CHAPTER 6 — Crete
IN a sense Greece was a prelude—or perhaps the battle around the outer walls before the withdrawal to the citadel, Crete. Here, in this inner keep, all men stood to their arms. Drivers without trucks, artillerymen without guns, cavalrymen without tanks fell in beside the infantrymen, and with rifle and bayonet prepared to face the enemy's airborne attack.
A small section of the Supply Column men who stayed on Crete continued supply work, but most of them joined the ranks of the fighting men, and in the final defence of Galatas made a stand that provides the highlight of this history.
With Greece in German hands, Crete became a shield for General Wavell as he dealt with the complexities of Middle East problems: a newcomer to the desert, Rommel had in a few days swallowed up most of Wavell's hard-won gains in Cyrenaica and now stood on the Egyptian frontier; there was a revolt in Iraq to be put down; and in Syria German infiltration made action imperative. A British division was to be sent to defend Crete and the disorganised Australians and New Zealanders taken back to Egypt, but the task of escorting large convoys was beyond the overworked British Navy, and the Anzacs stayed.
From 25 April until 1 May ships streamed back and forth between Crete and the evacuation beaches of Greece. As each wave of men came ashore on Crete it spread west and south-west, flowing along the narrow tracks between a jumble of hills and seeping away into the shady olive groves.
In the beginning it was a disorganised army, without guns or trucks and seriously lacking in other equipment. With the irrepressible spirit of a phœnix it pieced itself together, gathered in supplies as quickly as they could be brought from Egypt, gave every armed man a fighting role, and set about arranging yet another reception for the constantly following German forces.page 79
A dust-storm at the Supply Point at Qasaba
Sollum, December 1940
Lunch time in the Supply Column area in Katerini
The first organised group of Supply Column men came with the first arrivals on 25 April; the last organised group was that from Kea Island, which arrived on the 27th. Thereafter the stragglers came drifting in in all manner of craft.
The ships of the first wave moved into Suda Bay on the afternoon of Anzac Day. The white walls of Suda clustered at the water's edge; rolling hills went back to snow-capped mountains. And in the foreground, intrusive and incongruous, bomb-scarred ships were discharging into a multitude of small craft shuttling back and forth between ship and shore. The stocking up of Crete was now a top-priority task, and everywhere there was movement, unceasing and urgent.
Landing craft took the men ashore. On the docks they threaded their way through a litter of military stores, wandered on along the palm-lined waterfront, where Bofors squatted in sand-bag nests, and tramped out along the white coast road to the west. At the end of a dusty march they found hot cocoa, chocolate, five cigarettes each and oranges waiting for them at a field kitchen in an olive grove several miles from the docks. From here they moved on to an overnight resting place under olive trees.
The next day the remnants of Supply Column formed up and to the skirl of pipes played by Driver Munro1 marched the 10 miles to Ay Marina, a small village almost midway between Canea and Maleme, where New Zealand Force Headquarters was set up. As they stepped smartly past a field hospital nurses came out to cheer and to ask whether they thought they had won the war.
A schoolhouse on a terrace facing the sea became Column Headquarters, and the men scattered among the groves, each group selecting and settling around a tree as though it were home. There was a technique to dossing down under an olive tree. Once a man had some security of tenure and knew that the effort was worth while, he would choose the biggest tree he could find so that its ample trunk would provide a windbreak, then hollow out a shallow trench, building up the sides with the excavated spoil. The bottom was then padded with green oats, wheat, tares, grass, or page 80 whatever was handy, and a groundsheet—if a man was lucky enough to have one—was spread over the top. Whatever bedding a man had was made up on top of this. This was a comfortable arrangement, and though the nights were chilly at first, spring warmth soon provided an ideal climate for alfresco living.
For all its pastoral beauty and apparent remoteness from the pursuing Germans, Crete was not entirely peaceful. Already there were disturbing stories of an attempted sea invasion, and on 29 April sounds of gunfire were heard out at sea. Aircraft were in the sky, and for a day or so at least they were friendly, but it was not long before the familiar hostile drone of enemy machines sent men for cover, and the anti-aircraft guns began to bark.
Crete for a while offered a respite, but no real security and very little chance to rest. There was work to do. Supply Column, of course, had the inevitable job of feeding the troops, and on 28 April—the day of arrival at Ay Marina—a DID was set up at the schoolhouse by No. 1 Echelon supply details.
Next day the remainder of the Column was organised into three groups of about 100 men each. They were:
Major Davis and Captain McIndoe operated the DID, and Captain Butterfield was requisitioning officer.
Thus reorganised, the Column began an unaccustomed life as an infantry unit.
The following day (30 April) Major-General Freyberg assumed command of the forces on Crete and the responsibility for the island's defence. He might have been excused misgivings. He had a curiously assorted army, much of it poorly equipped and untrained as infantry, and the territory he was to defend was a 160-mile-long island with its most easily defended coast facing away from the enemy. He formed four centres of resistance: Maleme, Suda-Canea, Retimo and Heraklion.
The New Zealanders, under the command of Brigadier Puttick,8 prepared defences in the Maleme and Suda-Canea sectors. Maleme, with its vital airfield, was given to 5 Brigade. Galatas, a pivot of the Suda-Canea defences, became eventually the responsibility of the heterogeneous 10 Brigade, which was formed partly from the unequipped ASC, artillery and Divisional Cavalry detachments and grew from what was first known as Oakes Force. Fourth Brigade, less 20 Battalion, and 1 Welch Regiment were west of Canea as a force reserve. The 20th Battalion was later incorporated into 10 Brigade, but as the divisional reserve it was not to be used without permission. Three Greek regiments, each of two untrained battalions, were also allotted places in the defence plan.
In the brief weeks before the German invasion there was much to do. Quite apart from the main task of preparing the island's defences, there was a vast amount of organisation to be performed, supplies to be obtained, and thousands of daily problems to be overcome.page 82
From the Middle East weapons, ammunition, food and equipment had to be brought. So urgent was the need for these and so inadequate the ports of Crete to handle the ships that the bare necessities of life for the men took second priority, and the thousands without so much as ground sheets, blankets and razors could not be immediately provided with these things from imports. To give each man at least one blanket, a general collection and redistribution was ordered.
Many men had saved their weapons and nothing else, but there were literally thousands without arms, equipment, essential clothing and other necessities, and many without even parent units to look after them. There were estimated to be 10,000 other ranks without arms, and according to an official report, ‘with little or no other employment other than getting into trouble with the civil population.’ All these were an encumbrance to the island's strained resources and were to be shipped away at the earliest opportunity. Most of the Supply Column men were included among those to be sent to Egypt; Captain Boyce's No. 2 Echelon group alone was earmarked from the start for a place in the defence forces. Of the rest of the unit, one group, the Headquarters group, was sent away. Captain Hook's No. 1 Echelon group remained in a state of suspense and in the end stayed to fight.
The Column was split within a few days of its conversion to infantry at the end of April. Boyce's group moved over to Galatas to join Oakes Force, one of the defence groups set up in the early days. Hook's group and Headquarters group awaited developments at Ay Marina, where of course the DID was operating.
About a week later—on 8 May—Headquarters and Hook's group were moved to a camp near Galatas. Nothing was known for sure, but there were rumours that Supply Column, Boyce's group excluded, was to be evacuated, and as if to confirm the story those at the Galatas camp began a march next day towards the port. While approaching Canea they were overhauled by a despatch rider and diverted to Camp A, behind Canea. Major Pryde and Sergeant-Major Pullen, however, embarked on this day at page 83 Suda as ship's staff on the vessel Rodi, a battered, former Italian vessel that had been captured at Tobruk.
The remainder of Headquarters and Hook's group settled down beneath the thick spread of the gnarled olive trees at Camp A. Life was leisurely and boring. Rations were short, but eggs, bread and oranges could be bought, often by barter with cigarettes. Enemy aircraft were not unduly troublesome, and the only duties were standing guard at the villa near the camp where King George II of Greece, Prince Paul, and their staffs were living.
When the Dutch ship Nieuw Zeeland, bringing among other things six I tanks and their crews and the Kiwi Concert Party—all most welcome—dropped anchor in Suda Bay on 14 May, there was again speculation among Supply Column men on their chances of being taken off. But space was limited, and when Headquarters and J Section had been allowed for, the situation resolved itself into an issue between Hook's group and Ammunition Company, an issue that was settled by a toss of the coin. The ASC padre, Father Henley,9 spun the coin. Eyes followed it through the air, and Hook called. As the coin fell to the ground someone in Ammunition Company said, ‘Now hook your frame out of it.’ Hook had lost.
Evacuation was always a possibility for Hook's group, but it never came. For the next week or so the men lounged about, dug a little, and uneasily watched the increasing activity of the air raiders. Some men helped unload ships.
King George and Prince Paul were visitors to the officers' mess during this period, and several times had cause to borrow a slit trench.
On the morning of the invasion Hook's group was still at the transit camp and still awaiting embarkation. It stayed to fight as part of a battalion under Captain Page, of the Royal Tank Corps. For its task it had, besides rifles, only two Bren guns, and a limited amount of ammunition.page 84
Boyce's group went through the pre-invasion lull in a different frame of mind. It had for the time being to forget its nostalgic longing for its trucks and for the perks that went with ASC work and go back to foot soldiering. ‘I felt like a cowboy without a horse,’ was how one man put it.
From the time it was peeled away from the rest of the Column, Boyce's group wandered from place to place, and was in five different positions before it finally established itself in what became 10 Brigade's defence line. When it left Ay Marina on 30 April it marched down the coast road to an area near Galatas to join Oakes Force, and the next day moved to Ruin Hill, a commanding feature west of Galatas that took its name from a ruined crofter's cottage on the crest. The group made its presence felt very promptly by seizing three warders from the nearby Aghya prison as suspected fifth columnists, but released them after questioning.
With a broad panorama of land and sea below them, the men settled here for a few days and adjusted themselves to Crete and the makeshift ways of their reorganised lines. Laden with pack, rifle and fifty rounds of ammunition, they could hardly be said to be reconciled to their earthbound existence, but they made the best of things. The cooks, in particular, adapted themselves to their primitive facilities—four-gallon petrol tins. They turned out breakfasts of tinned bacon and beans, and lunches of M and V, and sometimes boiled rice flavoured with dried fruit. With each meal was an issue of one and a half slices of bread a man, margarine and marmalade, golden syrup or cheese, and sometimes bully beef and salmon. To supplement this diet there were always oranges to be bought from the ubiquitous vendors, who throughout the Middle East had a habit of rising as though from the ground in the most unlikely places. On Crete they came with two brimming baskets slung across a donkey, or sometimes the vendor was just a boy carrying a single basket.
On 6 May the men loaded themselves up again and trudged down the prison road, past the massive, stone, white-painted prison that was soon to become a central feature in their lives, and down to where Russell Force was page 85 established near the Aghya Reservoir, at the foot of Observation Hill. Russell Force, created two days earlier, consisted of Divisional Cavalry and Petrol Company turned infantry. Its commander was Major Russell,10 of Divisional Cavalry.
Water was simmering over a fire and the men were settling in when an aircraft droned into view. Over went the pots and the fires hissed and spluttered, but the plane turned away with apparent disinterest.
The atmosphere here was pleasant if primitive. The men ate from tins, cooked their food with wood gathered from far and wide, and lived in bivouacs of grass. The main task was to keep lookout from a steeply rising spur just above the camp known as Observation Hill. Training included the siting and digging of section posts along the ridges, linking up with Divisional Cavalry to the west, and the preparation of range cards. From Divisional Cavalry they learned the rudiments of morse and semaphore.
Off duty there were diversions: a pool to swim in, wine to be bought and a few villages to visit, and there was even scope for misbehaviour. CB for the rebellious included climbing Observation Hill and reporting back as many times as possible in daylight, a form of punishment that at least helped to toughen up. On marches there were excellent beaches at Ay Marina where hot, dusty troops could cool off.
Food, which had to be packed across the fields from the road, usually around midnight, was in short supply, and the men contributed ten drachmae each to buy a sheep.
A mock battle staged by 19 Battalion for the benefit of Greek troops was the next disturbance. Boyce's group was on the ‘battleground’ and moved aside. After watching mortars plaster a hill, it moved back to its camp, but the next day—it was now about 13 May—shouldered belongings and moved back to Ruin Hill.
On the 12th a composite brigade, which later became 10 Brigade, had been formed from Oakes Force and 6 Greek page 86 Battalion. Colonel Kippenberger11 took command on 14 May, and next day Oakes Force became the Composite Battalion. Composite Battalion consisted of three groups, each of which caused some confusion by calling itself a battalion. They were: RMT group, consisting of 270 officers and men of this unit commanded by Captain Veale,12 of 4 Field Regiment, and with other artillery officers; 4 Field Regiment group, consisting of about 200 officers and men, mainly from this regiment, and commanded by Captain Bliss13; and a mixed group under Major Sprosen,14 of 5 Field Regiment, consisting of 250 men of Petrol Company under Captain McDonagh,15 about 140 of Supply Column under Captain Boyce, and about 150 officers and men of 5 Field Regiment directly under Major Sprosen.
The brigade consisted of this battalion, a Divisional Cavalry detachment, and 6 and 8 Greek Battalions.
Boyce's group itself was reorganised at this time. Radford became divisional ammunition officer, and the group—a company, really—reformed into three platoons under Lieutenants Rawle and Ward and Sergeant Earl.
Rumours and official and unofficial speculation of the probable invasion date were rife when Boyce's group was absorbed into these forces. There was an air of tension, and suspected fifth columnists, among them the warders from the gaol, were rounded up and imprisoned—the warders in their own lock-ups.page 87
Preparations were pushed ahead. All this time shipping had been running the gauntlet of prowling German planes, and under the rain of their bombs had been discharging at Suda. Ships were sunk en route and blown up in the harbour, and the supplies reaching Crete were a dribble. There was, fortunately, plenty of wire, plenty of light automatics, a fair number of mortars, six I tanks and sixteen light tanks, and even a few trucks had been brought ashore. Forty-six field guns, each with 300 rounds, reached Crete, but the New Zealanders had been busy forming an artillery force of their own with guns of various nationalities—3.7-inch British howitzers, French and Italian 75-millimetre pieces and a German 77-millimetre—and had been repairing them, devising sights and calibrating. Two items of which there was a desperate shortage were picks and shovels.
The general policy of Creforce was to seek arms and equipment rather than reinforcements, but before the German attack part of the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation arrived with coast and ack-ack guns, searchlights, and crews—a total of 2000-odd Royal Marines.
With this material and equipment the island's forces were formed.
Composite Battalion's positions were on a ridge running south from the sea just west of Galatas. Rising almost from sea level, the ridge ran inland in a series of rounded peaks to Ruin Hill. From there southwards the ground fell away into a valley of fields and groves. The Composite Battalion line followed this ridge inland to Ruin Hill, then with a bend like a hockey stick turned to the east to shield Galatas from the south.
Ruin Hill, a lozenge-shaped feature dotted with trees and crowned by a patch of wheat, was a key point. Northwards the men had a vista that took in Theodhoroi Island (seen over by Ay Marina), the Composite Battalion line (running from Ruin Hill itself, down over the hump of Red Hill to where the ridge tailed away into the sea), the white tents of 7 General Hospital, the village of Galatas, and beyond its off-white walls the town of Canea. To the south-west they could see across to a system of ridges which, piling up to a peak at Observation Hill, near where Divisional Cavalry was still page 88 in position, curtained Maleme and Galatas from each other. To the south they looked down on quilted olive groves, through which were traced cart tracks and ditches, and onto which was printed a clearing of fields, the white prison road and the prison itself. Behind all this were heaped the White Mountains, the backbone of the western half of the island. To the east and just south of Galatas was Pink Hill, and a little to the right of this and further away Cemetery Hill, where 19 Battalion and 6 Greek Battalion sheltered the other side of Galatas.
From its admirable grandstand Boyce's group saw everything that went on about it. Bombers, becoming ‘more prevalent’, as one man expressively puts it, could be seen hammering at the Suda Bay area and snapping back irritably at the anti-aircraft guns on the surrounding hills. RAF fighters from Maleme were seen to come out and, in spite of German fighter escorts, chase some of the invaders out of the sky. On 18 May one bomber of a flight attacking the port was seen to break away and, swinging over the clearly marked hospital area, let go a stick obviously aimed at a group of men bathing on a nearby beach. The first bomb burst billowed up among a row of bell tents at the northern edge of the hospital area, and from the hill men could be seen running about. Two NCOs were killed. The other three bombs of the stick fell in the sea, one near the bathers. Another incident seen from the hill was the machine-gunning of a small boat in the bay. Soon after another boat was seen to pull out from land and tow the craft in.
Orders to wire its area were received by Boyce's group on 17 May, and the next day dispositions of platoons were settled. As wiring was pushed ahead battle positions were assumed, ranging carried out, arcs of fire determined, LMGs sited, communications linked up and ammunition and water details dealt with. All the while a constant lookout was kept towards the sea.
There were three Bren guns—one to each platoon—but the group had as well a .55-inch Boys anti-tank rifle for which there were three rounds—one, it turned out, a dud.
The wiring plan, finished on 19 May, not a day too early, included a cunningly conceived ‘mat’ rigged by Lieutenant page 89 Ward in a vineyard to such effect that the invaders almost certainly believed it to be a heavily mined area; possibly it influenced their line of attack, which ignored the hill.
At evening on 19 May Boyce's group was ready in its defences. To the left (east) and slightly to the rear was the 5 Field Regiment group, and to the left of this again Petrol Company, these two forming the southern side of the Composite Battalion sector. To the right and north of Ruin Hill was another artillery ‘company’.
There was one other important Supply Column group on the island: the men who operated the DID and fed the Division. The Crete battle leaves in the mind a confused picture—like a hot mud pool bubbling and spurting steam at random—but through it ran a thread of organisation. It was a frail thread, not always equal to the strain, but along its slender length the army services continued to operate, improvising where necessary and taking the initiative where a break was found. The supply of rations was one of these services.
There was never enough food on Crete, but what there was had to be distributed somehow to the scattered New Zealand units. The prospect was not encouraging: the Column, as a supply unit, was whittled down to a skeleton; transport was negligible; and units were dispersed. The transport problem was solved by reversing the usual procedure: instead of units coming for their rations, the Column delivered to units, and these deliveries were to be maintained through almost continual strafing and bombing.
For the first few days the Division was supplied from an existing DID through a Supply Column officer, Lieutenant McIndoe. As the New Zealand forces grew the Column set up its own DID on 28 April in the disused schoolhouse at Ay Marina. Four Supply Column men, Sergeant Dunn16 and Drivers Brown,17 Fisher18 and Chinnery,19 were posted page 90 page 91 to the RASC depot at Canea. Although he was a sick man, Dunn kept his little section operating so that the DID was kept fully supplied with its requirements. Of these four, only Brown escaped from the island.
The ration scale was lower than usual, and was further reduced during the campaign on the orders of Force Headquarters. Requisitioned oranges and potatoes supplemented the diet.
The New Zealand DID had to divide its attention between the Maleme and Galatas areas and between the British and Greek ration strengths. In addition to supplying the Division, it fed 600 RAF personnel at Maleme, the 1300 Greeks of 8 Greek Regiment, which was down the prison road opposite the Divisional Cavalry, and 300 Greek officer cadets some miles past Maleme. Before the invasion a reserve of 80,000 rations and 5000 gallons of petrol, oils and lubricants (known to the Army as POL) were stocked up. To enable it to handle its divided area the Column dumped 20,000 of these rations and 500 gallons of POL south-east of Maleme.
To do its work the unit had at first only one 30-cwt truck on loan from 1 Welch Regiment. Later three three-tonners with Cypriot drivers were received, and eventually the fleet grew to five trucks. The Cypriots proved unsatisfactory—they drove poorly on the narrow roads and were unsteady under fire—and Supply Column drivers took over the vehicles.
The insecurity of the DID in no-man's-land between Maleme and Galatas was pointed out on 13 May by Brigadier Hargest,20 and it moved on the night of 18–19 May to an open position under olive groves on the prison road, two miles south-west of Canea, not far from where Hook's group was still patiently waiting. The move to this new location was begun at 8.30 p.m., and by midnight all rations and every tin of the POL was stowed away beneath olive trees. The only shelter here were slit trenches that had been dug by the Welch Regiment.page 92
Operating from here as it had done from the earlier position, the supply section despatched trucks singly, each with a driver and NCO, to unit meeting points. Carrying parties shouldered the rations to their positions.
On the evening of 19 May, therefore, Supply Column was in three parts: Boyce's No. 2 Echelon group on Ruin Hill at an angle in Composite Battalion's defences; Hook's No. 1 Echelon group at Camp A, waiting and wondering; and McIndoe's DID on the prison road; just off the Canea-Maleme road.
As industrious as ever, the enemy all this time had been preparing to put into effect his Mercury plan. The island defenders were expecting at the most 10,000 airborne troops and 20,000 seaborne troops. This, in fact, was what the enemy was planning to send. Shielded by 650 fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft of the German 8 Air Corps, II Air Corps was to bring in troops in 600 to 650 troop-carriers and seventy to eighty gliders. The Assault Regiment was to capture Maleme airfield. The 3rd Parachute Regiment was to capture Canea. Two battalions of 2 Parachute Regiment were to take Retimo and probe into Suda. The 1st Parachute Regiment, supported by a battalion of 2 Parachute Regiment, was to take Heraklion. To follow up by sea and air was 5 Mountain Division.
When the men on Crete went to bed on the night of 19 May this German force was stirring to life. In Greece, in the Dodecanese and on some of the larger islands of the Aegean there was movement of men and planes. The propellers began to spin and equipment-laden troops filed into their aircraft. The clock ticked past midnight, and the first troop-carriers roared, lifted cumbrously into the air, and swung away to the south.
Out of the clear Mediterranean sky around 6 a.m. on 20 May the first throbbing flights of bombers came down over Maleme for the usual session of ‘morning hate’. For about an hour they beat up a thunderous pall around the airfield, then droned off to the north. Quietness settled again. ‘An unnatural quietness—like the heavy, tense atmosphere that precedes an electric storm,’ wrote Rawle, page 93 who from Ruin Hill had heard the rumble of heavy bombing coming from both Maleme and Canea. ‘Even the birds were silent, as though they sensed the distant pulsating engines before the human ear could hear them.’
The men at Maleme had finished their breakfast in peace when the bombers came again and for ninety minutes pulverised the earth around the airfield. After each wave of bombers came the fighters, raking the ground through the rising dust. Then, as the blitz lifted, the tri-motored Junkers 52s spread across the sky and paratroops fluttered away behind them.
Galatas escaped the main weight of this air bombardment, and while those at Maleme were flattened to the earth, the troops at Galatas were already dealing with the first invading Germans. The first enemy troops bumped on to Cretan soil here about 8 a.m.
In the ominous lull after the first Maleme bomb the Supply Column men on Ruin Hill bolted their breakfast; they were hurrying to their battle stations about 7.20 a.m. as the drone of the first Galatas-bound aircraft came from the north. Skimming low over Theodhoroi Island, they came over at a cheeky altitude. Then down came the bombs and a curtain of machine-gun fire, erupting around Galatas, the ridges running down to the sea and between the prison and the lake or reservoir of Aghya.
On Ruin Hill the men had still not reached their trenches when the aircraft came over, and they flattened where they were. The strafing dragged through its clamorous course of howling engines, blasting bombs and tearing machine guns. Then about eight o'clock the situation changed abruptly.
‘By now the air was full of aircraft and the roar and din was deafening,’ writes Driver Farley.21 ‘Someone ventured to look up, and then exclaimed, “Hell, look at the size of these things.” I took a glance and saw planes bigger than anything I had ever seen before, and they were just crawling through the air like a hawk compared with a sparrow.’
They were not so large as they may have appeared, but to these crouching men their tapered wings seemed to span page 94 the sky. The men who had reached their positions saw more.
As the Germans' zero hour ticked by ‘we saw three gliders flatten out near the dam,’ writes Rawle. ‘A state of paralysis seized us. Our mouths went dry. Then a wedge of low-flying Junkers, trap doors open, came in over Theodhoroi Island, lazily droned inland and split up into groups of three.’
Spraying explosive bullets as they went, these machines banked in over the tree-covered plain and the hills behind Canea. Then the fighters and bombers drew off and the air barrage ceased. The slow, heavy machines were down to about 300 feet when the parachutists came plummeting out, their parachutes snapping taut and ballooning out. Rawle says, ‘We could see every detail: the swinging trap doors in the belly of the fuselage, the pilots craning to see their handiwork.’
Then the spell broke. Machine guns and rifles crackled on all sides and the bullets went zipping among the descending enemy. From one plane dropping in this area, only three men reached the ground unhurt, and those dropping nearer the British lines were mostly killed in the air or on the ground.
Parachutes could be seen sagging to earth around the prison, on the rising ground near Galatas, in the groves around Ruin Hill, in front of Petrol Company and on the heights south of the road across the valley. Around the prison men could be seen freeing themselves from their harness and arranging their parachutes as ground signals.
At 1200 yards these men were a tricky target, and the Bren guns of 1 and 2 Platoons, which were given the task of checking this activity, were indifferent in their aim. However, the spattering of bullets sent the prisoners running for cover, and they did not appear again until later in the day. An enemy mortar to the right of the prison also withdrew behind the shelter of the building.
The paratroopers continued to drift down from passing flights of Junkers. About 150 who landed near Galatas found themselves in 19 Battalion's area: they were quickly dealt with. Composite Battalion kept up fire from behind its defences but made no sorties. In their training the men of this unit had given an unfavourable impression and it page 95 was feared that in an attack they would be unable to hold together; their consequent disorganisation would have left a dangerous gap in the defences. Colonel Kippenberger pleaded unsuccessfully for either 19 or 20 Battalion to be brought under command to counter-attack.
On Ruin Hill Boyce's group had a purely defensive role too. It was to hold the hill and that part of the line behind the wire between the hill and Petrol Company's right flank. Supply Column men had to watch in maddening frustration while the enemy troops did as they wished around the prison—even to the extent of driving a British truck up and down the road between the prison and the dam as they concentrated their troops—and they were disappointed they could not patrol. But here again the decision against patrolling was based on what had been seen during training. ‘I am sorry I didn't give permission to use patrols, but anyone who saw the ASC patrols would understand why I did not,’ Colonel Kippenberger explains. ‘Under fire their common-sense asserted itself and they did patrols much better than in exercises, which they undertook unwillingly.’
Thus free to move about as they pleased, the invaders quickly gathered their forces and within an hour put in a thrust towards Galatas. The 6th Greek Battalion, straddling the prison road, had not distributed ammunition received the previous day, and when the Greeks' few rounds were expended they withdrew. The German drive came on Petrol Company. Weaving through the thickets and groves, the Germans approached to within 100 yards before they came into the open. The Petrol Company commander, Captain McDonagh, was fatally wounded and the second-in-command, Second-Lieutenant Jackson,22 seriously hit. Senior NCOs took over, and the line held. Some of Pink Hill, which had not been properly manned, was lost, however, and Galatas was threatened.
As the racket of the approaching battle clapped down around them, civilians on the outskirts of Galatas panicked, and their screams as they fled from their houses could be heard from Ruin Hill above the general din. Three Greek page 96 girls who found their way into Supply Column's lines took refuge in Lieutenant Ward's slit trench and huddled there until driven out by mortar fire next day.
Galatas, meanwhile, was threatened from the north also. Paratroopers had captured 7 British Hospital and drove some of the staff and patients along the road to Galatas. The 18th and 19th Battalions took a hand, rescued the prisoners, recaptured the hospital and wiped out the enemy.
About midday bullets came whizzing up from the groves towards Supply Column on Ruin Hill. The Headquarters runner, Driver Johnson,23 unwillingly provided a bright interlude when he was shot in the buttocks. As the others went to earth he was heard to cry, ‘My God, I'm hit in the bum,’ and there was a general howl of laughter. Corporal Ewing,24 of the RAP, responded to the distraught pleas of a Greek couple whose child had been badly injured in the aerial blitz; he went to their cottage and was not seen again.
Things began to warm up again on Ruin Hill about 2 p.m. when mortars, machine guns and aircraft swept the area in support of the attack against the Petrol Company positions. The Germans advanced some distance towards Petrol Company without encountering opposition, then abruptly met withering fire from rifles and machine guns. With 50 per cent casualties, half of whom were killed, the Germans fell back to the prison, now being used as a dressing station. Some detachments, however, still remained on Pink Hill.
Away to the south-west, near the dam, Divisional Cavalry was isolated and threatened by superior forces, a situation in which it had been ordered to withdraw. A patrol was sent out to tell it to come in, but Major Russell was already bringing his force in. The group took up a position at Galatas.page 97
As dusk approached all German thrusts had been repelled, but the situation was uneasy. A German prisoner said that more troops were arriving that night, and at 7 p.m. Colonel Kippenberger suggested to Divisional Headquarters that if no counter-attack could be mounted to clear the prison area, where it was suspected that a landing field was being prepared, 10 Brigade should withdraw after dark to a shorter line north and south, straddling the Maleme road.
The attack was ordered and assigned to 19 Battalion. It might have accomplished a great deal, but actually achieved nothing; it falls into the category of ‘might have beens’, which are fairly freely scattered throughout any battle, and of which Crete had its fair share. One company passed between Ruin and Wheat Hills, and the other company between the latter and Galatas; three light tanks of 3 Hussars were in support and one of them became noisily entangled with Supply Column's wire. There was a certain amount of vagueness about the whole affair. Composite Battalion men might have lent supporting fire, but knowing nothing about the counter-attack, could do nothing to help. The attackers themselves, with no clear idea of where their objective was, settled down for the night after going a few hundred yards. The operation was to have been resumed in the morning but was called off.
As the noise of this skirmish died away, Supply Column men not engaged in digging better positions with the few precious picks and shovels available tried unsuccessfully to sleep.
Hook's group, at Camp A, had put in a very useful day—a rather busier one, in fact, than Boyce's. Breakfast was sizzling over the fires when the air blitz started, and the men grasped their rifles. For a while they were spectators. They watched the first flights of Junkers come in lazily from the sea and spill out parachutists over Galatas. The multi-coloured parachutes drifted out of sight behind a ridge. Elsewhere things were happening; they could hear the battle of Crete crackling to life, but they had nothing to do but watch the north. At last, between 9 and 10 a.m., page 98 as a number of civilians and evacuated seamen were wandering through the positions, a flight of broad-winged Junkers flew over them and some parachutists came swinging down.
Bren and rifle muzzles went into the air and the bullets tearing upwards caught several Germans as they swung in their harness; the fabrics of some parachutes ripped to shreds and the men fell like stones. One whose parachute became entangled in an olive tree was quickly disposed of.
Those who reached the ground took refuge in heavy undergrowth close to Hook's group. Lieutenant McKenzie set about organising a defence line, linking up with Australian troops on the left and a New Zealand ordnance group on the right.
In the midst of all this a British captain, resplendent in brass buttons, sat under an olive tree, apparently taking notes on what was happening.
In front of 4 Platoon was a clearing about 100 yards broad, ending in a partly dry creek. Into this clearing parachuted a large, bright container. Second-Lieutenant Henshaw and Sergeant Jefcoate debated its contents; possibly it was a booby trap.
‘I asked Corporal Campbell25 to jack up a couple of shots into it to see if it would explode,’ says Jefcoate. Campbell was applying this test when a runner came forward from Hook with instructions to clean out a machine-gun post the enemy had established beyond the creek—about 300 yards away—opposite 4 Platoon and covering the container. Jefcoate says:
Henshaw immediately said to me, ‘Come on and bring the boys,’ and he dashed off ahead. Darcy Hatsell26 was on his right, I on his left and slightly behind, and Campbell, Jim Washer27 and Wickie Newman28 on my left. As Henshaw neared the container, which we had to pass, we met a burst of fire. Henshaw fell beside the container. Hatsell said, ‘I'm hit,’ and I felt a crack on my right ribs.page 99
Henshaw was dead and Hatsell wounded in the right lung. Jefcoate, who was carrying the spare ammunition in his haversack, told Hatsell to crawl back to the lines while he went on. Jefcoate dashed for the creek with bullets whipping up the dust around him. He flung himself into the creek bed—and landed in the platoon's latrine.
I joined Campbell, Washer and Newman in the bottom of the creek (Jefcoate's story continues). A redheaded Tommy sergeant came from somewhere. He had a few hand grenades and was trying to get close to a house near the creek in which some Jerries were sniping from a window. He went off on his own job, and we tried to find out just where our objective was hidden.
At this stage two Greek boys, civilians, armed with old Greek rifles with long octagonal bayonets attached, came along the creek and said to us, ‘We find 'em,’ and away they went too. The next thing we knew a grenade exploded near us. Several more arrived and exploded too close for comfort. I stood up to have a look in the direction from which they were coming. Campbell stood up also. The next thing I knew a grenade hit me in the stomach with an awful smack but did not explode until it was passing my right knee.
That put Jefcoate out of the running, but the other men went on and flushed a German nest from a grain field.
The English sergeant, meanwhile, was working in towards the house, visible also from D Section's positions under the olive trees. During this time the metal container was recovered and found to contain a Spandau machine gun and four boxes of ammunition, which Driver Drake29 brought into action as English troops closed in on the house. A grenade through a window finished the job, and shortly afterwards the English troops emerged escorting twenty-seven Germans and displaying a red and black swastika flag.
This ended the day's excitement for No. 1 Echelon. Unmolested for the rest of the afternoon, this group utilised the time digging in, arranging passwords and organising pickets. During the night there was only one disturbance. Hearing movement in the undergrowth, the sentry, Driver Taylor,30 called halt three times, and receiving no reply page 100 fired a few shots. The noise ceased, but it was an uneasy night. A search at first light revealed a dead donkey.
The DID on the prison road escaped attention from paratroops on this first day, though the men there saw them fall some distance away—too far away to deal with. Their open dump, however, was an invitation to aircraft, and fighters prowling around at tree-top level came down with machine-gun and cannon fire at the slightest sign of movement.
From the moment of the invasion the distribution of rations was immensely complicated. Fortunately many of the troops were too busy and too tense on the first day to give food even a thought; movement on the roads in daylight became impossible for ration trucks. That night the trucks growled cautiously along dark roads as drivers peered about for familiar landmarks—and for any sign of the ubiquitous enemy.
At the end of the day the enemy in the Galatas area was on the defensive; but at Maleme he had succeeded in getting a toehold on the vital airfield and by the next morning was in full possession of it.
Further east, at Retimo and Heraklion, German parachutists and glider-borne troops had come down as scheduled during the afternoon, but at neither place had serious threats developed, and when darkness came the situation, though uncomfortable, was in hand.
While, under cover of darkness, the defenders of Crete were swinging picks to improve positions, watching for signs of the enemy or just trying to sleep, more planes were droning down from the north. First came the brisk little Messerschmitts and the Dorniers, and behind them the Stukas. As the sun came up over the island the fighters and bombers went to work again with punctual enthusiasm.
At Maleme soon after 8 a.m. a Dornier that had been bombing the airfield perimeter swooped down and landed. Shellbursts blossomed around it, but the plane gathered way again and was quickly off the ground. From this the enemy learned that although he held the airfield it was still page 101 not his to use at will. Elsewhere—on the beaches and further inland—troop-transport machines crash-landed, and more paratroops came showering down. Not until late in the afternoon did the enemy attempt to use the airfield for a hazardous air ferry service. Like firewalkers, the Ju 52s skimmed down, discharged their troops, and took off again.
At Galatas the day began with the expectation of trouble. During the night a message had come from Force Headquarters that the German plan was to mass parachutists along the valley road and thrust through Galatas and the hospital and along the main road to Canea. Ammunition was to be dropped at midday at points to be indicated by the enemy with green smoke signals. In addition to this, other reports said that the Germans had landed on the coast by the hospital.
As it turned out the day was relatively quiet along most of the front—to begin with, patrols failed to locate the reported landing parties—but there was a spirited dispute over the possession of Cemetery Hill, which the Germans had occupied during the night. Apart from this the main activity consisted of exchanges of fire: mortar bombs and machine-gun and rifle bullets from the enemy, and artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire in return. This included fire from two Vickers established that morning on Wheat Hill, to the left rear of Captain Boyce's company, where 5 Field Regiment group was in position.
The Luftwaffe, of course, was everywhere, though Ruin Hill escaped attention for some time. During the morning it was allotted its share of mortar and machine-gun fire, and a platoon headquarters sited in a hole on the slope of the hill was demolished by a direct hit from a mortar bomb, fortunately while the platoon commander, Lieutenant Rawle, was away.
The scene of the main action of the day was Cemetery Hill. A company of 19 Battalion, with some help from two light tanks and supported by mortars, pushed the enemy off this feature soon after midday, capturing about fourteen machine guns and ammunition, destroying four mortars and taking several prisoners. But the hill was bald and a most page 102 uncomfortable spot from whichever way it was defended. Machine-gun and mortar fire sent the 19 Battalion company back, and the hill became no-man's-land.
Enemy attention to Ruin Hill became more troublesome at midday, and the first casualties of the day came in the afternoon. A mortar bomb burst right in a trench, wounding five, two seriously. Lieutenant Ward was stunned by flying rock. The three Greek girls in his trench fled. One of the wounded died shortly afterwards; it was the first death.
Because of casualties and fire, it was decided about 4 p.m. to pull 1 Platoon back from the forward positions. A Bren gun was moved up to the crest and installed in the ripening wheat.
The attack from the valley was still expected, and the Ruin Hill defenders, on their important feature, were not altogether happy. However, reinforcements in the form of twelve gunners under Lieutenant Dill31 enabled 1 Platoon positions to be manned again. No. 3 Platoon, less one section, took up positions on the eastern side of the hill, the remaining section linking up with Petrol Company across the hollow, 200 yards back from the wire.
The day drew on but there was no attack. The atmosphere was taut and the tension was reflected in an inability to swallow food. ‘I recall on about the second day there was bread and margarine with cheese passed around,’ says Farley. ‘It took me all my time to swallow a bit of bread. It just seemed to stick in my throat. A drink of tea was a Godsend; in fact I drank it out of an unwashed M and V tin that was at hand on the bank and declared it the best drink I had ever had.’
But though there was no attack, the enemy was visibly active. Away on Observation Hill (also known as Signal Hill) to the south-west, Greek civilians who had been released from the gaol could be seen driving a laden donkey up to the summit, possibly to establish a German observation post.page 103
Hook's No. 1 Echelon group did little this day. In the morning it retired sixty yards nearer Canea with the intention of digging an anti-tank ditch. However, a new order sent it further away from its old position, and after taking up a new defensive position it was engaged in digging and wiring, a task in which it persisted in spite of constant air attack.
As darkness closed down on Crete again the men on Ruin Hill saw red, green and white flares, darting tracer and bursting shells scintillating over Cemetery Hill. Around midnight vivid orange flashes stabbed the darkness out to sea and searchlights swung across the sky. Guns grumbled, then explosions erupted dyspeptically. A searchlight's beam would sweep an arc then freeze onto a spot, with tracer darting after it. Then the steady glow of fires tinged the night. All this, although it was not clear to those on land at the time, was the intercepting by the Royal Navy of the Germans' first attempt to bring in troops and equipment by sea. Not one craft reached the island.
As the clock turned around into 22 May—the third day of the invasion—the New Zealanders were preparing a counter-attack to retake Maleme airfield. From the start everything seemed to go wrong. There were delays that held up the zero hour three hours. It was 3 a.m. when 20 Battalion and 28 (Maori) Battalion went forward. In the darkness they made headway, but as daylight showed the Germans what was happening, intense mortar and machine-gun fire, and the omnipresent Luftwaffe, checked the advance on the edge of the airfield and drove it back.
The attack had failed and the Germans now firmly held the airfield. But it was still an unhealthy spot, and the constantly landing Junkers bringing in more troops put down and took off with alacrity among shellbursts. Some were hit; others careered into wrecked planes or cartwheeled into craters. The alert infantry claimed some with small-arms fire. It was a rare chance for them to tackle aircraft on their own level. But the planes kept on coming.
The comings and goings at Maleme began a hopeful story. Perhaps because men were seen to run to some planes as they touched down, a report got about that the Germans page 104 were getting out. These men were observed to be working parties unloading stores, but the report of possible evacuation outstripped the true facts. It was carried to Headquarters New Zealand Division by Brigadier Hargest and filtered down to the troops as a rumour offering unbelievable hope. The constant stream of planes roaring up from Maleme and wheeling out to sea past Theodhoroi Island seemed sure confirmation.
To test the story 10 Brigade was instructed to apply pressure. Patrols were sent out and one attack was made by men of 19 Battalion south across the valley road in the mid-afternoon, but after three hours' desultory fighting they withdrew. Composite Battalion did its part by sending out patrols: to Ay Marina and Stalos, towards the Aghya Reservoir, and into the hills directly west of Red Hill. Some found Germans and exchanged unpleasantries. Others found absolutely nothing. The two patrols that went towards the reservoir were commanded by Captain Boyce and Lieutenant Dill. They met and disposed of light opposition. Except for Boyce's batman, no Supply Column men took part.
Apart from these activities, 10 Brigade contented itself with silencing several mortar positions, shooting up some near the prison with machine guns, and blasting the Signal Hill position with artillery.
By the morning of this day—22 May—the Supply Column men on Ruin Hill were weary. They had had little sleep and had been under fire from the air and ground; lethargy hung on them, and they had to resist a desire to stretch out in a slit trench and let the heat and the pulsating throb of aircraft engines lull them to sleep. Even under attack the desire to sleep became almost overwhelming.
Snipers' bullets began to fly about during the morning from among the olive groves and the cottage close to Ruin Hill. The few targets that were seen were fired on promptly, and 3 Platoon in particular had good shooting that morning. One rubber-booted German, however, slipped right through the platoon, glimpsed but not tracked down.
Aircraft were left strictly alone as the Luftwaffe was quick to resent interference from the ground. Supply page 105 Column sent back a report on the mortar position on Observation Hill and as shellbursts mushroomed on the summit a cheer went up. The guns then turned on the prison.
There was swift retaliation: enemy mortars and an automatic firing explosive bullets began to bark, and like angry hornets six Messerschmitts whined down and sprayed everything in sight, Ruin Hill included, for forty-five minutes. When the strafing eased up the bombers blanketed Wheat Hill. Then incendiary bullets set alight ripe grain near 1 Platoon's Bren gun on Ruin Hill.
No one in Supply Column had a busier day than the group's commanding officer, Boyce, for in addition to his sortie in charge of a patrol, lack of communications made him a regular commuter between Ruin Hill and Battalion Headquarters.
The enemy appeared to have a fixed idea that the best way to Galatas was through the Petrol Company positions and, come hell and high water, he was going that way, for around 7 p.m., after sitting back and watching the softening-up from the air, he came forward again from the valley. He pushed up to Pink Hill on the verge of Galatas, and from Ruin Hill the Supply Column men could see screaming women and children fleeing in front of the Germans, who could be seen darting among the houses below the town. Divisional Cavalry, on Petrol Company's left flank, counter-attacked with a troop. A platoon of 19 Battalion and a force of Greeks also attacked, and a platoon from Composite Battalion Headquarters cleaned up. The line was re-established, and a second Russell Force was formed by placing a platoon of 19 Battalion and Petrol Company under Major Russell's command.
The enemy in the valley now was badly knocked about, but his movements following the attack suggested to the men on Ruin Hill that the German force might be moving away from the prison to behind Observation Hill. A report to this page 106 effect to Divisional Headquarters created an impression that an attempt was being made to cut off 5 Brigade.
When the day was over the Galatas defences were intact, though the defenders were wilting. At Maleme, however, things had been going badly, and a withdrawal by 5 Brigade to near Ay Marina was ordered. The brigade pulled back and during the morning of 23 May established a new line east of the Platanias River. The Germans followed up and pummelled the new positions. In the Galatas sector adjustments were made to meet the new situation, and patrols from 10 Brigade linked up with patrols from 5 Brigade to safeguard the two-mile gap now separating the two formations.
Usual straffing at dawn, but enemy and machine-gun fire quieter. Constant arrival of troop planes at Maleme aerodrome. Enemy presumed to be massing behind Observation Hill. Enemy reconnaissance plane landed at prison, apparently not taken during the night as ordered. Information poor. Range of enemy mortars increases. Shells landed in company reserve.
This terse summary in the Supply Column war diary eloquently expresses the situation the tired men on Ruin Hill faced that morning on 23 May. The day was comparatively quiet, but clearly something was brewing. The enemy was steadily moving into position on the high ground west of 10 Brigade, and large carrying parties could be seen. The next drive must come from the west on the part of the line as yet untouched.
Most of Composite Battalion, in fact, had done little more than watch the war at a distance and pass the time of day dodging mortar bombs and bullets, sending a few in return. But they were tired men. The battalion now consisted of 4 RMT Company, 4 Field Regiment, No. 2 Echelon of Supply Column, and a 5 Field Regiment detachment. Petrol Company was with Russell Force.
On their dominating feature Supply Column men may have drawn more fire than detachments further up the line. They were, in any case, not sorry when 4 Brigade, previously in reserve, came forward to take over Composite Battalion's front. The 18th Battalion relieved Supply Column—or supposedly relieved it. In actual fact, when Boyce withdrew his company from the hill between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., the page 107 hill was virtually given over to the enemy; it seems that Lieutenant-Colonel Gray,32 commanding 18 Battalion, decided to shorten his line by excluding this feature. Later, when the Germans moved onto the hill, the defences were enfiladed by their fire. Ironically enough, a Supply Column detachment was to be one of the chief sufferers.
Cold and tired, the men of Boyce's group tramped back along a winding track behind Wheat Hill. In darkness they ‘followed the leader’ up and down hills, over walls and ditches until at last they climbed a steep track up to olive groves north-west of Galatas. They were now—for confusion—on Ruin Ridge, very close to the town. Composite Battalion Headquarters was in a nearby building.
During the night the situation had been changing. Fifth Brigade had taken another step back and was now behind the Galatas line near the village of Efthymi. Fourth Brigade faced the enemy.
Out in front of the old Composite Battalion defences there was movement after dawn on 24 May. The 18th Battalion could see men moving into position in the broken country to the west. In the prison valley there was considerable activity, and from Ruin Hill the enemy had a clear view over much of the Galatas defences.
Beneath their olive tree and prickly-pear plants on Ruin Ridge the Supply Column men began digging in as soon as there was enough light to see. After breakfast there was a chance to wash and shave, almost a novel experience by this time. But though this was a reserve area it was far from peaceful. Positions had hardly been completed before mortar bombs came down with deadly accuracy. One hit a machine-gun post among prickly pear, wounding Lieutenant Ward, Sergeant Clarke33 and Corporal Jackson.34 No. 2 Platoon came under the command of 1 Platoon.page 108
At 9 a.m. a rude shock came. Captain Bliss had been told to take his group to reinforce the line between Wheat and Pink Hills. As it turned out the whole manœuvre was like a punch at cotton wool—there was nothing to hit—but in its beginnings it had promise of excitement. Boyce brought back orders for a counter-attack down the slope and through the olive groves to the southern extremity of Wheat Hill. The men formed into an irregular line. They had rifles—though few had bayonets—Bren guns and grenades. There was a certain amount of surprise among the men in the front line at all this activity, but the Supply Column men went forward. They had in any case worked up a battle spirit.
‘At the order to charge the “jam jugglers” surged forward, yelling and cursing and taking all obstacles in their stride, possessed of a queer, murderous enthusiasm born of the intense excitement of the moment,’ says a report by Rawle.
In the best Balaclava tradition they plunged down the slope and through the trees, alert for the slightest movement ahead. But there was no movement and no sound. Panting, they came to the end of their run and found themselves in undisputed possession of the olive grove where the Petrol Company had had some fierce clashes. Unburied dead sprawled in the undergrowth and equipment littered the ground.
In the advance the flanks had come unstuck: a party of Greeks was supposed to be on the left and an artillery group under Major Sprosen on the right. A party went to the right to see what could be found. They wormed their way through crops on the lip of Wheat Hill to have a look at Ruin Hill. Some machine-gunners, when told what was going on, implied that they had taken leave of their senses, and they objected strongly to the patrol moving in front of their guns to have a closer look at Ruin Hill. The abandonment of this feature was rankling.
An attack from the enemy was still apparently possible, and Boyce's group settled down into apprehensive idleness; the stimulus of the attack had worn off, and they were weary men again. Milk and sugar found near an olive tree page 109 were mixed with water and handed around; everyone felt better.
For the next seven and a half hours the men sat here and waited for the enemy to act, and they were not sorry when they were told to fall back. By the time an enemy attack broke against 18 Battalion the Supply Column men were sheltering behind a stone wall flanking the road near Galatas. A few overs came their way.
The clamour that could be heard from the west was the opening scene of the last act in the defence of Galatas. It was an act in which a small group of the Supply Column was to play an important part.
Heavy pressure had come on 18 Battalion late that afternoon, and C Company, in the centre, was pushed off Red Hill. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray asked for a company to stiffen the battalion. In compliance Lieutenant MacLean's35 platoon of 4 Field Regiment was sent from 10 Brigade Headquarters. It was followed by most of Bliss's men: two more 4 Field Regiment platoons and the Supply Column group, about 120 men in all, under Boyce.
As Boyce's men moved forward in the growing dark, red tracer snaked through the pale moonlight. For the men this was another follow-the-leader move to nowhere in particular. They dragged heavy feet over rough tracks and kept a bleary eye on the next man in line ahead. Fatigue hung on them and their rifles and packs dragged on their shoulders. Just how tired they were is graphically described by Farley who, in common with the others, dropped to the ground as soon as a halt was at last called.
It was not long before I was asleep, along with many others, and when I awoke I heard someone calling, ‘Come on No. 2 platoon,’ which was the platoon I was in. Sleepily I arose, and, fumbling about in the dark, managed to get my things together and slung on my back. By this time the head of the platoon was moving off and all I had to do was keep the rear man in sight to be with them. When a halt was called and we got together I found I was not with our platoon at all, but a No. 2 platoon from another unit. There were several other chaps from the supply unit who made the same mistake as myself.page 110
On the face of it, these reinforcements, so tired, so untrained, were a weak reed. This, at least, appears to have been the view of Lieutenant-Colonel Gray. His opinion may have been influenced by the already unfavourable impression the Composite Battalion positions had made on him when 18 Battalion took over—trenches were too wide and too shallow and badly concealed, and wiring poor—but in the result it was an exceedingly tough reed, and certainly these drivers and gunners turned infantry could not be blamed for the final collapse in front of Galatas.
D Company of 18 Battalion was still where RMT had been in the earlier days of the invasion, from the bluff inland to Red Hill. Red Hill, however, had been lost, regained and lost again during the afternoon and evening, and C Company was now back on Murray Hill. A Company was on Wheat Hill. No. 11 Platoon of B Company was wedged between D and C Companies and 10 Platoon of B Company between C and A Companies. Across the southern flank—on Pink Hill and across the road south of Galatas—was Russell Force, consisting of Divisional Cavalry, Petrol Company and a 4 Field Regiment platoon.
The reinforcements were to be fitted into 18 Battalion's defence line. At a track junction they were split up, some men in the confusion going astray. Sixteen men of 1 Platoon of Boyce's depleted group were given two Bren guns and all the digging tools and set the task of improving old Welch Regiment trenches on Murray Hill. The rest, under Boyce, were redisposed by Bliss in support of 18 Battalion, left centre.
Rawle led the sixteen men up through vineyards to the hilltop where, in the light of the insipid moon, they began hacking at stubborn rock. The trenches were lined along the hump of the feature, and the working men may have sensed the menace from the darkness to the west. As they swung their picks, there was movement nearby as Corporal Mitchell36 and about ten men of 11 Platoon 18 Battalion brought up another Bren gun and set about siting it in the trench on the right. Another early morning arrival—about page 111 3 a.m.—was Sergeant Bradshaw,37 of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, with a section of seven men. With his Vickers, minus tripod, Bradshaw had been in action in various parts of the front and had been detailed to assist Rawle's detachment.
By the time the moon was set, the only appreciable inroad that had been made was the removal of a soft upper stratum in one trench, enabling one Bren gun to be set up. Elsewhere, the trenches remained shallow, but the best had to be made of them. Branches, grass and wheatstalks were woven into camouflage both for the guns and the men's headdress—rolled balaclavas—and as the first light of Sunday 25 May came into the sky the men were in position and watching for the anticipated attack.
On the extreme left was a Bren gun manned by Drivers Cox38 and Gibbs.39 To the right of this was another trench, then a fig tree, by which the Vickers had been set up on an ammunition box. To the right again was a long trench in which the second Bren, manned by Driver Le Compte and Lance-Corporal Langdon,40 was set up. In the fourth trench, on the extreme right, was the 18 Battalion Bren. Two fig trees just to the north of this marked where the ground fell away sharply to D Company's positions. To the south the hump of the hill fell away more gradually to C Company's positions. There were some 11 Platoon men in the vines down this slope.
As the sun came up behind them the men on Murray Hill looked across a gully to Red Hill, about 400 yards away. Half left from their position and almost due south of Red Hill was a small feature on which there was a grove. In the saddle between the two was a vineyard. Further south still was the familiar shape of Ruin Hill, now in enemy hands. The assignment of the men on Murray Hill was to keep the enemy off Red Hill, which was slightly higher than their page 112 position, and to stop him coming through the grove and the vineyard to the south. They were to hang on at all costs. Information, water and rations had been promised at dawn but had not arrived.
Strafing planes were spitting viciously all along the front, but on the ground the enemy kept out of sight. Somewhere behind the curtain of trees and vines and beyond the blind ridge of the hill the Germans were deploying and moving up, but the sun was high before the first trace of movement could be seen from Murray Hill. About 8 a.m. the first heads showed on the crest of Red Hill, and the first impetuous bursts from Brens and Vickers stuttered across the valley.
There was a broad, deep sangar on top of Red Hill built up with loose rocks. At one point there was a niche through which men could peer, but Bradshaw had been there the previous day and knew where to shoot. So whenever curious German eyes sought to look across to the New Zealand line they met a stream of lead. Observing with binoculars from near the fig tree on the right, Corporal Starkey, of Supply Column, kept the machine-gunners posted as their shots went home.
About 9 a.m. mortar bombs and shells came down along the whole front. The battle was stirring to life, and from its iron throat came a blast of sound; guttural booming, staccato crackling, thunderclap banging, all tumbled together with howling aircraft engines into a powerful surge of noise that enveloped and dulled the senses.
And what the senses of these men recorded is all that is left for us to know. Certain things are established and reasonably certain; broad outlines are clear. But who did precisely what, and when, are imponderables that no one can ever know—and those who think they do know will never agree. It is possible to bring out of battle a connected story, provided there is a boldly defined chain of events to impress the mind, but here on a hilltop, huddled in trenches and immersed in confusion and racket, there was nothing so tidy as that. Certain things were close and real: noise, fear, smoke, heat, dust, sweat, the smell of burned cordite. These were immediate, forceful, inescapable. For the rest, page 113 there were snap impressions, linked together in some vague way: figures moving and coming closer; men bleeding, falling; other men moving about with an apparent plan in an apparently planless maze. There was no time, only the present. The last second was gone, the next might never come. For the man in the trench the whole of creation centred around a jittering Bren gun or a jerking rifle, and obscure figures down among the trees.
Field Supply Depot south of Olympus
Village belles, Tricola, near Salonika
Supply Column camp area south of Elasson
Cookhouse at Atalandi on 20 April 1941—Driver R. Eastwick standing
Approach to Kea Island early on the morning of 25 April
These figures were working forward, and as the morning progressed spandaus began to hammer at the ridge from close at hand, and rifles cracked from among the groves. Bullets snicking through the vines on the left bowled over some 18 Battalion men, and a sergeant-major brought the rest of the men closer in to the detachment's left flank.
At every observed movement across the valley the machine guns chattered. Cox by midday had shot his way through a box of ammunition—1000 rounds.
Though many men were too busy to see it, there was one brief, heart-lifting incident early in the afternoon. Like a vision, six Blenheims in neat formation, their red, white and blue RAF roundels showing clearly, droned by in a sort of vacuum; a moment before the air had been full of wings with black crosses, but now these six flew overhead in a clear sky, coming from the direction of Maleme and heading towards Suda. Tired eyes followed them, half joyfully, half wistfully.
To the west there were Germans everywhere, from the coast, along the ridges and down to the prison valley. While they gathered for the assault, the mortars and machine guns directed fire at the New Zealanders, and in the early afternoon steel splinters and lead were flying freely about Murray Hill. A mortar bomb burst near the centre Bren gun, shell-shocking Langdon. Le Compte took him out at great risk.
The crest of Red Hill had been kept clear, but behind it the Germans were forming up. D Company, on the right, took the worst of it and for an hour fought furiously. In the south A Company and the troopers and drivers held their ground. At 3 p.m. a lull settled.page 114
In this lull Farley, in a reserve position behind C Company and thoroughly tired of crouching and hiding, took an excursion to the front line. He says:
Away to my right, and well out in front of our line were many figures. These I took to be patrolling parties from our side, though I could not be sure. The men were moving in different directions, some coming towards me, others going towards the German line. There were two figures very noticeable on their own because they were crossing an open wheat or rye paddock. The enemy must have seen them, too, but he was not uncertain, for the next minute a mortar bomb plopped by them. When they dropped a tree in the line of vision hid them from view. I only saw one reappear afterwards.
But the lull was only comparative, for Murray Hill was still lively, and about 3.15 p.m. a bullet furrowed Rawle's skull and he went down. For a while he looked convincingly dead, particularly to men who could only spare a glance from their work. Still working on their original orders to hang on at all costs, they kept at their guns and rifles, and were agreeably surprised soon afterwards to find him, head bandaged, with them again.
Fire was pouring in from Ruin Hill and from points to the south-west, and though Red Hill had been made too hot for Jerry, there was a lot of movement in the grove and the vineyard. A runner was killed, and attempts to make contact with Battalion Headquarters failed.
Things began to go wrong. A brisk wind from the sea swept up over the hot rock of Murray Hill and tore away camouflage. Mortars or incendiaries set fire to scrub around the central fig tree. Then two Brens went out of action: Cox's (on the left) had a stoppage and Mitchell's (on the right) was permanently wrecked by a mortar bomb.
The Germans grasped the opportunity to set up a machine gun on Red Hill. Cox cleared his gun and in five minutes his bullets had sought out and accounted for both this and another machine gun in the grove.
Opposite the 18 Battalion front—from the sea to Wheat Hill—were two enemy groups: the Assault Regiment against C and D Companies and a battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment against A Company and the 4 Field Regiment detachment. There was a second battalion of 100 Mountain page 115 Regiment in the prison valley to attack the southern curve of the line. Remnants of 3 Parachute Regiment were between the prison and Perivolia, and two battalions of 85 Mountain Regiment were brought against 8 Greek Regiment at Alikianou.
The mortar barrage was working up to a fury, and to the north screaming Stukas could be seen plunging on D Company. About 4 p.m. the enemy came out of the olive trees on each side of Red Hill and jabbed at either flank of Murray Hill. They came towards D Company in a solid wave, ignoring the bullets whipping through their ranks. Bradshaw, behind his Vickers, became aware that there was a movement en masse to the east. At first it was difficult to sort friend from foe; everyone seemed to be running at full pelt. Then, as he sorted them out, he fired at the enemy as hard as he could.
About this time what is described as the first message of the day came through, but it was more likely a report from Starkey, still spotting on the right. It simply said that ‘18 Battalion on our right’ had surrendered. The next message, passed from mouth to mouth, was for the 18 Battalion men on the hill to fix bayonets and prepare to counter-attack under the covering fire of the ASC men. ‘This was later washed out, but I admired the way the men of the 18th got ready to do their stuff,’ says Driver Philipson,41 of Supply Column.
The attack was now swirling around Murray Hill like an incoming tide. On either flank the infantry was falling back. Men in reserve gathered up their equipment and took to their heels when they heard breathless warnings. Everywhere there was a note of urgency, everywhere men in a hurry. Farley says:
I ran up to the hedge line and retrieved my pack. Had my rifle and ammo already on. Away we tore, hell for leather. Never page 116 even took time to slip my pack on properly but just carried it on one strap. As I beat it down the track there were men running before me. Every possie I passed was well cleared out…. I panted up the slope towards Galatas, getting near winded with my pack and rifle becoming near a ton weight: I had passed many articles of discarded gear and decided to get rid of my pack. I placed it by the side of the track and memorised the place as I thought I would pick it up later. Instead of going straight up into Galatas we made a left turn and went along a sunken pathway until we were on the seaward side of the village. Then, by various tracks we made for the top of the ridge and so to the road and shelter. But the face of the ridge was absolutely peppered with bullets from rifles and machine-guns, and from the latter they were explosive ones. The sun was well towards the west, and from the angle it was shining it showed up the trail of nearly every bullet—made a silvery trail of smoke.
So far the climb had been among trees and huge cactus bushes and below firing level, but now we had come up to the level of this lead barrage and there was a clear strip to cross to gain the shelter of the eastern side of the ridge. It was into this strip that most of the bullets were driving. I waited a few moments and mapped out a course: south under cover, here and there, of cactus bushes for about three chains, then turn left and make straight through to the road using the few olive trees as cover. The distance across the danger zone would be about 100 to 125 yards.
I made it. Others had gone before me and made it except one. He had got half way across and stopped a slug. He was on his knees with blood pouring from his mouth and nose. Ahead of him by some 20 yards was apparently his mate, who had turned and seen his plight. He seemed undecided whether he should turn back. The wounded one waved him on weakly.
Once the road was made I was able to breathe a little more easily. There was quite a gathering of men on the road and below it, most of them Supply Column chaps, including an officer who was wounded but who was still able to carry on. After a few minutes confab we decided to keep across open country. Nobody knew where we were going, so it was a sort of every man for himself affair.
But they were still not out of trouble, for mortars burst about them ‘with a shattering wham. It was like a charge across no-man's-land.’ And so the mad rush went on, harassed by mortars and aircraft.
On Murray Hill Rawle's men were fighting it out. Precariously placed on an insecure salient, they were fighting page 117 still on their first orders—‘Hold out at all costs’—unaware that a heavy Stuka raid on Galatas about 4 p.m. had broken all communications and that their chances of hearing a withdrawal order were remote. At 4.30 p.m. the enemy turned his attention to the troublesome hill. Mortar bombs and bullets showered in from three directions: front, right and rear. At 5 p.m. a strong formation began to close in from Ruin Hill. Cox swung his gun to meet the straggling line of men, and in so doing exposed himself to fire from Red Hill. He was pounding away when a bullet caught him between the eyes. As he fell dead, Gibbs took over.
The enemy was pressing close and stick bombs were flying in from the left and bursting in the central trench. How long this furious battle kept up is hard to determine. Eventually a runner came through from the rear holding a white-lined British warm in front of him. The enemy presumably took this to be a white flag, for fire eased appreciably, but as the runner threw himself flat on the hilltop, the hammering began again. The runner jerked out to Bradshaw, ‘You're to get out if you can.’ Bradshaw passed the word down, and Rawle, his face white and his head bandaged, appeared and asked, ‘What's going on?’ Bradshaw told him, and the retirement began. As the men jumped up and dashed for cover, Bradshaw and Gibbs stayed at their guns. One or two men fell.
Gibbs was pounding away on the left, with bullets whipping about and the Germans advancing up the hill.
Bradshaw's gun was still stuttering when he turned to find three Germans spraying into the trench with tommy guns. With two other survivors of 27 Battalion he was taken away a prisoner. When they were taken beyond Red Hill they saw to their satisfaction that the ground was liberally littered with German dead. Their sweeping of Red Hill had been effective.
The others who had gone back had crawled off Murray Hill on their bellies through grape vines with bullets plunking around them and Germans only fifteen feet away. They reached the shelter of a low stone wall, then made an S movement through German detachments to the old Battalion Headquarters area. They finally reached a deep page 118 gully, where they met Bliss and were guided back to Ruin Ridge ahead of the German advance.
The detachment suffered 50 per cent casualties on the ridge. There had been further casualties on the way out, and at least four men, one of whom was wounded, surrendered.
For his leadership during the battle and for his skilful extrication of the detachment, Rawle was awarded the MC. Gibbs, for his covering action and for his consistently steady behaviour during the campaign, was awarded the MM.
The RMT group, in reserve on Ruin Ridge, was told to hold, and while 18 Battalion stragglers streamed back through their lines, these men stood their ground. Fire was coming in from three directions. News came that Major Lewis's42 headquarters had gone, and the RMT group, too, withdrew. There then remained only two companies of 20 Battalion. They were in good order and stood firm. The 23rd Battalion came up, and the 20 Battalion companies were pulled back to form a line from the coast to Galatas.
Meanwhile, east of Galatas a force was accumulating on Church Hill from the bits and pieces of 18 Battalion and Composite Battalion. Some men, however, were scrambling back hot foot, and were not to be stopped.
That night the various detachments of Composite Battalion made their way back to Transit Camp A to reorganise and prepare to fight again. However, already dispersed in various positions when the German assault began, the different parts of the battalion were never able, in the confused situation, to pull themselves completely together again, and some men who had joined the mad stampede were roaming without orders or without any idea of what they should do.page 119
Between the coast and Galatas the enemy's way was barred by two companies of 20 Battalion. South of Galatas Divisional Cavalry, Petrol Company and the 4 Field Regiment group drew back before the Germans entered Galatas in force.
The German intention was to form on a line running from the hospital, just east of Galatas, through Cemetery Hill, and then to the south-west. Two battalions of 100 Mountain Regiment advanced on Galatas, one from the west, past Wheat and Ruin Hills, and one from the prison valley to the south-west. Along the coast the drive—if it could now be called a drive here—was made by the dog-tired remnants of the Assault Regiment, which halted roughly on the line C and D Companies of 18 Battalion had occupied in the morning.
The critical point was Galatas. There seemed a very real danger that the Germans were coming on. The New Zealanders' reaction was firm and decisive.
Two light British tanks came out of Galatas with a report that it was full of Germans, and they offered to go back if they were given a machine-gunner and a driver to replace casualties. These were supplied by the New Zealanders, and under the orders of Colonel Kippenberger, two companies of 23 Battalion, parties of 18 and 20 Battalions and men from other units formed up for a counter-attack. As the light faded and flares began to sprout up from Galatas, the line moved forward, and in a hectic twenty minutes' fight swept through the village. Whether or not the attack achieved what was intended, it certainly left the Germans in a more sober and cautious mood and prompted a request from 100 Mountain Regiment that the next forward movement should not begin until about 3 p.m. as Galatas was not completely clear.
The New Zealand units were now very much the worse for wear. The battalions of 4 Brigade were depleted and, except for 19 Battalion, split into separate detachments. Most of 5 Brigade had been out of the line for a few hours but got little rest, and three battalions, 21, 22 and 23, were whittled down to weary survivors; only 28 (Maori) Battalion page 120 and the Engineer Detachment had escaped heavy losses. Composite Battalion was out of the running, and Divisional Cavalry joined 21 Battalion on 26 May. Apart from Divisional Cavalry, few of these amateur infantrymen took any further organised part in the fighting.
The new defence line extended from 7 British General Hospital to the right of 19 Australian Brigade. The 21st Battalion was to be on the right, 19 Battalion, the strongest of the 4 Brigade battalions, in the centre, and 28 Battalion on the left.
When Boyce and his men fell back, they were placed in a position beyond the area where Hook's company had first camped. Hook's company was close by but still inactive. Throughout the day the men of No. 1 Echelon group had listened to the sound of enemy mortaring and machine-gunning coming closer. A patrol was sent out to contact the Marines, who were supposed to be on the group's left flank. They had vanished, leaving the flank open. So, while the battle drew closer, the company sat and waited.
Boyce's wounded joined the interminable queue at the crowded dressing station near Canea; Rawle and his wounded went back to an RAP for dressings. On his return he found that Boyce and Hook, acting on instructions, had moved further to the rear. His plight was shared by other wounded of Supply Column who were still awaiting attention when their unit moved.
The order to Boyce, which came from Force Headquarters about midnight, was to move to an assembly point south of Suda Bay. As the group moved through the darkness, desultory shots were heard from the coast, and fears were entertained for the safety of the wounded still at Canea. Men from the dressing station overtook the Column next day, weaving their way en route through the Luftwaffe's bombing of the groves between Galatas and Canea. When the trek across the island to Sfakia began, however, the Column was still split up, and in its various parts joined the rag-tag and bob-tail migration over Crete.
The move to Sfakia on the south coast of Crete began on the night of 26–27 May in all the confusion implied by the situation. To begin with, Composite Battalion, although page 121 largely reassembled, was lost as far as 4 Brigade Headquarters was concerned. Split up to suit the requirements of the fighting on 25 May, the battalion had been unable to reform immediately on withdrawal, and the groups did whatever the various officers who were doing their best to control troop movements told them to do—or they did what seemed best. There was, however, a general trend towards the transit camp, and during 26 May most of the detachments arrived there. By the end of that morning most of the battalion's survivors had assembled, but there were odd groups, among them Supply Column men, who were still wandering, and there were others who had attached themselves to 19 and 21 Battalions, which were in the line fighting
Colonel Kippenberger spent some hours during that day trying to find Composite Battalion, without success. During the afternoon he was placed in command of 4 Brigade when Brigadier Inglis43 was instructed by Force Headquarters to take over a new brigade of British troops. About midday Colonel Gray and Major Lewis reported to him, and Lewis said he thought he knew where most of the battalion was. Colonel Kippenberger instructed him to assemble the unit at what appeared to be a monastery, which he could see between Canea and Suda Bay. Lewis went away and did not return. Runners who were sent to the monastery by Kippenberger about mid-afternoon reported that they could find no one there.
Feeling, perhaps, that the defence against them was cracking, the Germans chose this day to launch the heaviest air assault of the campaign, inflicting greater casualties among the New Zealanders than on any other day. And page 122 the base troops from Suda, poorly disciplined and panicstricken, chose this day to flood onto the roads. In this chaotic situation, Colonel Gray was able to hold together a core of 18 Battalion, but Composite Battalion had little chance of retaining cohesion and broke up. The morale of the Composite Battalion men, however, was by no means broken.
The plan now was to use Sfakia as an embarkation point, but the men, and indeed many officers, at first had no idea what was going on. A clue had been given the previous day, however, when General Freyberg sent trucks to explore the possibility of using Sfakia for evacuation. Base troops correctly guessed the meaning of this movement, and like water in a porous pot the story seeped out. This was the most some people ever knew—and there were some who were trying to lead men who did not even know this much.
‘Information was difficult to obtain; no one seemed to have any knowledge of our ultimate destination,’ said Second-Lieutenant Hastie describing the withdrawal of Hook's group. ‘It was simply a case of the blind leading the blind.’
‘The lack of orders and communications was astounding,’ wrote Captain Jacobs in a report on 15 June after his return to Egypt. ‘Actually I was shown by ADMS Suda Area the force order for evacuation, but that was just luck, and I have not met any NZASC personnel since who saw it.’
Looking back on it, the absence of orders and communications would hardly appear astounding, but the fact that they seemed so at the time—or at any rate, immediately afterwards—is an indication that morale was high enough to expect such everyday amenities.
So while 4 and 5 Brigades and 19 Australian Brigade fell back, a procession that must be one of the most oddly assorted of any retreat in the war was set in motion over 35 miles of winding mountain roads and tracks. Along with the New Zealanders jostled Greek civilians with donkey carts, Greek troops, Cretan peasants, Royal Marines, Commandos, Australians, RAF men and Cypriots. Among the mob were observed three women in battle dress. The straggling column wound up through a burning village, round page 123 spurs and into valleys of the White Mountains, through the Asifou Plain and down the far side towards Sfakia.
Most or all of the Supply Column men seem to have joined the trek on the first night. This includes the men of the DID, who on this night got themselves awheel and drove into the mountains. But they were not just fleeing pell-mell. They still had a job to do, and they did it.
They had been doing it, in fact, right through the campaign, though not entirely with success. Crete is not a campaign supply men would care to hold up as a model of supply operations, but it is a campaign from which lessons can be drawn. From all the difficulties of the situation, two stand out as primary factors in preventing the efficient distribution of food: lack of information and lack of suitable rations.
In the circumstances lack of information was understandable, but it immensely complicated the work of delivering rations, particularly under cover of night. Supply Column was the only organisation that could give the troops the food they needed to keep them going, yet it was not kept informed of new locations of units when they were shuffled about. Supply Column men did their best, but ‘Men to whose units I delivered rations say they never received them, yet I took them to where I was instructed,’ reported Corporal Palairet.44 Some men went almost a week without food.
The type of ration that would have been of immense value on Crete was a compact battle ration, similar to the American type seen later in the war. Rations involving cooking on a fire or in an oven were useless in these conditions, and their bulk was an embarrassment. Packaged rations would have enabled units to carry several days' food without much inconvenience.
To add to the supply troubles, 4 Brigade lost its supply officer, Jacobs. The brigade moved on the night of 25–26 May while he was absent, and like others who were anxious to track it down, he was unable to find it. He joined up the next day with the DID.page 124
In general the supply position was about as difficult as it could be. In the first bombing raid an attached driver, Derrett,45 was killed. As the stick of bombs fell straight through the depot, a bomb skidded along the ground. Derrett, sheltering behind a tree, stood up apparently to have a closer look; at that instant the bomb exploded.
Later, overs from the Galatas battle came zipping through the DID. In the circumstances serving the odd men who came along during the day looking for rations became a grim game of running the gauntlet—and during the last days there was a flood of hungry men in search of food. Dashing across the open from dump to dump, Supply Column men frequently risked their lives to serve these men. Corporals McAra46 and Rutherford,47 particularly, showed courage in carrying out their work.
There were narrow escapes but only the one fatality. McIndoe was talking to a unit quartermaster one day when a bullet snicked between them and half tore away the patch pocket on the QM's pants. On another occasion a bomb burst right beside a slit trench where five New Zealanders who had come for rations were sheltering. They emerged, yellow with dust but unhurt.
One bright spot in the tedious and often hectic daylight hours was provided by Captain Butterfield, who was to be seen brewing up and taking tea around to men in the midst of air raids.
At 5 p.m. on 26 May, Major Davis48 of Divisional Headquarters came to the DID with orders to load five trucks with rations in preparation for a move to a rest area east of Suda Bay. As the trucks were pulling out six hours later an SOS was received from 28 Battalion for a truck to carry its wounded, so one was sent down the prison road, where the Maoris had been fighting at the southern end of the New Zealand line.page 125
The other trucks went on, and while bypassing Canea by a back road, the leading vehicle bogged down in a water-filled bomb crater. The second truck dragged it backwards, and the hole was filled sufficiently to allow the vehicles to pass. Following up later, the detached truck with 28 Battalion wounded ran foul of the same crater and was unable to get out. Both wounded and rations were lost to the enemy. The driver later turned up at Sfakia.
The 27th May was spent by the junction of the SudaRetimo-Sfakia roads. That night, with weary troops clinging all over the trucks like flies, they drove on southwards to a village half-way to Sfakia; trucks were dispersed, and the men took to the hills. On returning they found that most of the rations had been taken by 4 Brigade and other fighting troops in the area. After serving walking wounded, the Supply Column men issued the remaining rations to anyone who was hungry. The trucks were driven on to the end of the road, where orders were received to scrap them.
This DID group was the last of Supply Column to hang together in a disciplined organisation. Padding across the island on weary feet, the rest of the Supply Column men were just part of the mob. Air attacks broke up groups, and the less swift were left behind. A graphic picture of what happened is given by Farley. Writing of 27 May, he relates how German planes probed about for the concealed, resting men. Farley himself spent most of the raid skipping from one side of a stone wall to the other, depending on the direction from which the planes were approaching. A friend was clinging to an endless chain of buckets down a well, and other men nearby were crouching beneath a bridge, oblivious to the water swirling around them.
While the strafing was at its height, a racket of bullets, mortars and shells exploding had started up about a quarter of a mile away. It sounded as though the two sides were having a set to. Even the sky was obscured, and my first thought was that parachutists had been dropped to cut off our retreat…. I saw a column of smoke drifting overhead, then smelt burning rubber. This was merely a lorry load of ammo set on fire.
Impatient to be moving, the men were crowding onto the road long before dark—dusk was 8 p.m.—and the faster walkers were pushing past the slower and more tired.page 126
In the centre of the village there was a divergence of roads (Farley continues). An order had been passed back that no troops were to pass through the village until eight o'clock, with the result that between the bridge and the crossroads—about quarter of a mile—there was a good gathering of soldiers. If an enemy plane was seen, the warning, ‘Aircraft!’ was to be given by word of mouth or by the blowing of a whistle. Nerves were at a high pitch, and suddenly someone cried ‘Aircraft!’ and there was an immediate panic. The first into cover yelled for the rest to stand still but their cries were not heeded until all had found some sort of concealment.
No plane came, but this hysterical scatter served a good purpose by dispersing the crowded men. They were back on the road before time, however.
On entering the village we found an officer had taken up point duty and was directing, or trying to direct, the men. Apparently New Zealanders and Australians were to go one road, and English units another, but he had a hopeless task. Everyone was asking questions at the same time and arguing the point among themselves about which was the right way, while others carried on regardless of the officer's instructions. The officer threw up his hands in despair and guided only those who would listen to him.
While Farley was trying to hear above the babble of noise what the officer was saying, a Supply Column officer came along and got his instructions. Farley followed him,…but the pace became too hot for me and for many others, so we gradually dropped back to make our own pace. Many of us were beginning to look sorry sights. It was five days since I had had a shave, my trousers had given in the seam and were open from the calf to half way up the thigh on the inner side, and the boots of some men were falling apart.
Every now and then we had to get off the road and let motor traffic through. These were mainly lorries carrying wounded who were unable to walk; wounded who could walk had to do so. The trucks were full to overflowing, for when drivers had to slow down near groups of men they seized the opportunity to clamber aboard until the trucks would hold no more.
The footsore march went on. At each rest there was an almost overpowering desire to fall down and sleep. At last ‘breasting the top of a hill we could see a bright fire burning. The route took us closer until we entered a village. Everywhere were signs of bombing, and the fire we had seen was one of the largest buildings burning. By this time it was a smouldering shell.’ Beyond the village a parachute page 127 flare glowed and glared down, and everyone froze until it had burned out.
Water bottles were getting low. At some wells there were orderly queues, but at others
…each in his turn cursed and chafed at the delay, to say nothing of the jostling and pushing that was done. Animosity towards different countries sprang up. The New Zealanders cursed the Englishmen, the Englishmen cursed the New Zealanders, and the combined efforts of both were directed towards the Cypriots and Greeks, who were in a minority but who were much to the fore in undisciplinary actions. God knows, our discipline left a lot to be desired, most of us acting like starving wolves. The Cypriots had no idea of taking their turn, but just pushed in and to hell with the rest.
Next day Farley and his companions grew tired of the delay involved in hiding from aircraft, which on this day seemed to be quiet, and they went on.
It was our first chance to look around as we travelled. What a trail! There was discarded gear everywhere: clips of cartridges, loose rounds, web gear, broken and dismantled rifles, cases of rifle ammo, photos, letters, overcoats and lord knows what. Now and then we passed an army truck which had been run off the road and over the bank.
After a hot, dusty climb the men came in sight of the Askifou Plain, a basin less than a mile across in the mountains. ‘Below us lay a pretty, fertile basin, as green as an oasis. It was surrounded by rocky hills, with the road winding its way to the bottom, skirting the western edge and then disappearing away to the south…. The basin was a parched man's paradise, for there were wells everywhere.’
At 8 p.m. that day Farley and his friends reached a control point and, like thousands of others, became ‘organised’ for the final leg of the journey.
The road to Sfakia came to an end on the brink of a 500-foot high escarpment, and from this point the beach was reached by a goat track. The beach was too small for assembly, and the climb from the beach to the road took two hours. The complications this added to an already difficult evacuation were enormous, and to check confusion a rigid control system filtered the men approaching the port.page 128
The policy was to take off organised groups first and give detached groups and individuals second preference—which in practice meant that many of them stayed on the island. This was a bitter blow at the end of a bitter campaign. These scattered groups of gunners and drivers had done their share of fighting and had earned qualification for inclusion among the fighting troops. The priorities, fixed by Force Headquarters, did them an unwitting injustice. The overriding need was to preserve the main fighting units intact and thus save the force from destruction. In the case of New Zealand Division the loss of, say, a brigade would have been a major disaster.
But though quite convincing as a theory, in practice the evacuation of troops worked out rather differently. The policy so restricted movement to the beach that boats had to put out with room to spare. On the first night, when all priorities had been fulfilled, the Navy was appealing for, ‘Anyone else?’ and in the end had to leave with partly filled ships.
However, the wanderers and stragglers were not entirely ignored. In the hills groups of fifty or so were organised and placed under the charge of officers, and in this way Supply Column men, though not belonging to any major formation, were taken off the first night (28–29 May) and the following night.
Control officers had no easy task. They were to organise into orderly groups hundreds of men who all wanted to be first. Here again Farley gives a vivid picture:
When evening approached there was a general movement for the road. This time we were put into batches of 50 and sent on. About a mile further in we came to a large U-shaped turn. Here were accumulated hundreds of soldiers; they covered the sides and bottom of the gully that ran into the bottom of the U, and the roadway itself was one hell of a mix-up of soldiers trying to get or be put into some sort of organisation by a very exasperated senior officer.
The trouble was that every man wanted to be first away as this was supposed to be the last stage to the boat, and nobody wanted to miss the first night off. The result was that when a call was made for 50 men, 200 tried to get in. Finally the officer drew his revolver and threatened to shoot any man trying to create panic and disobeying orders.page 129
….At last we were heading for the boat. The road was now on a down grade, and the going was much easier as we were on a bitumen surface in the cool of late evening. Numerous vehicles passed us, travelling the opposite way. We made a halt on a large bend. The party ahead could be heard right below us, and we could hear the roar of several trucks working uphill in low gear. Apparently some vehicle was in trouble, for the sound of engines finally died out, and voices and the sound of tinkering with vehicles could be heard below us. Half an hour passed, then an hour. Two hours went by. This was past being a good thing and we were growing restless at the long delay. It must have been two and a half hours before we got going again. After marching a bit we came to what was evidently the cause of the delay. The road ended abruptly. It appears that the engineers had been extending the road down the hill and had been interrupted in their task before its completion. From here on was a mere donkey track, and the narrowing of the route meant a straggling out of the men. It also seems that most men were not sure of the way.
While these troops were scrambling as fast as they could to safety, others were making a fighting withdrawal across the island. Originally it had been planned to keep Suda open by relieving 5 Brigade with a newly formed British brigade, consisting of 1 Welch, 1 Rangers and Northumberland Hussars, which was to be commanded by Brigadier Inglis. On the night this was supposed to happen (26–27 May) a criss-cross of messages and orders prevented coordination of the move, and as the New Zealanders and Australians stepped back, the new brigade stepped forward into the enemy's arms.
Fifth Brigade, with 19 Battalion, A Company 20 Battalion, the Divisional Cavalry detachment, and 7 Field Company under command, took a new line across 42nd Street, with the Australians to the north. A bayonet charge here sent the enemy back a mile and a half. There was serious danger, however, from a strong force making an outflanking move with mule trains to the south.
That night, the 27th–28th, 5 Brigade and 19 Australian Brigade moved back to Stilos, then withdrew back through a battalion of Layforce—a Commando formation which had only recently arrived in Crete. The 2/8 Australian Battalion and some members of 5 Brigade Headquarters made a stand later that day at Babali Hani. On this same day 4 Brigade page 130 was perched in positions up on the Askifou Plain to guard against parachute landings.
On 29 May the main force was clustered in the Askifou Plain. That night 4 Brigade moved down towards the beach; 5 Brigade was already in the lying-up area. While 5 Brigade waited its turn, 4 Brigade was taken off on the night of 30–31 May.
On this night Supply Column performed its final service on Crete. The only food dump from which troops could be supplied was a depot of sorts at the beach itself, a most unsatisfactory location as everything taken back to the troops had to be manhandled up the winding track.
Captain Jacobs first became aware of this depot when he met Lieutenant Hastie early on the morning of 30 May. The food, which included tinned meat and biscuits in quantity, was stored in an old warehouse, part single and part two-storied, near the landing. The Australian depot keepers, about three of them, had had no orders for a week.
Jacobs told Colonel Gray about the dump and was told to collect volunteers to carry back whatever could be sent to the rearguard troops. No particular unit was specified, and Jacobs assumed Gray meant 5 Brigade, but 19 Australian Brigade was also in the line suffering from a shortage of rations and water.
The Australians willingly surrendered their dump to Jacobs, who set about organising the most primitive transport service in Supply Column's history. At midnight a volunteer party of Australians and men from Force Headquarters paraded; they had nothing to carry rations in, so stuffed their shirts full, leaving their hands free for climbing. But few of them had the strength left to complete the journey up the track—and some men went straight off to the cave area with their loads. Of 1400 tins of meat taken away that night, only 400 reached the troops in the line above Sfakia.
On 31 May some 10,000 troops still awaited evacuation, Supply Column men among them; those Supply Column men who escaped from Crete seem to have got away on the page 131 first two nights in organised parties. Those now remaining were mainly stragglers.
The Navy could not do a great deal more, and on the night of 31 May-1 June ships came in for the last lift. They reached Sfakia soon after midnight, and when they pulled out again at 3 a.m. on 1 June there were 4000 men on board, mainly 5 Brigade and the rest of 4 Brigade. They were watched from the beach by the forlorn remnants. About an hour later those on the beach were told to surrender and hoist the white flag as a sign that arms had been laid down. Others who had been further back from the beach when the last boat pulled away merely heard, ‘No more for tonight.’ Later they heard the bitter news, ‘We are capitulating. The boats are not coming back.’
8 Lt-Gen Sir Edward Puttick, KCB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 26 Jun 1890; Regular soldier; NZ Rifle Brigade 1914–19 (CO 3 Bn); comd 4 Bde Jan 1940-Aug 1941; NZ Div (Crete) 29 Apr-27 May 1941; CGS and GOC NZ Military Forces Aug 1941-Dec 1945.
11 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; 1 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.
14 Lt-Col J. F. R. Sprosen, DSO, ED; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 20 Jan 1908; school teacher; CO 4 Fd Regt Apr-Jun 1942, Sep-Oct 1942; 5 Fd Regt Oct-Nov 1942; 14 Lt AA Regt Nov 1942-Jun 1943, Dec 1943-Nov 1944; 7 A-Tk Regt Nov-Dec 1944; wounded 24 May 1941.
20 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; MP 1931–44; Otago Mounted Rifles 1914–20 (CO 2 Bn Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde Jan 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.
43 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Greek); Palmerston North; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn Jan-Aug 1940; comd 4 Inf Bde 1941–42 and 4 Armd Bde 1942–44; comd 2 NZ Div 27 Jun-16 Aug 1942 and 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50; Stipendiary Magistrate.