CHAPTER 7 — Battle for Crete
Battle for Crete
As early as October 1940, on the provocation of Italy's sudden attack on Greece, Crete was occupied by a British garrison sent there to secure Suda Bay as a naval refuelling station in the eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately for the Allies, however, Crete faced the wrong way, with its three airfields, two harbours and roads all situated on the northern coastal strip. Behind these northern lowlands the country rose gradually into the rugged backbone of the White Mountains, and then fell sharply to the inhospitable south coast, where there were no ports and only primitive tracks and roads.
Crete is a mountainous island about 160 miles long and about 35 miles across at its widest part; it is about 60 miles from the nearest point of Greece, Cape Malea. The capital, Candia (Heraklion), lies about half-way along the northern coast. Forty miles to the west is the town of Retimo, and 25 miles farther west the port of Suda lies snugly in its bay, protected on the north and west by the Akrotiri Peninsula. Of the three small airfields, the nearest to Suda Bay is about 14 miles to the west, near the small village of Maleme. The other two are close to the towns of Heraklion and Retimo, much closer to those places than Maleme is to Suda. Between Maleme and Suda is the small town of Canea, a charming old-world place of narrow cobblestoned streets which wind down to the picturesque harbour, where ancient and massive Venetian buildings line the sea front.
The original garrison of Crete consisted of 14 British Infantry Brigade, fully armed and equipped. The MNBDO (Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation), with anti-aircraft and coast defence units and a battalion of Royal Marines, did not arrive until mid-May 1941.
The troops who reached Crete from Greece at the end of April were in two main categories: British, New Zealand and page 136 Australian troops, numbering in all about 14,000; and Palestinians, Cypriots, and Force and headquarters personnel, numbering about 10,000. Most of this second group were without equipment.
Of the whole garrison of the island at this time, only 14 Infantry Brigade and the MNBDO were fully equipped; of the remainder only the infantry of the British, New Zealand, and Australian formations were really fit to take part in the island's defence. All other units—artillery, engineers and signals—had lost their weapons and equipment in Greece and were mostly untrained in infantry tactics.
Together with three Greek regiments which had been placed under its command, the Division was entrusted with the defence of Maleme airfield and the vulnerable coastal area from Canea to the west. The defence of the airfields at Heraklion and Retimo fell to British and Australian troops, and the defence of Canea and Suda Bay was allotted to the MNBDO, Rangers, and Northumberland Hussars.
The New Zealand Division's sector stretched from the western limits of Canea along the coast to Maleme. Its depth varied from one and a half miles below Canea to about three miles south-west of Maleme. The southern boundary followed a valley which ran south-west from Canea. It was a pleasant, verdant, rolling countryside that rose gently from the coast to the mountain range which screened the rugged south coast. Road communications throughout the area were poor. There were only three good roads—that which followed the coast from Canea to Maleme, the valley road from Canea south-west to Alikianou, and the road which ran from a rural prison in the valley northwards through Galatas to join the coastal road. Other roads were little better than tracks.
The Division's task was the defence of Maleme airfield and the north coast to the west of Canea against invasion by air or sea. Fifth Brigade, with its headquarters a little less than a mile from Platanias, was deployed for the defence of the area between Ay Marina and the Tavronitis River just west of page 137 Maleme. Fourth Brigade, with the exception of 20 Battalion in divisional reserve, was held in force reserve.
The enemy attack was expected to be a simultaneous airborne and seaborne expedition. Intelligence sources estimated that 3000 to 4000 parachutists or airborne troops would make the first assault, preceded by a heavy bombing attack.
Early in May New Zealand Divisional Signals found itself split into two main groups: one party of seven officers and about 180 other ranks in Crete, and the remainder of the unit with Lieutenant-Colonel Allen in Egypt, where they had been taken direct from Monemvasia in the Peloponnese. Shortly after the first party's arrival in Crete, Major Agar was evacuated to Egypt after injuring an ankle in a fall over a steep bank near Galatas, and the command of New Zealand Signals on the island then fell to Major Grant.
Grant thought that he should press for the return to Egypt of those men of the unit not actually required for communication duties. Signal equipment was very limited and all the signalmen on the island could not be usefully employed on signal duties. Moreover, there was at this time a possibility that a portion of the unit would be used as infantry, which appeared to the Major to be an unsound policy from the point of view of signals organisation as a whole and, because of the possibility of heavy casualties, likely to impair the unit's efficiency for a considerable time. Later, as a result of Grant's representations to Headquarters New Zealand Division, five officers and eighty-five other ranks returned to Egypt.
Late in April, very soon after the unit's arrival in Crete, Grant was asked by Chief Signals Officer of Creforce if he could supply men for Creforce Signals, and also if he would take over the appointment of OC Creforce Signals. After some discussion between the GSO 1 Headquarters New Zealand Division and the BGS Creforce, these requests were agreed to.
Early in March, when the bulk of the island's garrison was in the Suda-Canea area, difficulties were already apparent in the signal situation. The civil telephone system was limited to official use and was mainly taken up by the air observer organisation. Minor lines were used for local administration. The condition of the system was fair, but large numbers of telephone page 138 poles required renewal. Lines from Canea to Maleme and from Canea to Heraklion were taken over for military use, as was a submarine cable between Canea and Heraklion. From Heraklion this submarine cable continued around the eastern end of the island and thence to Alexandria, thus providing a secure means of communication to General Headquarters Middle East Forces in Egypt.
Technical stores, however, were almost non-existent, although the telephone line system had been adequately supplemented by field cables. Wireless worked well by day, but communication could not be maintained after 9 p.m. The signals system was, in fact, barely adequate for a static garrison and could not be improved without additional men and material.
With the arrival of an MNBDO signal section early in May some improvement was possible. Canea Area Signals became Force Signals and was formed from men of New Zealand Divisional Signals. As a result 14 Infantry Brigade signals was moved to Heraklion, where the brigade had to provide sector troops. When General Freyberg took over command of the island and New Zealand Signals assumed the responsibilities of Force Signals, the MNBDO took over Suda sector and began work immediately maintaining and repairing the lines in that area. The effect of all this reshuffling was felt in many places and found a faint echo in a plaintive report by CSO Creforce to the Signals Officer-in-Chief at General Headquarters Middle East Forces: ‘In the six days that I have been here they have moved headquarters, changed the staff, altered the plan twice, and the resultant chaos is beyond description.’
Two signal units, apart from those sections with 4 and 5 New Zealand Infantry Brigades, were formed on 3 May from New Zealand Divisional Signals personnel: these were Force Signals and New Zealand Division Signals. Force Signals consisted of fifty men from Divisional Signals under the command of Major Grant, with Lieutenant Ambury as second-in-command, and one officer, six despatch riders, five linemen and twenty-six operators attached from Royal Signals units on the island. Ambury commanded a composite operating, line-maintenance and despatch-rider section. The wireless-telegraphy section was commanded by Lieutenant G. F. B. Grant, of Royal Signals.page 139
Although Force Signals' transport was very limited—five 8-cwt and 30-cwt trucks and eight motor-cycles—there was a fairly wide variety of signal stores. This equipment included one 10-line universal call switchboard, one 20-line field and fortress switchboard, a quantity of telephones and Fullerphones, one single-current Simplex Morse set, one drum barrow together with a satisfying quantity of D Mark III cable, two 1260-watt charging sets, two Marconi No. 36 wireless transmitters, four wireless sets No. 9, and two wireless sets No. 11. This equipment gave excellent service, particularly the field and fortress switchboard which, because of its rugged construction and design, required very little maintenance. The lack of adequate transport, however, was a severe handicap, especially for the line-maintenance detachment. The wireless set No. 9 detachments were operated by men of the Middlesex Yeomanry, a cavalry regiment recently converted to Royal Signals.
The formations and units served by Creforce Signals were New Zealand Division, 5 New Zealand Infantry Brigade at Platanias, 14 British Infantry Brigade at Heraklion, 52 Anti- Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, at Suda Bay, 19 Australian Infantry Brigade in the Retimo sector, 1 Welch Regiment in Force Reserve, and the MNBDO at Suda.
New Zealand Division Signals consisted of forty-two men under the command of Captain Pryor, with Second-Lieutenant Foubister as his second-in-command. Later, however, Foubister became sick and was evacuated to Egypt, his place being taken by Lieutenant Froude.
There was a grave shortage of signal equipment in the Division, despite the considerable quantities of telephones and other signal stores which some units had contrived to bring out of Greece. The 28th (Maori) Battalion brought out three No. 18 wireless sets, and these were used within 5 Brigade during the battle for Maleme airfield. Other valuable signal stores, which included telephone sets and instrument mechanics' tool kits, were brought out by Sergeant Miller,1 of K Section, who was later awarded the BEM for this salvage work.page 140 page 141
CSO Creforce provided some cable, a few drum barrows, and some telephones and switchboards. Great difficulty was experienced in laying cable with the one truck lent occasionally by Headquarters New Zealand Division. The permanent allocation of one truck to Divisional Signals was not approved by Divisional Headquarters, despite a strong recommendation by CSO Creforce that this should be done. Later, however, little difficulty was found in obtaining the loan of sufficient transport for cable laying and maintenance.
To supplement the sketchy communications provided by the limited cable and wireless stores available, visual signalling posts were established at Headquarters New Zealand Division, Headquarters 5 Brigade, and at Russell Force, which was a small unit made up from detachments of Divisional Cavalry and NZASC. Because of the broken nature of the country in some parts of the divisional sector, particularly in the area west of Galatas, relay visual posts were set up between Headquarters New Zealand Division and Headquarters 5 Brigade at Platanias. There was also a visual link between Divisional Headquarters and Creforce Headquarters at Canea. On all visual links except that to Creforce daylight signalling lamps were used, but communication could hardly be described as satisfactory. Test messages took an inordinately long time to pass between terminals during daylight, and this delay was ascribed to the lack of suitable backgrounds for the visual sites, and during operations to the fear that the flash of the heliographs or lamps would be detected by low-flying enemy aircraft. The real cause, however, might have been an almost complete lack of training in visual signalling, which was regarded by some as a primitive means of communication, despite the conspicuous success with which it was used by the Royal Navy. On the heliograph link to Headquarters Creforce test calls were exchanged satisfactorily, but this means of communication was later rendered quite useless by the pall of smoke which drifted over the area from burning ships in Suda Bay.
Gradually, as the days passed into mid-May, the communications system in the divisional sector was built up as small quantities of equipment became available and were carefully apportioned out to brigade signal sections according to their page 142 more urgent needs. There were two lines to Headquarters 5 Brigade at Platanias and two to Headquarters 4 Brigade in its Force Reserve position two miles west of Canea. There was, however, only one line to Headquarters Creforce at Canea, but Force Signals operated the control station of a wireless net with terminals at Headquarters New Zealand Division, Headquarters 4 Brigade, and Headquarters 19 Australian Brigade at Retimo. Wireless communications between Divisional Headquarters and Headquarters 5 Brigade at Platanias consisted of two No. 11 wireless sets on a ‘one-to-one’ link. There was also a line from Divisional Headquarters to Russell Force.
In 4 Brigade communications were very slender, there being no equipment except one six-line universal call switchboard, fewer than half a dozen telephones, two Fullerphones and a few miles of D Mark III cable. The only wireless was the No. 9 set working on the Creforce net. This set, which had been transferred to 4 Brigade from 5 Brigade on 13 May, was operated by a detachment of Middlesex Yeomanry, whose quietly efficient methods of station discipline and procedure excited the grudging admiration of the J Section men. Before J Section received its six-line switchboard all lines coming in to Headquarters 4 Brigade were connected through by means of empty cartridge cases, one of which was secured to the end of each cable. At the ‘exchange’ all lines were joined together and connected to a telephone. When the operator received a call he identified the caller and joined him through to the wanted line by jamming the two cartridge cases tightly together.
Besides the operation of their slender communications to 18 and 19 Battalions and to 6 Field Ambulance, which was established in the brigade area, J Section had a number of general duties in Brigade Headquarters. Part of the section was organised into a sub-section which was employed with men of the brigade transport section and 11 LAD on infantry duties for the protection of the headquarters' area.
On 13 May 20 Battalion moved from its position near Galatas to the junction of the main coast road and the valley road just west of Canea, where it came into divisional reserve. The 19th Battalion remained in the Galatas-Karatsos area and was then the only battalion of the brigade west of Brigade Headquarters. page 143 Next day Divisional Headquarters moved from Galatas to a new position on the valley road near its junction with the main coast road. J Section readjusted the battalion lines and, to conserve cable, placed Divisional Headquarters and 20 Battalion on one circuit.
A few days later Second-Lieutenant Hultquist and five men marched out from J Section to form the nucleus of a brigade signal section for the newly formed 10 Composite Infantry Brigade. The remainder of the men for this section came from the signallers of 1 Platoon of Headquarters Company, 20 Battalion. This new signal section had enough cable to reach all battalions of the brigade, but had no wireless sets and no reserves of signal stores.
At Headquarters 5 Brigade, in the Maleme area, K Section was trying to provide some sort of communications system. Fifth Brigade had been established in this area since the end of April with the task of defending Maleme airfield. The 22nd Battalion was in position on and south of the airfield, with its headquarters at Pirgos, on the main road just east of the airfield. Two lines ran back to Headquarters 5 Brigade and formed the principal means of communication. There was also a wireless link provided by two No. 18 sets, two of those brought from Greece by the Maori Battalion. Two lines were run to the Maori Battalion at Platanias, a short distance south of Brigade Headquarters. From 21 Battalion and 27 Battery of 5 Field Regiment, near Kondomari, single lines were teed-in to one of the 5 Brigade-22 Battalion circuits. The 23rd Battalion, at Dhaskaliana, was also teed-in to this circuit and to the second 5 Brigade-22 Battalion line. This arrangement of five terminals on one of the circuits running forward to 22 Battalion and two on the other was an unusual set-up for a brigade's line-communication system, but it was the best that could be accomplished with the severely limited equipment available. From Headquarters 5 Brigade there was also a line running forward to Modhion, where a detachment of New Zealand Engineers was deployed in an infantry role. Two field cables ran back to Headquarters New Zealand Division near Canea. A No. 9 wireless set detachment manned by Royal Signals of Middlesex Yeomanry provided communication to Headquarters page 144 Creforce. This detachment was transferred to Headquarters 4 Brigade on 13 May. It was replaced at Headquarters 5 Brigade by a No. 11 set operated by K Section operators working back on a ‘one-to-one’ link to Headquarters New Zealand Division.
The German attack was expected at first to come between 14 and 17 May, but Intelligence reports later fixed the day as the 19th. That day, however, passed without incident, except for the constant air attacks which had almost come to be accepted as part of the day's normal occasions.
The morning of 20 May broke fine and mild, and shortly after dawn the usual enemy attacks on the Maleme area brought the now familiar uproar from the airfield's anti-aircraft defences—the frantic jig of the multiple pom-poms, punctuated by the angry barks of the heavier guns and the stutter of aircraft cannon and machine-gun fire. At frequent intervals shattering ‘crumps’ tore the air as bombers roared in and discharged their loads. At 8 a.m. there was a sudden increase in enemy air activity over the whole of the divisional sector. Fighters swept in low over the olive groves, lashing the ground in criss-cross patterns with vicious machine-gun fire, and bombers appeared in greatly increased numbers. The ground shook to the blast of heavy bombs, which erupted all over the area, flinging earth and dust high in the air.
Bivouac near Olympus pass
M Section battery-charging truck near Tirnavos
Signal equipment salvaged from Greece
Mess queue at Galatas
At the Church, Galatas
Suda Bay after an air raid
The empty transports were now heading back across the sea away from the island, but other aircraft were above the defenders. These huge shapes glided in noiselessly from where they had been cast off by their towing transports somewhere over the sea. Fifty to a hundred gliders, each carrying ten to twelve men, landed on the river flat west of the Maleme airfield. Three landed on the Akrotiri Peninsula above Force Headquarters, and four in the prison valley.
Paratroops landed on Maleme airfield and to the east of it, in and about 21 and 23 Battalions' positions. Others came down in the valley near the prison and Lake Aghya and in the area between Galatas and 7 General Hospital, below Headquarters 4 Brigade. Paratroops and glider-borne troops landed at various other points in the Divisional sector, but most of these were quickly mopped up.
The initial effects of the attack on signal communications were very severe. Within a short time of the enemy's landing interruptions occurred on most line circuits. Damage to lines had already been inflicted by bombing, the main circuits being particularly susceptible to disruption from bomb blast, erected as they were in ropes of cable on trees, telephone poles and other supports. The cable circuits laid out on the ground by New Zealand Signals, being in ditches and generally well away from roads, had more protection and suffered little damage from enemy fire. As soon as the paratroops landed, however, all lines attracted attention. The enemy had made a careful study of the island's telephone system by air photographic reconnaissance before the battle. He methodically cut lengths of cable from the lines, coiled them up, and placed them in trees. These methods were part of his plan to put communications out of order temporarily, so that he could restore them quickly when he required to put them to his own use. Orders issued for operation mercury, the code-name by which the air assault on Crete was known, directed that page 146 telephone lines on all roads and paths were to be cut in such a manner that they could easily be restored, Under no circumstances, stated these orders, was the cutting of lines to be neglected. Other orders, issued by 5 Mountain Division to 1 Parachute Rifle Regiment, indicated the importance the enemy attached to the dislocation of communications. Among five important points to be seized were the terminal of the Canea-Heraklion submarine cable and two wireless stations.
The widespread disruption of signal communications so early in the battle and the incessant attacks by enemy fighter aircraft on any movement on the roads hampered the despatch of information from formations and units, with the result that for some hours Divisional Headquarters' picture of operations was extremely sketchy. Very shortly after the commencement of the heavy bombing attack which heralded the airborne assault, continual interruptions occurred on the line from Divisional Headquarters to Force Headquarters. Sergeant Bateman and his line maintenance party from Force Signals contrived by prodigious efforts to keep the line in working order for several days, but later when Canea (through which the circuit passed) was bombed almost to complete destruction, the line became useless. During the early stages of the battle, when the paratroops and the assault troops landed from gliders in the Canea area had not been completely disposed of, Bateman and his party were caught up in a vicious little brawl between a small party of British soldiers and some paratroops in the spacious gardens of a house east of the town. This line party also found odd opportunities for musketry practice against small groups of paratroops still at large in the olive groves and vineyards in the area through which the forward lines passed. For his work on maintenance of lines in Crete Bateman was awarded the MM.
The civil telephone circuits from Force Headquarters to Retimo and Heraklion sustained almost continuous damage, which the Royal Signals detachment responsible for their maintenance could repair for only short intervals. Consequently much of the traffic for these places was passed by wireless and special despatch rider.
Because of the serious dislocations to line circuits over page 147 practically the whole of the battle area, the burden of communications fell on wireless. Communication by this means to all formations and units was very reliable. Nets, or groups, were simple, and the ranges over which the sets were required to work were well within the equipment's rated performances. Radio telephony was used extensively, especially between Force Headquarters and New Zealand Divisional Headquarters and Headquarters 5 Brigade. The only difficulty experienced with wireless was caused by the lack of reserve equipment which would have enabled communication to be maintained without interruption during moves of headquarters.
Wireless communication with General Headquarters Middle East Forces in Cairo was maintained with a Marconi transmitter which had a power output of approximately 100 watts. This set was installed in a small cave hewn from the rock at the top of a 200-foot-high hill overlooking Canea, and was operated by a small section of Divisional Signals serving with Force Signals. It required four 6-volt 125 ampere-hour batteries, each of which weighed about 60 lb. The battery-charging plant, which delivered 50 amperes at 32 volts, was a massive piece of machinery and had to be dismantled before it could be carried up the hill to the station. Most of the batteries supplied for operating the set were new and required initial charges before they could be used. Signalman Cross2 took care of this task, watching over the precious plant for over two days and nights with only brief snatches of sleep.
From an early stage in the battle the proportion of priority traffic handled by all means of communication reached 50 per cent of the total. This was an old problem, with which Signals was now thoroughly familiar, and one which nullified to a very large extent the very object of the priority system. In battle it is impossible to afford high priority to a large proportion of traffic, and as the saturation point is reached the system becomes completely ineffective.
At New Zealand Divisional Headquarters Captain Pryor and his small band battled with the difficulties which confronted them when all line communications began to fail soon after page 148 the attack commenced. There was no transport for the linemen except the very occasional use of a truck, motor-cycle or bicycle. During daylight hours long delays occurred in the repair of damaged lines as a result of the constant strafing of roads by fighters.
The despatch riders at Divisional Headquarters were a scratch lot, all having had little or no experience of this work. The despatch-rider letter service was abandoned shortly after the battle began owing to the difficulty of keeping it running to a timetable, but as most of the traffic to be carried by despatch rider had high priority, the system developed almost automatically and unnoticed into a special despatch-rider service. On several occasions despatch riders were prevented from reaching their destinations by small parties of paratroops who still infested the olive groves in the rear of the main infantry battle east of Maleme and below Galatas. Some despatch riders left their cycles at the roadside and attempted to make their way forward through the olive groves on foot. Some were stopped by enemy troops, and others were forbidden by infantry officers to go further forward. On a number of occasions liaison officers were employed to complete the delivery of messages delayed in this manner.
There was a grave shortage of picks and shovels in the Division, and at Divisional Headquarters the number of tools available was quite inadequate to dig in the signal office, WT sets and battery-charging sets.
It was noticeable that liaison and other officers visiting Divisional Headquarters seldom called at the signals office to pick up messages for their headquarters. On a number of occasions these visitors could have greatly assisted Signals in the delivery of messages. The expeditious delivery of operation orders presented immense difficulties.
From Headquarters 4 Brigade, in its position near 7 General Hospital about two miles west of Canea, paratroops were observed soon after 8.30 a.m. on the first day of the battle descending on the ridge near Karatsos. About half an hour later more paratroops came down in 7 General Hospital's area just below Brigade Headquarters. All available men in the headquarters, including a number from J Section who were page 149 not required immediately for signals duties, were disposed for the defence of the headquarters. Very soon afterwards Brigade Headquarters withdrew eastwards about half a mile to a position just south of the main coast road, where Headquarters 18 Battalion was established. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray,3 dishevelled and grimy but with eager eyes, and still grasping the rifle with which he had personally accounted for eight paratroops, assisted the brigade staff to settle in in his battalion headquarters' area.
Meanwhile J Section linemen were quickly extending 19 Battalion's line to the new Brigade Headquarters' position and reeling in the now unwanted 18 Battalion line. Very shortly after the attack began communication on 19 Battalion's line was interrupted. It was not restored until the evening, although Signalmen Sinton and Sarjeant4 spent most of the day repairing breaks caused by bomb blast, machine-gun fire, and the attentions of the paratroops.
At the end of the day George Sinton came in to Brigade Headquarters weary to the point of exhaustion, but quietly happy. He and Sarjeant had had a hazardous day working on the line. Every few minutes they had been forced into the cover of olive trees or under road culverts to escape attacks from low-flying aircraft, but from all appearances this was the sort of situation in which George forebore to growl. His usual preoccupation was one of dejected and comical meditation, punctuated by exclamations of foreboding about the unhappy lot of signalmen in general and those in particular who were unfortunately marooned on the island of Crete. Most things fell under George's disapproval—rations, the unpredictable ways of the brigade staff, shortage of equipment, and the lack of something to do. ‘You mark my words, Cappy,’ George had said to OC J Section a few days before the German attack, ‘when the bastards do come we'll be caught with our pants down. Five bloody miles of cable! And nothing to lay it with.’ But when the ‘bastards’ came George was happily content to page 150 tramp back and forth along the lines, dodging death by a hair's breadth a dozen times a day. Nor was he tempted to grumble when roused from sleep during the night to go out into the darkness in search of a line fault.
A few parachutists landed in the 7 British General Hospital and 6 New Zealand Field Ambulance areas but before long had been disposed of by parties from 18 and 19 Battalions. Others landed near Galatas and occupied buildings, but the town was cleared shortly after midday. An attack on Galatas from the prison area was repulsed. By now the divisional area behind Galatas was free of the enemy, except for one or two persistent snipers in the peninsula area above Force Headquarters. Enemy aircraft, however, continued to swarm over the sector, and all line circuits still suffered heavily.
The first day of the battle began in 5 Brigade's area shortly after 6 a.m. with a savage attack by bombers, which dropped about one hundred bombs around the perimeter of Maleme airfield and on the ridge occupied by 22 Battalion. From shortly after eight o'clock hordes of bombers and fighters lashed the ground surrounding the airfield with bombs and intense machine-gun fire. Dense clouds of dust rose into the sky, and under this cover paratroops dropped on to the airfield's defences. A little earlier gliders and transport filled with assault troops had crash-landed in the bed of the Tavronitis River, just west of the airfield, and along the beach to the north of it. Communications failed early in the battle. As soon as the paratroops landed they followed their practice of cutting lengths from cable on the ground, and by nine o'clock there was no telephone communication from Headquarters 5 Brigade to 22 Battalion. The line to 28 (Maori) Battalion, however, which was close to Brigade Headquarters, remained intact for some time. The only means of communication between Brigade Headquarters and 22 Battalion was by No. 18 wireless sets, which opened up at 10.9 a.m., but from 2 p.m., when the sets failed through defective or exhausted batteries, the brigade was almost completely out of touch with events at Maleme, where 22 Battalion fought desperately as the enemy forced it slowly from its positions.
Although the rear line to Divisional Headquarters had failed page 151 earlier in the day and had not been restored, Headquarters 5 Brigade continued in communication with the Division by means of the No. 11 wireless set link, but no clear picture of developments at Maleme could be given by the brigade staff owing to the almost complete breakdown of communications forward of Brigade Headquarters. It was not until early next morning, therefore, that Divisional Headquarters learned that 22 Battalion had been forced off the airfield. By this time, too, visual communications between Headquarters 5 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters had been rendered completely useless by the smoke and dust raised in the sector by continuous air attacks.
During the afternoon the line to 23 Battalion was interrupted, and the Brigade Major (Captain Dawson5) took a No. 18 set forward in a Bren carrier to restore communications. At this stage the only line still in operation forward of Brigade Headquarters was a portion of the omnibus circuit on which originally Brigade Headquarters, 21, 22 and 23 Battalions, and 27 Battery of 5 Field Regiment were all connected. On what was left of this circuit only 21 and 23 Battalions and 27 Battery were still in communication with each other. The line had been cut just in front of Brigade Headquarters and immediately forward of 23 Battalion, where it continued on to 22 Battalion's former positions at Maleme. The two individual circuits to the New Zealand Engineers' detachment and to the Maori Battalion were still intact. Late that afternoon the No. 18 wireless set which the Brigade Major had earlier taken to 23 Battalion was destroyed by a bomb. That night the Brigade Major went again to 23 Battalion, and because of the absence of any sort of communication from there to the rear, had to make his way over the hills to the Engineers' detachment at Modhion to report to Brigade Headquarters.
A counter-attack on the night of 21-22 May failed to regain possession of the airfield. Details of the plan for this operation could not be passed forward to 21, 22 and 23 Battalions, so were telephoned to the Engineers at Modhion, who were told page 152 to make every effort to pass on the information. It was at this stage that the Brigade Major reached the Engineers from 23 Battalion and learned for the first time of the counter-attack. By a curious set of circumstances he had been quite unaware of this important operation, which illustrates what serious consequences can follow a general disruption of signal communications at a critical stage of a battle.
Shortly before midnight on 21 May heavy gunfire was heard out to sea, where the Royal Navy had intercepted an enemy seaborne force. The detonation of the heavy guns reverberated loudly in the night air, and flares shot aloft to shed a ghostly light over the scene several miles off shore. Very soon fires sprang up far out on the horizon, where transports carrying the enemy troops burned furiously under the Navy's guns. As the action proceeded frantic signals in coloured flares went up from the German troops on the island but theirs was a vain hope; not one of the enemy craft reached the beaches. Next morning there was a noticeable lull in enemy air activity over the divisional sector. The reason was not far to seek. The sound of heavy bombs and naval gunfire told of the savage attack which enemy aircraft were making on ships of the Royal Navy off Cape Spatha.
At 5 p.m. on 22 May Force Headquarters gave orders for another counter-attack at Maleme to wrest possession of the airfield from the enemy. But the Divisional Commander, Brigadier Puttick, apprehensive for the success of this move in view of 5 Brigade's exhaustion and diminishing battle-worthiness after three days' hard fighting without pause, cancelled the plan. Now facing an enemy growing in strength from hour to hour, 5 Brigade was ordered back behind 4 and 10 Brigades' positions around Galatas. A warning order to 5 Brigade from Divisional Headquarters to prepare to withdraw eastwards was transmitted by wireless in clear, but in terms which the enemy could not possibly have understood should he have been listening to the transmissions. Because groups of enemy troops had penetrated north-eastwards towards Galatas from the prison area in the valley and succeeded in reaching the road, the order detailing the various phases by which 5 Brigade was to retire was sent forward by an officer in a Bren carrier. This page 153 officer, Captain Pryor, arrived at Headquarters 5 Brigade shortly after midnight on the 22nd. The order came too late, however, to enable the brigade's withdrawal to be completed before daylight on the 23rd.
Meanwhile, in the area around Galatas to the east, south-west and north-west, 10 Composite Brigade continued to hold its positions with only moderate losses. Its communications, however, had been severely disrupted early in the battle. Second-Lieutenant Hultquist and his composite signal section, made up from J Section men and regimental signallers of 20 Battalion, worked strenuously to restore communications, but the lines were in working order for only brief periods.
The 23rd May was a grey, sunless day. A heavy smoke haze from burning ships in Suda Bay hung over the divisional sector like a sinister pall. By this time Maleme was lost; it became an operational airfield for the enemy within 14 miles of the base installations at Suda Bay. Moreover, the enemy was now approaching equality in numbers.
The situation at Retimo and Heraklion, where paratroop attacks had also taken place, although on a smaller scale than that at Maleme, was obscure. The Retimo garrison had no cipher, and at Heraklion the high-grade cipher had been destroyed early in the battle to prevent its falling into enemy hands. All despatch-rider and liaison-officer services were interrupted as road communications to both places had been cut by parties of enemy troops. The submarine cable was still undamaged and continued to carry all signal traffic from Force Headquarters to Heraklion, but all signals to Retimo had to be transmitted by WT in clear.
By daylight on 24 May 5 Brigade had completed its withdrawal behind 4 Brigade, which had assimilated 10 Composite Brigade and replaced the Composite Battalion on the right by 18 Battalion. Headquarters 5 Brigade moved into the former position of Headquarters 4 Brigade at 18 Battalion's original battalion headquarters site, a short distance west of the road junction on the western outskirts of Canea. K Section, which was now commanded by Lieutenant McFarlane, who had replaced Lieutenant Frame on 7 May, set up its signal office and exchange and put lines out to the battalions.page 154
As Headquarters 5 Brigade settled in Headquarters 4 Brigade moved forward and was established about half a mile north-east of Karatsos. Lines were adjusted and brought into the new position and the signal office was open for business by 3 p.m. Considerable difficulty was experienced in taking the No. 9 wireless set forward to the new location. The bulky set, together with its heavy batteries and charging set, was loaded into a 15-cwt truck, which was halted by a huge bomb crater in the middle of the road some distance short of the new headquarters, although the driver made determined efforts to negotiate his vehicle between a deep ditch on the left of the road and the rim of the crater. While this was going on the detachment was machine-gunned by several fighter aircraft. Although the truck was completely disabled, all of the men escaped unscathed into the cover of the ditch. The set, with its equipment, had escaped undamaged and was retrieved from the now useless vehicle and manhandled through the olive groves to the new headquarters, where it was immediately set up and communication quickly re-established with Force Headquarters.
The 19th Battalion was still in position below Karatsos, where it had been since the start of the battle on the 20th. The line to its headquarters was frequently damaged, and it was only through Sinton's tireless patrolling of the circuit that any communication remained at all. Late in the afternoon heavy mortar fire began to fall close to Brigade Headquarters and all circuits sustained additional damage. Sinton, Sarjeant and Fordham6 worked tirelessly to restore communications, but despite their efforts the breaks became longer and more frequent. These linemen now had another circuit to care for—the line to 18 Battalion, which was in position on the right of the divisional line, about a mile north-west of Galatas. This circuit was that originally put out by Hultquist and his men from Headquarters 10 Brigade to the Composite Battalion, whose position 18 Battalion had taken over.
That night Force Headquarters, less Force Signals, moved back to the Suda Bay area. Considerable difficulty was experienced by Force Signals in handling priority traffic, because all page 155 cipher staff had been ordered to move with Force Headquarters, thus separating them entirely from Signals. Force Signals did not move until very early on the 26th, when they rejoined Force Headquarters, which was then at Suda Point. During the move all wireless communications were closed down, but were immediately reopened when Signals reached Suda Point.
Meanwhile, in the divisional sector, very heavy attacks by low-flying bombers continued. The worst attack, which was directed on Canea and the main road, began shortly after noon on the 25th and continued without pause until 5 p.m. At six o'clock there was another violent dive-bombing attack, this time on the defences in and around Galatas. This assault was followed by a determined infantry attack against 4 and 10 Brigades, which drove in the right of the divisional line about 400 yards. At 7.15 p.m. there was another heavy air bombardment, followed as before by a strong infantry attack which broke through 18 and Composite Battalions north of Galatas. Fourth Brigade called up 23 Battalion from 5 Brigade's reserve position near Canea to help restore the line.
This arrangement, by which 4 Brigade was able to call on 5 Brigade's units for assistance without reference to Divisional Headquarters, was dictated by the unreliability of signal communications, which in some areas were so badly mauled as to be almost completely useless. In 4 Brigade communications had virtually ceased to exist. The line to 18 Battalion had been damaged beyond repair and that to 19 Battalion, although still in reasonable repair at the Brigade Headquarters end, was torn to shreds where it approached the battalion. The No. 9 wireless set manned by Royal Signals had been put permanently out of action by a mortar-bomb splinter, which whistled between the two operators sitting at the controls and tore a jagged, gaping hole in the front panel.
In 10 Brigade, too, communications were completely disrupted. All lines to units were destroyed and could not be restored despite determined efforts by Hultquist and his men.
In the evening OC J Section (Captain Borman) and about fourteen of his men went forward from Brigade Headquarters with a number of Brigade Headquarters' and other men who were sent up to Galatas to assist in restoring the gap which page 156 the enemy attack had torn between 18 and Composite Battalions' positions.
OC J Section and his small party approached the outskirts of Galatas as darkness fell. He was seeking Headquarters 20 Battalion, to which he was to report for instructions. All carried rifles except Corporal Helm, who was armed with a Lewis machine gun and several magazines of ammunition. While they were looking for 20 Battalion they were accosted by an infantry company commander who directed them to a cross-tracks in the olives about a hundred yards or so below the main Galatas road. Here they were to dispose themselves in readiness to meet the next enemy attack which, according to the infantry officer, might carry the eastern outskirts of the village.
At the cross-tracks OC J Section encountered a party of about twelve men led by a harassed-looking subaltern. On seeing these totally unexpected reinforcements OC J Section went up to the subaltern, whose red infantry patches were dimly discernible in the failing light, and said: ‘I suppose you are on the same errand as I. What about your taking over and disposing my men too? I'm only a Signals officer and I'm afraid that I don't know much about infantry tactics.’
The subaltern stared for a moment or two and then burst out: ‘Only a signals officer! What the hell do you think I am? I'm only a bloody bandmaster!’
The J Section men dissolved into helpless laughter. These men were from the Kiwi Concert Party and 5 Brigade Band, which had arrived from Egypt only ten days before to entertain the troops. When the storm broke they had to put aside their instruments and properties and take rifles in their unaccustomed hands. Nevertheless, for all their inexperience, these entertainers and bandsmen were a welcome addition to the odds and ends of units and headquarters which mustered that night on the outskirts of Galatas to prevent a collapse in the divisional line.
Fortunately for the J Section party, the bandmaster and his men, no enemy came their way that night. A little later the J Section party was recalled to the main road, where it joined a company of 20 Battalion lining a stone wall on the north- page 157 east of the village. During the evening's confusion Corporal Helm, Signalman Tucker,7 one or two others of J Section, and a Brigade Headquarters' despatch rider, Private Press,8 became separated from Borman's party and were caught up in a bayonet attack by 23 Battalion which cleared the enemy out of Galatas. By some means or other these men acquired bayonets for their rifles—normally Signals personnel do not carry bayonets—and joined in the attack which raged through the narrow cobbled streets of the village. In this affray Press, who was armed with a Bren gun, fought a duel single-handed with three Germans in a narrow alleyway. He received severe wounds in the groin and was carried out later by Helm and Tucker to the outskirts of the village, where he was laid on the side of the road to await medical attention. Press became a prisoner that night and was later taken to Greece, where he received attention to his injuries in an Athens hospital.
Later that night Galatas was evacuated in accordance with plans made earlier in the evening; thus the village was not captured by the Germans but merely occupied by them after the New Zealanders withdrew. The J Section party, which had now been joined by Hultquist and his men from 10 Brigade, moved back with the retiring infantry towards Canea. Some time after midnight they reached the old transit camp south of Canea, where OC J Section reported to Lieutenant-Colonel Gray, whom he found there with the remnants of 18 Battalion. At dawn the men moved wearily back towards Suda, in the direction of which Headquarters 4 Brigade had withdrawn during the night. All day on the 26th they marched eastwards, moving from cover to cover under the merciless hammering which enemy aircraft continued to inflict on the roads and olive groves between Canea and Suda. That evening they joined some Royal Marines at an MNBDO camp above Suda, and rested there under the trees for the night. At dawn they continued their march eastwards along the main road, and at midday rejoined Headquarters 4 Brigade at Stilos.
Meanwhile, late on the 25th, 4 Brigade was withdrawn to page 158 a line running north and south along the general line of a stream south-west of Canea. Headquarters 5 Brigade was now established at the old Divisional Headquarters location, one kilometre south-west of the junction of the main coast road and the valley road. Nineteenth Australian Brigade held the left of the line in the vicinity of Perivolia. By this time Divisional Headquarters had moved back to a position about three-quarters of a mile north of the large wireless station in the Canea basin.
At this stage the only communications which existed in the divisional sector were 5 Brigade's lines to its battalions, lines to both 4 and 5 Brigades' headquarters, and to Headquarters 19 Australian Brigade. The wireless link between Headquarters New Zealand Division and Force Headquarters at Suda was still in operation.
By 1 p.m. on 26 May the enemy was exerting strong pressure along the valley road at the junction of the right and left brigades and on the right of 5 Brigade near the coast, and was working around the left of 19 Australian Brigade on the left of the line. The situation continued to deteriorate rapidly and, to avoid the danger of the enemy passing round the left flank and turning north and so effectively cutting off all access to and from the Canea area, Brigadier Puttick made strong representations to Major-General C. E. Weston, commander of the Suda Bay sector, to whose command the Division had now passed, for the withdrawal of both 4 and 5 Brigades to form a new line at the head of Suda Bay. Weston was unable to agree to this plan until he had consulted General Freyberg. As late as 9 p.m. on the 26th, however, nothing had been heard from Weston, so Puttick sent three WT messages to Force Headquarters inquiring if he had arrived and asking for orders. At 10.15 p.m. Force Headquarters replied that the Division was under the command of Major-General Weston, who would issue orders. Weston, however, had been compelled to withdraw from Canea, which was being rapidly destroyed, and the location of his headquarters was unknown. Line communications to 5 Brigade and 19 Australian Brigade were still in operation at this time, and orders continued to be passed forward from Divisional Headquarters by telephone.page 159
At this stage Puttick decided to withdraw his troops to a new defensive line at the head of Suda Bay. This position was the first in a leapfrog withdrawal in which 5 New Zealand Brigade, 19 Australian Brigade, and the Commandos under Colonel R. E. Laycock took turns in holding the line to cover the retreat of the remainder of General Freyberg's forces to the evacuation beaches on the south coast.
Headquarters 5 Brigade was established about half a mile west of Suda, near a sunken road known as 42nd Street. Here, on the 27th, the headquarters came under heavy mortar fire and K Section sustained a number of casualties. Corporal Melville9 and Signalman Rennie10 were killed outright, and Signalmen Wood11 and Flannery12 wounded.
Shortly before midnight on the 26th Divisional Headquarters moved back towards Stilos. Only one vehicle, a 15-cwt truck, was available to carry the equipment of Divisional Headquarters and Signals. On this truck were packed the wireless set No. 9, an assortment of exchanges, telephones and cable, and one or two sick and wounded men who were unable to walk. Unfortunately, owing to the severely limited space available on the truck for signal equipment, the battery-charging set could not be taken.
The lanes and roads were crowded with troops and civilian refugees and, in the darkness of the moonless night, it was impossible for the various groups in Divisional Headquarters to avoid being broken up into small parties. By dawn on the 27th Signals was widely separated, but quickly reassembled as Divisional Headquarters arrived in small parties in the Stilos area. Some men were already showing the effects of insufficient training in route-marching, with the result that there was a considerable increase in the numbers of the lame and the halt. At dusk the headquarters set off on the next stage of the journey to its destination, which all knew by this time was the south page 160 coast. All the men's personal equipment except arms was destroyed and abandoned.
The night march was a nightmare for many. The rough metal road wound interminably up through the mountain range; the expected pass through the mountains was always just around the next bend. Overhead enemy planes droned in the darkness, and now and then parachute flares drifted slowly earthwards, shedding an eerie, yellow, flickering light over the column of men struggling painfully towards the south. As the group, exhausted from lack of rest and food, was making heavy work of the journey, each half hour's marching was followed by five minutes' rest. Although a steady pace was maintained during each stage, progress was slow. Men began to straggle behind, and when a well at the roadside was reached, some who had been using their water bottles improvidently joined the throng around it. The well had no bucket or wind- lass and soldiers were lowering into its murky depths empty ration tins, steel helmets, and any sort of receptacle that would hold water. It was some time before all Signals men could be reassembled and the march resumed.
The road grew steeper, and dawn on the 28th, which should have seen the group settled under cover on the southern side of the range, was now approaching. At the next halt some of the Signals group were missing. It was thought that they had fallen asleep by the wayside or dropped out with blistered feet, so the party pushed on, knowing that the route could not be mistaken by any who lagged behind. At 9 a.m. the Divisional Headquarters group reached the outskirts of a village in the Askifou Plain, and the men threw themselves down and fell into an exhausted sleep. After a short rest Captain Pryor went back along the route on a borrowed motor-cycle for some miles to muster the remnants of his party who had been straggling in the rear. In spite of his repeated shouts and calls into the numerous valleys, only one of the stragglers was located. Months later the names of all the others were notified as prisoners of war.
The Divisional Headquarters group lay up under cover all that day and moved on again at sunset, but for only about four miles, which brought it to where 20 Battalion was deployed at the southern exit of the Askifou Plain. The group remained page 161 there until late in the afternoon of the 29th, when the Divisional Commander and his GSO 1 (Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry13) left in the Brigadier's staff car for Sfakia, leaving the GSO 2 (Major Davis14) in command of the Divisional Headquarters party. About 7 p.m. Davis led his party off on what all believed was the last stage of the march to the beach where they would be taken off in destroyers. But, alas, after many miles the road led abruptly to the edge of a steep, rocky cliff high above the coast. From there a rough mule track wound down for miles. The men hurried, but the track was choked with hundreds of other troops all making their way to the sea.
Soon after the party had commenced its march the previous evening Davis had gone forward on a motor-cycle to a control post at the end of the formed road to make arrangements for the Divisional Headquarters party to proceed straight to the embarkation beach. He was told that unless his party reached the post by 7.30 p.m. it would not be included in that night's lift. He hastened back along the road to meet the party and hurry it along, but it reached the control post long after the stipulated time and was diverted into a large ravine near the village of Komitadhes, which lay about a mile from the coast and two miles east of the embarkation beach at Sfakia. By dawn the party, about 150 all ranks, including Captain Pryor and his Signals, was dispersed under the olives and firs and in the spacious caves which honeycombed the ravine.
Meanwhile, at Force Headquarters, Major Grant and his men continued to maintain what remained of their communications. There were now no line communications of any sort, but wireless was still in use. The Marconi set working to General Headquarters Middle East Forces was in continuous operation, but communication with Divisional Headquarters, whose wireless batteries by this time had failed utterly, was broken. At 8.45 p.m. on the 27th Force Headquarters and page 162 Force Signals commenced to move to Sfakia in transport.
By 30 May 4 and 5 Brigades were approaching the beach. Once more the road across the hills to the coast was crowded with troops. Hundreds of stragglers had appeared from rest areas, and officers at the control post above the beach attempted to form them into groups, each of fifty men, and direct them to the ravine at Komitadhes.
Only four destroyers were expected to arrive that night (the 30th) from Alexandria. Two of these ships, however, turned back, the first after a few hours' steaming owing to mechanical trouble, and the second at 3.30 p.m. owing to bomb damage sustained during an attack by aircraft. It had been planned that 3000 to 5000 men would be evacuated that night, but early in the afternoon the Senior Naval Officer at Sfakia informed Force Headquarters that it would be possible to take only 1000. The final arrangements were that 70 from Headquarters 4 Brigade, including J Section Signals, 230 from each battalion of 4 Brigade, and 230 from 28 (Maori) Battalion were to be embarked. At 8.30 p.m. 4 Brigade and the 230 Maoris began to move to the embarkation beach at Sfakia and passed through the check points outside the village. Embarkation commenced a few minutes before midnight.
The marching party of Divisional Headquarters had spent the day of the 30th in the ravine near Komitadhes. There was to be no movement from this area to the beach that night, but Major Davis learned that 1000 troops of 4 Brigade were being taken off from Sfakia, about two miles to the west. He decided to move his party to the barrier there, in the hope that more troops would be taken. He obtained the necessary authority—after some protracted argument—from the movement control officer at Force Headquarters. The latter, however, would grant permission for only 100 officers and men of the party to go. When they reached the control post above the embarkation point they waited for several hours in alternate periods of hope and despair.
Some time after midnight Captain Pryor learned that there was little or no hope of his men being embarked that night, so he took them a little way back along the track to a well, where they drew water with various clumsily fashioned contriv- page 163 ances. Pryor was pestered by some of his men for permission to go to another well whose whereabouts they claimed to know. Nursing a faint hope that they might still be taken off that night, he resisted their importunities for a time and insisted that they remain with him. A little later, however, he relented, and after arranging a rendezvous for the morning, gave them permission to go. Very shortly afterwards he received a message that his party would be embarked if it made haste down to the beach. They set off and clambered onto the landing craft, but Pryor stayed on the beach to make inquiries for those who had gone to the second well. He learned that they had not rejoined the rest of the men, apparently not having heard the summons, so he explained quickly to the beach control officer that he must go and look for them. The beach control officer agreed, but said that unless Pryor had his men back on the beach within a few minutes they would be left behind. Pryor climbed up the track again, but without haste, being resigned to the impossibility of locating his missing men in the darkness among the milling throng that pressed up to the barrier. But by strange good fortune he encountered them at the top of the hill, walking unconcernedly towards the barrier looking for their fellows. Urged on by Pryor, they stumbled blindly down the steep rock-strewn slope, risking their limbs at every bound, and arrived at the beach breathless and almost exhausted by their headlong flight, just as the landing craft was about to shove off.
Shortly before 3 a.m. on the 31st the two destroyers Napier and Nizam sailed for Alexandria. At 9 a.m. they were attacked by a formation of aircraft, and the Napier sustained some damage from a large bomb which exploded close to her quarter and temporarily put one of her engines out of order. Repairs were quickly effected, however, and the voyage was resumed. The two ships reached Alexandria about 7 p.m. and the troops disembarked and were taken to Amiriya transit camp.
Meanwhile, Force Signals, under Major Grant, had embarked on the night of the 29th. Some men were required to remain behind to operate the Marconi wireless set to provide communication to General Headquarters Middle East Forces for the rearguard, which was now under the command of Major- page 164 General Weston. Grant had a difficult task in deciding who was to remain. Eventually he directed that it would be a detachment of Middlesex Yeomanry, augmented by two New Zealanders, Lance-Corporal Browne15 and Signalman Cross, to look after the battery-charging equipment and service the installation. The rest of Force Headquarters Signals embarked in the early hours of the 30th and reached Alexandria safely.
Fifth Brigade, consisting of 21, 22 and 23 Battalions, a portion of 28 (Maori) Battalion, and some remnants of 4 Brigade, was the only New Zealand formation remaining on the island after the embarkation of 4 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters on the night of 30-31 May. Small groups of other units, however, were gathered with the stragglers in the ravine and caves at Komitadhes. These were members of small detachments, many of which had fought gallantly alongside infantry units at Maleme and Galatas. When the enemy advance swept eastwards in the closing stages of the battle and engulfed Canea and the base installations at Suda Bay, they had joined in the general retreat to the south coast. Because they belonged to no specific field formation, and often because they had no cohesion and no officer to lead them, they were caught up in the disorderly mass of stragglers which haunted the Komitadhes ravine.
The last lift which the Navy could attempt was on the night of 31 May-1 June. In all, 5 Brigade had 1100 men still to be taken off. Early in the evening of the 31st the outlying pickets which Brigadier Hargest had placed around Sfakia to prevent stragglers breaking through to the embarkation beach were withdrawn, and at 9.15 p.m. the battalions marched to Sfakia. About an hour later the three landing craft which had been hidden along the coast in coves and inlets from the searching eyes of enemy aircraft appeared and took the first men of the brigade to the ships lying off in the darkness. Embarkation was completed about 3 a.m. and the ships sailed for Alexandria, which was reached without incident on the evening of 1 June.page 165
The battle for Crete is the story of a gallant fight against tremendous odds. Men, barely recovered from the blows which a superior enemy had dealt them on the battlefields of Greece scarcely a month before, and without the modern machines of war, fought stubbornly against an enemy aided by the greatest air armada the war had seen at that time. General Freyberg, Commander-in-Chief Crete, ended his report on the battle with these words:
The story I have told is an epic; one that will be told in many ways and will be retold many times. There will be charges of disorganization, shortages of equipment, of warlike stores, of food and, at the last, water itself. It will be said that there was a lack of control and often no orders. These charges are admitted. Despite the difficulties that faced us, I would not for one moment attempt to prove that the order to hold Crete was a wrong one. It was right and we knew it ….
None knew better than Signals that there was lack of control and often no orders. Nor did any know better than Signals that the island's communication system was built up from nothing into an extensive network of lines and wireless communications in three short weeks. Any impartial examination cannot but reflect credit on those who had the direction of signals communication at Force Headquarters and Divisional Headquarters, and who had the assistance of intrepid men like Bateman, Tweeddale, Laurie, Blair,16 Horne,17 Sinton, Baker,18 Provan,19 and many others who would be mentioned in this story if space permitted.
Signals casualties in Crete were heavy. The first was Signalman Davies,20 who died in 7 British General Hospital near Canea on 30 April from wounds received in Greece. There were two killed, eight wounded (of whom four became prisoners of war), two missing, and twenty-seven prisoners of war. Of those page 166 who were taken prisoner, a few escaped and reached Egypt safely months later. Perhaps the most notable of these escapes was that of Signalman Shirley,21 of J Section, who spent several weeks living among the Cretan villagers in the mountains on the frugal fare which the villagers brought to him and his companions from their own scant stores. From time to time, as they moved from village to village in the wild mountain region, they fell in with other parties of escapers, all bent on reaching the south coast, from the seaside villages of which strange but persistent rumours reached them at times of rescue parties landing and combing the beaches and their neighbourhood at night for Allied fugitives. Eventually they reached the coast, where they lurked under cover above the beach for some time, sallying forth at night to search for a boat in which they might attempt the voyage to the Egyptian coast. After several fruitless weeks spent in this fashion, they were taken one night by some Cretan villagers to a rendezvous with a Royal Naval party, which took them to a submarine lying off the coast in the darkness.
Another determined and successful bid to escape from the island was made by Signalman Fletcher,22 who was among those taken prisoner at Sfakia on 1 June. During his three weeks' stay in the prison camp near Galatas Fletcher, like his fellow prisoners, received no regular meals from his German captors, so one night, with a companion, Private Whitfield,23 he slipped through the wire and sheltered with some civilian friends at Galatas. Some time later they left Galatas and took refuge in a cave near the village of Milonyinah, where they lived on tomatoes, potatoes, and onions given them by the villagers. While they were here, Signalman Black,24 who had joined them, began to suffer from festered sores on his legs. Fletcher and Whitfield took Black back to the prison camp where, however, he received no attention from the Germans, page 167 so might just as well have remained at large. Conditions in the camp were now a little better than when Fletcher had first escaped, but deteriorated again in November. Two months later the prisoners were transferred to a compound at Suda Bay, where conditions were much worse than they had ever been at Galatas. One night Fletcher and Whitfield, together with Driver Fitzsimmons,25 cut their way through the wire and succeeded in reaching a village called Kondopolis in the hills, where they were fed by the villagers, although not with the same ease as at Milonyinah, as the place was swarming with Germans. They moved on after a time, living for several months on snails, grass and sparrows, and gradually made their way towards the coast, where eventually they were able to steal a small boat in which they set out to sail to Egypt. The small craft was picked up by a patrol boat off Bardia, and the three men were taken back to Maadi Camp in British transport.
5 Lt-Col R. B. Dawson, DSO, m.i.d.; Lower Hutt, born Rotorua, 21 Jul 1916; Regular soldier; BM 5 Bde May-Sep 1941, Jan-Jun 1942; BM 6 Bde 1942-43; Senior Tactics Instructor, Royal Military College, Duntroon, 1943-46; CO 3 Bn, 2 NZEF, Japan 1947-48; Director of Staff Duties, Army HQ, 1949-52.
13 Maj-Gen W. G. Gentry, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; commanded 6 Bde Sep 1942-Apr 1943; DCGS (in NZ) 1943-44; commanded NZ Troops in Egypt, 6 NZ Div, and NZ Maadi Camp, Aug 1944-Feb 1945; commanded 9 Bde (Italy) 1945; DCGS 1946-47; AG 1949-52; CGS 1 Apr 1952-.
24 Sigmn T. G. Black; Gore; born Pareora, 1 Mar 1915; exchange clerk; p.w. 1 Jun 1941; escaped 6 Jun 1941; recaptured Dec 1941.