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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Developments in the Battle

Developments in the Battle

The days that were vital in the battle for Crete were 21 and 22 May. On 20 May the enemy had met with far more opposition and far less success than he expected. The next day there was a renewed air attack, and following that up at night was an attempted landing from the sea, when a force of some 1200 troops with heavy equipment got within 18 miles of Canea in small steamers and caiques before it was dispersed by the Royal Navy, with heavy losses. In the early morning of 22 May a second attempted seaborne landing was broken up, not without some loss to the Navy, whose ships were bombed by the Luftwaffe. (In a space of thirty-six hours the Navy lost two cruisers and four destroyers and had two battleships and two cruisers damaged.)

It was on 22 May that one of the bitterest battles was fought. The fate of Maleme – indeed, the fate of Crete – was in the page 177 balance. A counter-attack was launched by the New Zealanders in the early morning to recover ground lost the previous day when they were forced off Maleme airfield. At dawn, when success seemed almost within their grasp, the enemy's distress signals brought fighters and bombers to unleash a blitz which made the hard-won ground untenable. Regardless of casualties, the Germans poured in reinforcements by troop-carrier aircraft. Fifth Brigade was in danger of being cut off and started to withdraw towards Canea early in the morning of 23 May. By ten o'clock that morning a line was established along the Platanias River. At night it was found necessary to withdraw further – this time right through 4 Brigade's positions to the divisional reserve area just west of Canea. Maleme airfield had been lost with the first withdrawal, and the second withdrawal enabled the enemy to effect a junction between two hitherto separated forces – the force landed in the Maleme area and that landed in the Alikianou reservoir-prison area to the south-west of Galatas. In the other sectors at Heraklion and Retimo the enemy had paid a heavy price for small successes and was now precariously held. The balance of the battle had now turned in the enemy's favour.