4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 4 — Crete
Here we sit on the Isle of Crete
Spelling up our blistered feet.
Little wonder we've the blues
With feet encased in great canoes.
Khaki shorts instead of slacks,
Living like a tribe of blacks
Except that blacks don't sit and brood
They get about and search for food.
‘Twas just a month ago, no more
We sailed to Greece to win the war.
We marched about beneath a load
While bombers chased us off the road.
They bombed us here, they straffed us there,
The bastards they were everywhere.
And as they dropped their loads of death
We cursed the absent RAF.
One day we heard the radio news
And Winston Churchill gave his views.
‘The RAF,’ he said, ‘in Greece
Are fighting hard to bring us peace.’
I scratched my head at that and said,
‘That smells a lot like something dead,
For if in Greece the Air Force be
Then where the flamin' hell are we?’
At last we met up with the Hun
At odds of just on five to one.
And when the going got rather hot
We ran, then had another shot.
The bullets flew, the big guns roared,
We yelled for ships to get aboard.
At length they came, aboard we got
And hurried from that cursed spot.
page 77 And then they landed us on Crete
And marched us off our weary feet.
The food was scarce, the water crook:
I got fed up and slung my hook.
Returned that night filled up with wine
And next day stopped a ten bob fine.
My pay book was behind to hell.
When pay day came I said ‘Oh well
‘They'll not pay me, I'm sure of that.’
But when they did I smelt a rat.
But next day when the rations came
I woke up to their wily game.
For sooner than lie down and die
I spent my pay on food supply.
So now it looks like even bettin'
A man will soon become a Cretan
And spend his days in deepest gloom
On Adolf Hitler's Isle of Doom.
LANDING at Suda Bay, towards the western end of Crete's northern coastline, men from Greece were directed to a large transit camp near the town of Canea. A warm welcome from the friendly Cretans helped them on their way. In the transit camp they were sorted out into their units. ‘There were many surprises,’ wrote one driver. ‘Lots of us were enthusiastically welcomed back, because many stories had been going round about us being seen dead or wounded.’ Drivers Sellars and Shaw,1 from the Hellas, turned up wearing boiler suits and sandshoes and, unable to get a change of clothing, remained dressed that way. George2 and Arthur Lambert3 reached Crete in an old caique. The trip from Greece had taken a week. The two landed in poor shape. Prudent Arthur ate sparingly, and urged his brother to do the same, but George, enjoying his page 78 food so much, suffered the upsets of the starved man and, taken to hospital, was evacuated to Egypt. Diet-conscious Arthur stayed in Crete, and continued to eat sparingly for four years in German prisoner-of-war camps.
Sorted roughly into shape, rested a little, marched to and fro without apparent purpose, and armed with what scanty equipment was available, NZASC and artillery men, loosely organised into a unit known as Oakes Force, moved up towards Galatas to take up positions as reserve infantrymen. Oakes Force was eventually called the Composite Battalion. The battalion, commanded by Major Lewis,4 was made up of gunners and RMT men, the latter 274 strong on invasion day. The RMT group within the Composite Battalion was commanded by Captain Veale,5 a gunner. The second-in-command was Captain Veitch, and among the other officers were these from the RMT: Lieutenant Coleman and Second-Lieutenants Hope Gibbons, Gilmore, and Pool. The sergeant-major was ‘Tommy’ Thomson. The Composite Battalion was given a ridge by the coast. The RMT riflemen, without bayonets, were lent ‘for a day or two’ seven picks and five shovels, already well worn. Overnight (to their surprise, for this was their first attempt) they managed to erect a formidable-looking double barbed-wire fence. ‘Changing our positions every day or two we saw quite a lot of the future battleground,’ said Driver Cumming. ‘Whether this was done to impress the people, or to outwit fifth columnists we never knew, though we were pardonably annoyed to think we'd settle down, only to be moved to the hills on parachute picket, or down to the beach on guard. But anyhow, after Greece the air raids at first seemed puny.’
Down the east coast of Greece, in the Dodecanese, and on several of the larger islands in the Aegean, the winged shapes of the German armada crouched ready, waiting, in the darkness. Under the olive trees and in the vineyards of Crete sleeping figures sprawled in peace. The dawn came quietly into Suda Bay, the sun rose in a calm and cloudless sky, and while men, page 79 yawning and stretching, reached for that first cigarette of the day, cooks busied themselves about breakfast warming up in well-blackened petrol tins.
Then came the sharp-nosed fighters, scouring the shelter of tree and hollow, swooping as hawks do upon signs of movement. Bombers appeared, to blast the earth, and next, in awful dry-lipped silence, came the gliders. Louder and louder beat a roar from the north as troop-carriers in scores—it seemed without end—brought the invaders to Crete. Out spilled parachutists by the hundred to a sweeping crackle of rifle fire below, and breakfast was off—well and truly—for many a soldier on 20 May.
Down to the hostile Galatas and the Prison Valley, firing as they came, drifted the German 3 Parachute Regiment and attached units, 3300 men,6 some meeting death in the air, more killed on landing, a few entangled and slain in the trees. Most of them fell inland, thickly about the prison, scattering widely over a rough line south-west from Karatsos to Alikianou —about four miles.
‘Figures could be seen dropping out of the side door and then a flutter of white as the parachute opened out just behind the tail of the plane,’ wrote Driver Farley.7 ‘To watch them was like watching white handkerchiefs being let go out of a carriage window.’
‘Just like the darned duckshooting season,’ some men remarked, and an RMT man says: ‘I don't think we were scared stiff. Rather, we were interested and awed at that mass of stuff up in the sky. It seemed there wasn't room for one more plane. And for once we could look up into the sky. The straffing and bombing laid off for a bit while the big fat troop-carriers were coming in. In a way it was peaceful. For a while there was an end to the harsh, discordant screaming of dive-peckers' [dive-bombers'] syrens and bombs.’
The Composite Battalion by the sea had an easy introduction to a terrible battle, seen, heard, felt, and stamped on the page 80 page 81 mind in all its majesty and terror. Stray parachutists landed in Coleman's ‘company’, holding ground by the coast. B Section opened up with a will–action came as a relief after cowering into the earth–shooting seven in the air and sending the rest bolting in the direction of Galatas. Tom Alvis,8 among dismayed and hungry bystanders, saw a dead parachutist fall gracefully on to the breakfast tin and send the only hot meal of the day flying. ‘Who says now the only good German is a dead German?’ demanded Tom. Crying ‘Don't shoot! I'm wounded!’, an injured prisoner fell into the hands of Ian Appleton and Arthur Pope and was taken to Canea. Among equipment captured were tommy guns and a machine gun. Over in A Section Driver Frayling, in fine form, trained his Bren gun on a lumbering Junkers three-motor troop-carrier. Flaming spectacularly, it smashed into the sea. Frayling shared a speedier target, an Me 109 which crashed on the beach, with Driver Bruning, of B Section. Most of the trouble came from fighter planes skimming and snarling over the trees and forcing the battalion to keep down in its holes, but after a time things quietened down over the RMT area.
Behind the lines to the east parachutists occupied the clearly marked tents of 7 British General Hospital. One German, landing on the cookhouse, was shot by the cook. An artillery officer from 4 Field Regiment, Second-Lieutenant Carson,9 in quieter days a double All Black (Rugby and cricket), with about twenty men from B Section, went across to lend a hand, arriving as the place was being cleared. They found plenty to do, cleaning up pockets of resistance round about so effectively that Colonel Kippenberger,10 impressed, kept this patrol page 82 as a special reserve,11 together with a similar party of gunners under Lieutenant MacLean.12 By dusk the patrol could claim a good share of the 55 prisoners bagged by the Composite Battalion, a fair enough finish to the first round. The invaders were not so happy. Most of the day's fighting had been outside the Composite Battalion. The 19th Battalion, for example, had killed more than a hundred Germans within a few hours of the landing, and assaults on Galatas had been beaten back towards the prison area, out of the RMT men's sight and reach.
One RMT man had been in the hospital when it was captured. He was Alf Creed,13 who had scabies. The hospital had been ‘straffed and bombed as if it was all the heads of the Allies,’ says Creed. ‘We were all herded out of the trenches by paratroopers and were marched to the roadway where we were made to sit down with our hands on our heads. When the Jerry had rounded us up he tried to ask questions, first in French, then in every language but English. One dag called out: “Ask in good down-under language Heine”, and was promptly knocked about by another German. I don't think he knew what was said but reacted to our laughter.’
After sitting down for about two hours in this uncomfortable position the captives were lined up in fours and marched off about half a mile to the 6 Field Ambulance lines. As they arrived Germans opened fire into surrounding trees, where someone had picked off one of their men. At this minute a doctor rose out of a slit trench. Whether the German was nervous or not Creed does not know, but he opened up with page 83 his tommy gun and killed the doctor.14 After a three-hour halt the march began again. Creed continues:
Just then a Bren carrier came down the road from Galatos and opened up on us. We scattered smartly, and with much abuse informed the driver and crew that we were New Zealanders, and prisoners. ‘Not for bloody long,’ came the reply, and off they went up to Galatos. After another hour we were marched off again up the hill towards Galatos. We had not gone far when firing broke out from our right and Jerry replied from behind us. We were between fire, so smartly dropped down on our stomachs. Jerry still tried to move us, and we must have looked a sight crawling on hands and knees. I do not know his name but a padre with us rose to his feet and said: ‘Boys, if we have to go out let these Jerries see we can go out as men. Let's walk.’ He was a leader, a man that gave confidence. We rose in a body and although we were still between fire we walked halfway up to Galatos and only one man was hurt. He had a bullet through a cheek of his behind.
Luckily a patrol from 19 Battalion (among others) despatched the German guards and released the party before dusk. Meanwhile the defenders had received some unexpected benefit from the air. Parachutes also had delivered hexagonal, coloured canisters (about six feet by two feet by two feet) containing mortars, automatic rifles, grenades, ammunition, radio sets, food, medical kit, and also wheels which were clipped together to aid dragging the heavy canisters into cover. Tom Speed15 and Arch Jeff, after raiding German canisters in no-man's-land, returned and distributed hundreds of English cigarettes and chocolate, probably some of the pickings from Greece. Tobacco had been particularly short in Crete, and a heavy smoker, tormented by shortages, swears he was by no means the only one with this very first thought as the parachutists descended: ‘Thank God! Tobacco!’
The German paratroop uniform was of greyish blue material. Trousers fitted into the tops of high boots, and in the bottoms of the trousers spare clothing was carried. ‘They drop out of the plane from about 100 feet,’ noted Bill Carson, ‘with the para- page 84 chute open. Our first prisoner had a pistol and three grenades in his hands when he landed. They climb out of these chutes like lightning. In their water bottles they carry very strong cold black coffee. They each had with them two days’ rations, which consisted of a poloney, wrapped bread which was remarkably fresh, dried fruit, and two cakes of milk-chocolate. They also had two cubes of “dope”, probably some sort of condensed vitamins, which bucked our chaps up no end when they tried it. Each German carried in his wallet two photographs of Hitler—one in Air Force uniform, coloured, and the other in Army uniform.'
German pilots returned to the attack next day, 21 May, bombing, machine-gunning and dropping supplies, and many a man, crouched, huddled or prostrate, perfectly still with face and hands pressed to the ground, swore to quit rabbit shooting in civilian life. Machine-gunning aside, the Composite Battalion had a fairly quiet morning. Carson's patrol spent a profitable time mopping up stray parachutists and returning with arms and ammunition. One prize was a mortar, but as bad luck would have it no ammunition to fit could be found. The patrol stalked and killed two snipers–one of them a troublesome fellow who, despite a broken leg, accurately covered a well from a tree—and during the night moved out to set up and run a listening post overlooking the prison, but without incident. As the day grew older further supplies from the air increased the enemy's fire power; mortars were especially active, and the Composite Battalion sorely missed good cover in its poorly prepared defences. These had been made by British troops previously in the area. The slit trench was not in universal use at that time; these British trenches, deep, long, and straight, had more in common with those of 1914–18, and the soil thrown up in front made them most conspicuous from the air and from the ground. Lack of shovels and inexperience further handicapped the men. This, and waiting for attack, gave gunners and drivers in the role of infantrymen an anxious time; yet spirits in general were not depressed, and Captain Veale remained optimistic and active. The main action of the day, again away from the coastal area, cleared Germans from Cemetery Hill, just south-east of Galatas. Two RMT page 85 men met their death this day. A group of drivers under the command of a gunner officer, Lieutenant Nathan,16 was stationed by a little white stone church on the inland flank. Here Sergeant Nicholls,17 using his Bren gun up in a tree, escaped close attention, but Driver Milne,18 operating a Bren gun nearby in a circular pit, opened up at one plane, which returned in a flash and shot up the gunpit, killing the driver. Driver Robinson19 is believed to have been shot by a patrol of three in Greek uniform. They passed the time of day with him and then turned and fired at him from behind.
In the night the fleet broke up an invasion by sea. Flashes of gunfire and searchlights lit up the sea for miles. The RMT had a grandstand view of the Royal Navy at work in the distance. Destroyers, picking targets by the British-invented radar, rammed troop-carrying caiques and schooners; concentrated gunfire sent larger ships to the bottom. Experts, including Viscount Cunningham in his book A Sailor's Odyssey, estimated that the flotilla was carrying about 4000 troops. The actual number of dead, the German official records reveal, was 324.
Returning from a conference at 10 Brigade Headquarters early on the morning of 22 May, Captain Veale passed on the news that the Germans were thought to be evacuating Crete,20 and that the Composite Brigade21 was to attack in the Galatas area. The Composite Battalion's job was to clear the heights in front and also the village of Stalos. Patrols of RMT men (including a party of 30 led by Nathan) joined in the push westward towards Ay Marina on the coast and south-west towards the hamlet of Stalos.22 Three patrols sent by Veale page 86 moved in an arc as far as Stalos; one under Captain Veitch broke up a pocket of Germans in a clump of farm buildings known as Ay Ioannis, capturing half a dozen Germans, including an officer.
Carson's patrol had a characteristically livelier time. Starting from 10 Brigade Headquarters, which had established itself on the morning of the attack beside Composite Battalion's headquarters, the party moved south towards Aghya reservoir, but strong opposition stopped it from reaching the reservoir, where the enemy, wasting no time, had seized donkeys and mules to cart ammunition. On the way back (a bullet furrowing remarkably Driver Brown's23 helmet) the patrol met up with the Divisional Petrol Company and joined in resistance against another and more successful attack from the prison area. Driver Pope recalls a German officer shouting ‘Here comes the 22nd!’ and other misleading cries.
Then, according to Pope, ‘with a terrific clamour’ came one of the most remarkable charges in the campaign. ‘Out of the trees came Capt (Michael) Forrester of the Buffs, clad in shorts, a long yellow army jersey reaching down almost to the bottom of the shorts, brass polished and gleaming, web belt in place and waving his revolver in his right hand. He was tall, thin-faced, fair-haired, with no tin hat–the very opposite of a soldier hero; as if he had just stepped on to the parade ground. He looked like … a Wodehouse character. It was a most inspiring sight. Forrester was at the head of a crowd of disorderly Greeks, including women; one Greek had a shot gun with a serrated-edge bread knife tied on like a bayonet, others had ancient weapons—all sorts. Without hesitation this uncouth group, with Forrester right out in front, went over the top of a parapet and headlong at the crest of the hill. The enemy fled.’
Quite a number of armed Cretan civilians were operating in this area. A party of three armed civilians was brought before platoon commander Corporal Stan Shaw for interrogation. The different languages made questioning a difficult business, almost a farce. The civilians and the RMT men seemed to be getting nowhere. Suddenly a great grin spread over the face of the page 87 leader, and to ‘prove’ his absolute loyalty, the Cretan plunged a hand into a pocket and proudly produced a couple of ears with the statement ‘Germanos’.
At dawn on 23 May the hills before the Composite Battalion showed signs of enemy infiltration. About sixty Germans [150, from German documents] were reported at 7.30 a.m. to be moving from the hills towards Ay Marina. Coleman had moved his ‘company’ forward about 600 yards the day before and had stayed there during a quiet night. Two groups, one under Captain Nolan,24 went forward from Red Hill to snipe and to observe. Coleman led forward a patrol of 15 men, soon meeting heavy fire from an obviously formidable enemy group. The patrol was heavily engaged for the next hour, during which time it inflicted casualties and knocked out two machine guns with only one casualty, Driver Glanville,25 who was fatally wounded. Supporting Coleman's right flank was a platoon led by Corporal Shaw. This platoon had one man wounded, Driver Jeff. About this time, it is thought, Driver Maudsley26 lost his life. These units kept the enemy under fire until B Company of 18 Battalion arrived on the scene. No. II Platoon of that company, moving up with fixed bayonets through the RMT and asking, ‘Where are these bastards?’, staged a brilliant attack, clearing practically all of the village of Stalos and pushing the enemy back. As the result of an apparent misunderstanding, the company commander then ordered the platoon back, and B Company withdrew to the RMT group's right flank, leaving it to hold the position. By noon a line of sorts facing south and covering Stalos had been made to check enemy units trying to reach the road behind 5 Brigade.
For the time being the position at Galatas was under firm control. At Maleme, however, the enemy had been building up his strength rapidly since 21 May when he won the airfield. By 23 May it was decided to withdraw 5 Brigade behind the Galatas front, thereby leaving the way open for powerful page 88 enemy reinforcements to link up with the battered remnants of 3 Parachute Regiment in the prison area. Heavy pressure would soon develop on the Galatas line, and the commander of the forward troops, Colonel Kippenberger, decided to replace the Composite Battalion, whose makeshift organisation might not stand the strain of heavy battle, by 18 Battalion, which had been in reserve. The Composite Battalion had already undergone changes in the course of the battle, and the Divisional Petrol Company and some of the gunners had been placed under Divisional Cavalry command in what was known as Russell Force.
The Composite Battalion did not move back far, however, for its next positions on Ruin Ridge were only just behind the front line. The change took place on the night of 23–24 May, at the same time as the weary battalions of 5 Brigade moved back along the coastal road and settled between Galatas and Canea. Some of the RMT found the move from Stalos to Ruin Ridge difficult and trying. On the way back, stumbling over rough country in the dark, they received conflicting orders. Some drivers reached Galatas and had to trudge back. Dawn found them dead-tired and hungry, with nothing to dig in with, on comparatively open country exposed to heavy machine-gun and mortar fire probing behind the front line on to Ruin Ridge. The assault from the air did not slacken. C Company 18 Battalion, locked in a series of engagements in the evening when Red Hill exchanged hands, finished up 300 yards back on Signal (or Murray) Hill, bringing the front that much closer to the RMT men on Ruin Ridge. Captain Veale expected a company of Australians to turn up, but none arrived; the relief had been cancelled.
What did appear, no matter how briefly, were six memorable Blenheim bombers, passing over Galatas area on the way to bomb Maleme airfield. ‘It was wonderful,’ writes Driver Wan. ‘Where I was everyone cheered wholeheartedly, and wherever British troops were they must have done the same, because we could hear the cheers of others echoing through the hills and valleys.’
This day Arthur Pope was crouched in a gutter, streams of bullets passing overhead, when Colonel Kippenberger came up page 89 the road. Pope writes: ‘ “Pretty unhealthy about here sir,” from me, somewhat facetiously. “It is,” he responded, indicating some very dead Jerries. “They should have been buried long ago.” ’
On 25 May the Germans were ready and the assault began. Ruin Hill (inland from Ruin Ridge), previously occupied by the Divisional Supply Company, had not been taken over by 18 Battalion, and from this dominating position the enemy poured heavy fire into the RMT lines. Mortars, firing steadily, were joined by field pieces, thought (wrongly) to be Bofors guns captured at Maleme. Fighters frequently strafed the area. By about two o'clock a mounting attack crunched into the right flank of 18 Battalion, one company reporting Germans advancing in solid masses, heedless of cover, undeterred by concentrated fire. Veale's runner returned from Brigade Headquarters with orders to hold on, and the RMT did, although under fire from three sides, including their rear. Infantrymen brought news of the enemy breakthrough, and many passing through the RMT lines showed the effects of a severe mauling. Major Veale saw ‘a most pitiful chap crawling around on all fours. He wouldn't move unless on hands and knees. He could talk, but his nerve had completely gone.’
With no fresh instructions, Veale sent Driver Major27 to Battalion Headquarters. Major returned saying all that remained was a batman picking up the last pair of socks. The batman said the enemy had broken through the Divisional Supply lines, and headquarters ‘went that way; you'd better come too.’ Major Veale decided to fall back to the next well-known landmark, Galatas turnoff, less than two miles away, where his men could form up again for any future tasks. It was only too clear now that advanced German units had passed RMT's left flank, coming down across Red and Signal hills to cut off the RMT except for a narrow strip by the coast. With the unit facing encirclement and capture, Sergeant-Major Thomson28 and Driver Johnny Quinlan29 left Major Veale and page 90 hastened off along the fireswept Ruin Ridge with orders to fall back via the coast to the turnoff. Stumbling and crawling through the gnarled grape-vines and somehow avoiding being hit, Thomson distinctly remembers hearing derisive cries of ‘Not bad for the dirty Hun, is it?’ and ‘Where's your Siegfried Line now?’ Orders to withdraw were passed on to the RMT in their scattered positions along Ruin Ridge, and the retreat began, one platoon of 20 Battalion showing drivers how to fight a rearguard action. As the withdrawal began, Driver Lundon30 was killed instantly. Second-Lieutenant Hope Gibbons sent his men back to the turnoff and went forward to collect some battalion maps which had been left behind. Determined that these maps would not fall into enemy hands, Hope Gibbons and his runner, Driver Cooke,31 went off to their deaths. Another RMT officer, Second-Lieutenant Gilmore, apparently lost his life between the withdrawal and the arrival at the Galatas turnoff. No reliable news was heard of him again.
At Galatas turnoff Veale met the Brigade Major, Brian Bassett,32 who told him to withdraw to the transit camp. The companies of 20 Battalion had taken over from the retiring 18 Battalion and, with a few sections of the Composite Battalion (now, by good fortune, back from Ruin Ridge) formed a rough line from Galatas to the sea as the first wave of Germans reached the village before dusk. East of Galatas 18 Battalion and some others from the Composite Battalion were being directed to an area on Church Hill.
The withdrawal to the turnoff was attended by confusion and touches of panic. ‘In another five minutes,’ wrote an RMT man, ‘hundreds of New Zealanders were running hell for leather through the grapevines, so I off too, and never ran so hard in my life before, the bullets were buzzing overhead, but I soon ran out of wind, and being tired out I said “To hell with them”.’ Another RMT man felt this way: ‘The air was alive with bullets. You can hear a bullet whine overhead but these were much closer than that. They sounded for page 91 all the world like bees buzzing around your ears. You could actually feel the disturbance of the air on your eardrums. I will never forget that particular time. I had regained my nerve and made up my mind that the Jerries would not make me run. I kept saying to myself: “I wonder if I will get hit. I wonder if I will get out of it alive.” It is very clear in my mind, perhaps I was praying.’ Some New Zealanders, tried beyond endurance, had lost their nerve, believing they were pursued by endless, invincible hordes, and made their way back regardless of orders. Many, however, halted when told and later stragglers willingly joined the attackers, about two hundred strong, forming up to clear Galatas village.
The gallant Carson patrol had been broken up after its last united stand that day among bomb, smoke, and ruin with the Divisional Petrol Company around Pink Hill. The popular Tom Speed (who declared he hated Crete's fleas more than the German mortars) met his death here, but he was avenged by Arthur Pope, who bayoneted his killer. Now, as if drawn by a magnet, the fighting remnants in two isolated groups, each of about half a dozen men, came in at the death to join in the desperate counter-attack now being launched against Galatas. Led by two old tanks commanded by Captain Roy Farran, of 3 Hussars, two companies of 23 Battalion swept down from the north-east, and parties from 20 and 18 Battalions under Lieutenant-Colonel Gray33 came in from Church Hill. Bayonets glinting, and with the instinctive cries and yells of the killing man, the attackers lunged into darkened back streets and alleys, their pent-up hatred against the six-day hell from the air bursting in the pandemonium of falling flares, the roar of mortars, and the chattering spandaus. Vengeance thrust hard behind bayonet and grenade—aha, no diving Stuka screamed that way—and within twenty minutes the village was cleared.
During the night the New Zealand Division withdrew to a shorter line running south from the hospital. Fighting strength had now seriously dropped and the units of 10 Brigade were absorbed into 4 and 5 Brigades. The scattered detachments of page 92 the Composite Battalion made their way back to the transit camp area, and by early next day had formed up there in reasonable shape alongside 18 Battalion.
But what had been intended as an area of rest proved in the course of the morning to be nothing of the sort. It was only just to the rear of the Australian front line and soon came under fire. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray, therefore, on orders from Divisional Headquarters, led his unit back to an area south of Canea and told Major Lewis to follow.
To the RMT men this was a case of leaving the frying pan for the flames. This was the day in particular when the wrath of the Luftwaffe rose to full fury; fighters and bombers struck again and again, circling, swooping, zooming, singling out and hunting remorselessly even solitary men. The march degenerated into a series of quick dashes between raids. In this fashion most of the RMT arrived in the Suda Bay area, where strafing brought more casualties. Among remnants making their way over to Suda Bay were some Carson patrol men. Two Dorniers swooped. Jack Kenning,34 mortally wounded, gave Lew Lynn35 his Bible and two or three other little treasures to send to his mother.36 Simultaneously, Drivers Reed37 and George O'Halloran38 were wounded by explosive bullets. Sergeant Parker39 and Corporal Cam Sawers, taking cover in a flax bush, became walking wounded cases when an Me109 fired a burst into the bush. Driver Des Sawers,40 helping his wounded brother, was himself fatally wounded when the party attempted to shelter from Stukas in a wood. About this time an aircraft dropped roughly printed pamphlets which warned soldiers and civilians page 93 against mutilating the German dead, otherwise nearby villages would be burned to the ground. Such mutilations had taken place, for the collecting of ears and noses seemed to be an old Cretan custom.
The end drew near at Suda Bay. Urgent messages arrived before noon on 27 May saying that the enemy was almost in Suda Bay and men were to move back to the region of Sfakia on the opposite side of the island. Moving in a body in daylight over open country would have been fatal. Parties broke up into small groups. It was virtually each man for himself. A large number of RMT men assembled south of Suda Bay under Sergeant-Major Thomson and during the night moved out in good order towards Sfakia.
To Sfakia was about 40 miles, but it seemed twice as far to the weary, dispirited men trudging along crowded mountainous roads by night and hiding by day, short of water, food and tobacco, and fearful of showing any sort of light in the darkness. ‘I know,’ said Driver Christoffersen, ‘that at times I didn't care whether I went on or not. We even cut our battle-dress trousers off at the knees and made shorts of them, as it was so very hot.’ Toiling away with the walking wounded was Bill Tanner, cut and dazed from bomb blast. He'd lost the pet tortoise he'd carried in his overcoat pocket from the Desert and all through Greece. He would just whistle or call softly, and the tortoise would poke its head out of his pocket. In Greece a bullet had chipped the tortoise's shell. Bill kept wondering how his tortoise would get on now, in Crete, and at times he found himself absent-mindedly whistling or calling softly.
Cam Sawers, wounded in the right thigh, went with the walking wounded and carried a crude red cross flag (made from a piece of tent) which German airmen respected. Cam took this flag to Alexandria, and its last use was as a sling for a severely wounded Maori on the Helwan-bound hospital train.
The retreating men passed through Stilos, where one of the rearguard actions was fought, struggled up across the White Mountains, fought for water at a well in the pleasant plain of Askifou (there were no creeks in this part of Crete), rallied for the last climb over the remaining heights, and at last, page 94 exhausted, stumbled down into a ravine not far from Sfakia.
Wait, hope, hide, and wonder.
On the night of 30–31 May the tramp of men going off in the destroyers Nizam and Napier died in the darkness. Lieutenant Coleman, with a few RMT men, was in HMAS Nizam; Lieutenant Nathan and a small RMT party were aboard the far from overcrowded HMS Napier. From above the beach they had heard some Navy man calling faintly: ‘Don't you b—–s want to come?’ Ironically enough, further back the message was passing from group to group: ‘No more tonight…. No more tonight.’ Well, maybe tomorrow night then. Maybe….
On the night of 31 May-I June the last men left in the cruiser Phoebe, the destroyers Jackal, Kimberley and Hotspur, and the minelayer Abdiel. The last landing craft left the beach at 2.45 a.m., its wake growing fainter and fainter. Then there was nothing.
What now, some 5000 soldiers wondered?
Priority at the beaches had been given to regular infantry units on the natural assumption that they had done most of the fighting. For those among the gunners and drivers who had taken their share of the Galatas battle this was perhaps unfair. On the afternoon of 31 May Veale, an artillery officer in charge of a strange unit, called a conference of his RMT men, about a hundred of them. Two things could be done: either the men could make an illegal trip to the beach that night and try to gatecrash a boat, or they could wait their turn, staying put until officially told to move. Veale said: ‘If you do go down to the beaches tonight, other fighting troops will miss out. Make up your own minds. If you decide to go, I'll help all I can. If you stay, I'll stay.’ The RMT decided to wait another night.
In the morning the German came into the valley. There was no choice now. Overhead fighters began circling like blowflies about carrion. Rumours of surrender spread and were confirmed by orders left behind by the senior officer, Major- page 95 General E. C. Weston, of the Royal Marines, who had been flown out by Sunderland to Egypt. Orders to show anything white were ignored by the RMT party of a hundred which watched in dour silence a blond Bavarian hastily stumbling down the rocks, towing a huge swastika flag to call off the dive-bombers.
Drivers elsewhere saw different scenes. ‘Snowy’ Rolfe,43 who with some Australians at Sfakia had shot an old stallion donkey and carved him up with a penknife, watched Alpine troops descending from the hills. Rolfe saw the enemy suddenly spot a dejected bunch of Chinese coolies (from some torpedoed ship). Astounded, he heard the Germans cry out delightedly ‘Ching-Chong-Chinaman!’ Driver Cumming, ordered out of his gully by armed Germans, saw this: ‘It was funny even then to watch some chaps raise their arms above their heads while others raised them, then lowered them, hesitant about being shot or looking silly. However the Jerries were also glad it was all over, and patting us on the back made signs we could drop our arms. We were a motley looking crew then.’
Somewhere a man began playing ‘Hi Yi Yippi Yippi Yi’ on his accordion, and one by one voices still uncertain, still dazed, still disbelieving, joined in the chorus:
She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes,
She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes,
She'll be comin' round the mountain,
She'll be comin' round the mountain,
She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes….
10 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; I NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939-Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde (Crete) May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942–Jun 1943, Nov 1943–Feb 1944; 2 NZ Div 30 Apr-14 May 1943, 9 Feb–2 Mar 1944; 2 NZEF Prisoner of War Reception Group in UK 1944–45; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief NZ War Histories.
11 Carson's patrol (or Carson's Rangers, as others knew them) included Sgt W. Ritchie, Cpls D. R. Geenty, G. S. Essen, Dvrs T. A. Speed, A. D. Ayr, C. H. Anslow, S. C. Scott, A. Pope, D. Sutherland, C. Flett, Bert Barrington, Tom Wan, Alan Carson, Eddie Jaspers, E. R. (‘Nugget’) Parnell, H. A. R. (‘Farmer’) Brown, J. W. Kenning, F. T. Ramage, R. H. Mitchell, J. P. Liddle, and L. M. Lynn. Sometimes only a few accompanied Carson; on some jobs the whole lot went out. In a subsequent report Carson highly commended Dvr Speed (‘at all times an example to the others … my highest commendations’), Sgt Ritchie (‘outstanding courage and a model for the patrol’), Cpls Geenty and Essen (‘at all times showed great coolness and courage’), Dvrs Ayr, Anslow and Scott (‘outstanding work under all conditions, by their actions an inspiration to the other men’).
22 Lt Pool, after falling down a bank and injuring his back, was evacuated.
28 ‘Tommy Thomson, a Wellington school-teacher with glasses, didn't smoke or drink,’ writes a driver. ‘He used to line us up and talk to us like a bunch of kids. We loved it. We knew he'd never give us anything he wouldn't do himself.’
41 Of the 274 RMT men in Crete, two officers and eleven other ranks were killed, 21 other ranks were wounded, one officer and 173 other ranks (of whom ten were wounded) were taken prisoner. Of these one officer and ten other ranks died or were killed while prisoners of war.
42 Back in Egypt, another verse was added to 4 RMT's old ‘Steamboat Bill’ song:
And now we're back in Egypt and we're often inclined
To think of all our mates who we have left behind.
We didn't want to leave them, but we had to you see,
Because the rearguard of the Army was the RMT.