Come on, you blokes, let's get stuck into the bastards and be done with it.’ —went on. As he lay on the ground Thomas could hear Farran calling behind him: ‘Good show New Zealand, jolly good show, come on New Zealand.’

By now the only other two officers in C Company, Captain Harvey and Lieutenant Rex King, had both been wounded—Harvey with a bullet in the mouth, King with a bomb in the face and legs. D Company which had thrust in from the flank was in hardly better case, with only Lieutenant Connolly2 and Lieutenant Cunningham3 still standing.

With so few officers to control the charge, the men were by now tending to lose direction and the fighting became ever more confused. By now Gray and his men had also reached the square and helped 23 Battalion destroy a machine gun that was holding up the advance. Lieutenant Bain led the platoons of 20 Battalion in a bayonet charge—‘nothing short of a 25 pounder would have stopped him.’4 He was wounded; and in the same charge Lieutenant Green was killed.

Lieutenant-Colonel Gray, Lieutenant Macdonald5 (the 18 Battalion signals officer), Lieutenant Lambie6 and some members of 5 Platoon patrolled beyond the square and encountered machine-gun fire and grenades at the schoolhouse some distance beyond it. Macdonald was wounded and the patrol returned to the square to try and get help from the tanks, which were unable to give it. The schoolhouse itself was eventually dealt with by Sergeant A. C. Hulme, who went forward alone and with a series of grenades so discomfited the enemy that the counter-attack was able to get on. When at last the fighting died down only one strongpoint at the south-west exit of the village still held out.

The surviving officers now began to reorganise their troops for the enemy counter-attack that might still follow. But, though the enemy had the troops for it, he seems to have been too dazed

1 Pte L. A. Diamond; born NZ 25 Jul 1911; labourer; wounded May 1941; died of wounds 4 Sep 1942.

2 Lt-Col J. R. J. Connolly, m.i.d.; Ashburton; born NZ 13 Aug 1910; petrol serviceman; CO 23 Bn Apr–May 1943, 1944; twice wounded.

3 Maj G. H. Cunningham, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 5 May 1910; stock agent; twice wounded.

4 Report by Sgt Kimber.

5 Capt D. H. St.C. Macdonald; Hamilton; born Auckland, 15 Jul 1915; shop assistant; wounded and p.w. 27 May 1941; repatriated Oct 1943.

6 Capt R. F. Lambie; Wellington; born Ashburton, 4 Feb 1911; salesman.

page 316 for further fighting and preferred to wait for daylight to bring the accustomed support from artillery and aircraft.

Major Thomason had come up to replace Leckie in command of 23 Battalion, and Colonel Kippenberger showed him where the line ran and put him in charge of Galatas. Thomason accordingly left C Company to hold the village, placed A Company on the right flank, D Company between it and C Company, Headquarters 2 Company on the left, and B Company in reserve.

So ended one of the fiercest engagements fought by any New Zealand troops during the whole war. Its success against superior forces had fully justified Kippenberger's sudden and bold decision. Although Russell Force whom it was largely intended to help had already withdrawn, a breathing space had been gained and the line was secure for a few hours more.

But with this day's fighting 10 Brigade no longer existed as a formation. The Composite Battalion had never been thought of as more than a static unit, incapable of manoeuvre and unsuited to attack; the stabilised situation in which it could have been used again as a holding force was not to be granted in the days to follow. The Petrol Company and the Divisional Cavalry were for the moment out of the picture, having come in on 19 Battalion. That battalion itself, which had fought so well since the first day under its imperturbable commander, Major Blackburn, properly belonged to 4 Brigade.1 Moreover, by this time all New Zealand units were so reduced in numbers that there was no need for more than two brigades. Colonel Kippenberger, therefore, ‘more tired than ever before in my life, or since’, set off to report to Brigadier Inglis at 4 Brigade HQ.

1 ‘One day … Major Duigan was offered a plate of stew at 19 Bn HQ by Maj Blackburn. This HQ was such a hot spot that Duigan was very glad to finish the plate and leave. Maj Blackburn was a very cool customer, spending his time sniping the Boche with a Jerry MG when not otherwise engaged.’—Report by Maj J. Duigan.