III: The Decision to Form a New Line
III: The Decision to Form a New Line
During the afternoon it had become clear to Brigadier Puttick that the situation was steadily altering for the worse. There had been heavy air attacks on the forward troops, on Canea, and on all the roads. This might have been endured as it had been for six days already; but casualties had been mounting and, although morale was still astonishingly good, the forces in the line were too few for the ground, had inadequate artillery support and none from the air, were patchwork in organisation, and from lack of reliefs were growing exhausted.page 317
Even so, had the day been got through successfully, there would have been a case for hanging on yet another day. But the enemy's late-afternoon success—which was probably no great surprise to Puttick—made it obvious that, if the Division was to keep an unbroken front, the line would have to be shortened. The only way was to withdraw the forward units to make a line with the right flank of 19 Australian Brigade. If either 4 or 5 Brigade could hold this, the other might be withdrawn for reorganisation and rest.
Puttick's idea was that 5 Brigade should man the new line. At the same time, however, he realised that the units of the two brigades were now very mixed and that to disentangle them would not be easy. Accordingly, when Brigadier Inglis asked by a telephone message relayed through 5 Brigade at 10 p.m. for Puttick to come forward to 4 Brigade HQ as soon as possible. Brigadier Puttick—unable through other preoccupations to go himself—at once sent Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry, giving him ‘outline instructions for the withdrawal of 4 Bde’ and leaving him ‘to tie up the detailed arrangements.’1
The situation as it appeared at Divisional HQ between Gentry's departure at 10.15 p.m. and his return is well seen in two messages sent by Puttick about eleven o'clock, one to Force HQ and the other to General Weston. Both were sent while Brigadier Stewart, who had come from Force HQ, was still at Division. Their burden was the same: the Galatas line had been broken,2 Puttick was trying to form a new line north from the Australians, the Australians had already been warned to adjust their line accordingly, and he hoped to form a second line in support along the river immediately east of Divisional HQ. His own HQ was to move about midnight to a position near that of 19 Brigade HQ.
1 Statement by Brig W. G. Gentry.
2 Puttick does not seem to have known as yet that the enemy had been checked at Galatas, and in the message to General Weston he says that enemy were reported in Karatsos. But even had he known of the counter-attack's success he would no doubt still have favoured withdrawal.
Back at 4 Brigade HQ Inglis had warned Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer that he would probably have to counter-attack with 28 Battalion, had gone off to inspect the northern half of his sector, and had then come back to send the message requesting Puttick's presence and to hold a conference of his commanders.
By this time Inglis had had a chance to sum up the situation and he did not find the prospects for counter-attack good.
The front was far too wide for a single bn in a night attack; the terrain was cut across by vineyards and small ravines lying at angles to the line of advance; the Maoris did not know the ground; the rolling features made identification of the objective almost impossibly difficult; even if 28 Bn were to make the objective, it was a certainty that it would leave a lot of unmopped enemy in its rear, for it had not enough men to cover the area.1
On the other hand, to decide against counter-attack would be to take a decision vitally affecting the battle. It was for this reason that Inglis had called for Puttick; for it was just possible that he could produce some reinforcement that might make counter-attack more feasible.
Meanwhile the battalion commanders had assembled in 4 Brigade HQ, ‘a tarpaulin-covered hole in the ground … with a very poor light.’2 When Colonel Kippenberger arrived he found Brigadier Inglis, Major Burrows, Major Blackburn, and Major Sanders (the Brigade Major) seated round a table. Dittmer arrived soon after, having already had time to consider his probable role. Gentry had not yet arrived.
Brigadier Inglis put the case for the counter-attack in order to draw the views of his commanders. All realised that if the attack were not feasible Crete was lost. And all knew how difficult it was. Kippenberger said it could not be done without two fresh battalions. Dittmer, as the battalion commander affected, could hardly say as much. He said it was difficult. Inglis continued to press: ‘“Can you do it, George?” Dittmer said, “I'll give it a go!” ‘3
1 Letter from Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, 15 Mar 1951.
4 This account is based on Infantry Brigadier, p. 69, and the letter from Inglis already cited. The fact that 28 Bn was considered to be the last fresh battalion, in spite of its hard days of fighting, shows how hard pressed the other battalions were and shows also how resilient was the spirit of the Maoris.
This opinion bore out Inglis' own doubts and he decided that the counter-attack could not take place. Then could Galatas be held? Obviously it could not. It was outflanked, it was an obvious target for concentrated bombing and, apart from the fact that it still contained many civilians, the houses were too flimsily built to offer much protection against the bombing.
If Galatas was sacrificed, then the rest of the line would have to go. In fact there was no alternative to the plan already favoured by Puttick—and presumably now explained by Gentry—for withdrawal to a line running from the Australian right flank to the sea.
There was still the question of which brigade was to man this new line. Gentry passed on Puttick's view that it would have to be 5 Brigade, and it was clear enough to those present at the conference that this was correct. For of 4 Brigade 18 Battalion was temporarily disorganised and exhausted; 20 Battalion was still split and had had no pause since the Maleme counter-attack in which to knit itself together again; and only 19 Battalion was reasonably strong and fit to fight as a whole next day. Fifth Brigade, on the other hand, in spite of the heavy fighting it had seen, had at least had some sort of rest since the withdrawal from Platanias. True, 23 Battalion had just fought in Galatas and had had losses; but it was still a unit and strong enough to fight again next day. The 21st Battalion was reduced in numbers even from the under-strength state in which it had begun battle on 20 May; but it had had a relatively quiet day. The 22nd Battalion was thought to be hardest hit of all but would be useful as a reserve. And 28 Battalion, for all its exploits so far, was as spirited and reliable as ever.1 Moreover, 23 and 28 Battalions were forward already.
1 The total casualties for the 5 Bde battalions in killed, wounded, and missing up till the morning of 25 May are recorded in a message from Div HQ to Creforce at 11.50 a.m.: 21 Bn, 100; 22 Bn, 261; 23 Bn, 133; 28 Bn, 142. In addition, 7 Fd Coy had lost 13 and 19 Army Troops 46.
Either before or after the despatch of these orders but presumably with full knowledge of the plan, Major J. N. Peart, A/Q to Division, called at 4 Brigade HQ and saw Brigadier Inglis. They both then went on to 5 Brigade HQ to discuss detailed arrangements.
Though Brigadier Hargest was disappointed at not securing the rest for his battalions which he had hoped, there was nothing for it but to accept the situation. He borrowed A Company of 20 Battalion to strengthen his own 21 Battalion and asked Inglis to wait and see the new positions established as he himself was not acquainted with the ground. This Inglis agreed to do; but as his brigade staff had been more or less dispersed by the emergency calls made on them during the day, he had to ask Peart to assist his Brigade Major by arranging for dispersed elements of 4 Brigade to be directed into a concentration area as they crossed the bridge west of Canea.
Before the new line was manned the various units affected were to have a busy night moving out of the forward areas and into their new positions; but these movements can best be treated when the time comes to give an account of the situation at first light next morning.
1 O. 176, NZ Div to 4, 5, and 19 Bdes.