CHAPTER 2 — Maleme, Crete
Of all the days of the war one stands alone in the minds of the battalion. The day is 20 May at Maleme, Crete.
Twenty-second Battalion's area had the same kind of features as the rest of the coastal strip round Canea, which is near the north-west corner of Crete. Foothills of the main mountain range came down towards the sea, and the battalion position included two spurs running north and south. ‘Crete was a wonderful place, almost every inch cultivated with grapes, olive groves, orange groves, and grain,’ wrote Sergeant-Major Pender1 ‘To get on the high ground and see the various squares of different-coloured cultivation was a wonderful sight.’ In Captain Thornton's2 view: ‘The lack of a thousand-and-one Army forms was a Godsend.’
On the north the battalion's boundary was the sea with a sand and pebble beach unaffected by tides. Between this and the foothills was the airfield. Crete had no good airfields. To the east of Maleme airfield lay the hamlet of Pirgos (often called, mistakenly, Maleme). Pirgos, marking the battalion's eastern boundary, was typically Greek. The dome of the Orthodox Church rose above the houses, which were flat-roofed and crowded. The streets were narrow, dirty, smelly. The western boundary, the Tavronitis River, had a gravel and boulder bed 600 to 800 yards wide. The ‘river’ itself was only a shallow creek, like some of the smaller snow-fed rivers of Canterbury. The area west of the river was not defended3 Had the Maori Battalion been there instead of in a relatively quiet area five miles to the east, Crete might not have fallen.
Mention should be made of the Fleet Air Arm men at Maleme, for criticism still comes from several quarters of ‘leaderless and demoralised mobs’ of airmen milling most disconcertingly about the battalion's area when battle was joined, for indeed they were a hindrance from the infantryman's viewpoint.
In February 1941 aircraft from the Illustrious (heavily divebombed west of Malta the month before) were transferred to Maleme, reinforced by fighters from Egypt, moved to southern Greece, and in five weeks sank five Italian ships, damaged five more, and attacked Brindisi. The squadron returned to Maleme, now under RAF command (it should be noted), the Swordfish and Blenheims returned to Egypt, and the Fleet Air Arm and RAF pilots took turns in flying the handful of Hurricanes, Fulmars and Gladiators. On 17 May only one plane, a Hurricane, was airworthy;4 it was piloted by Lieutenant A. R. Ramsay, RNVR, who had shot down two enemy aircraft the day before. This steadfast officer's testimony will be given later.
A strong attack on Crete was expected from sea and air. On 17 May troops heard from Intelligence ‘that Jerry would attack on that day, the 17th, or the 19th and would bring 15,000 troops by parachute and 20,000 by sea.’ Fifth Brigade, holding a position running west from Platanias to the Tavronitis River and extending up to two miles inland, was charged with ‘a spirited defence…to counter attack and destroy immediately.’ Altogether, representatives of fourteen formations and units5 were concerned in defending Maleme airfield. Commanders of the New Zealand units and detachments met in conference in the Maleme Court House on 11 May so that, in Brigadier Hargest's words, the defence would ‘be properly co-ordinated and confusion avoided when an actual attack takes place.’ The COs of 22 and 23 Battalions had already met three days before to arrange SOS signals ‘should other means of communication fail.’
Twenty-second Battalion's task was to hold the airfield and its approaches. Fifth Brigade had laid down: ‘In the event of a major landing being made on the drome, support and reserve coys will be utilised for immediate counter-attack under cover of mortars and M.G. fire….If necessary support will be called for from 23 Bn and should … [communications fail] the call will be by “verey” signal (WHITE-GREEN-WHITE).’ Twenty-first and 23rd Battalions, in addition to holding their areas, were to be prepared for counter-attack on the airfield. These two units were within about one and a half miles, south-east and east, of Headquarters 22 Battalion. Twenty-eight (Maori) Battalion, as well as holding its area round Platanias, was ‘to be available for counter attack’. The order was that 22 Battalion's position would be defended at all costs: obviously no plan of withdrawal was considered.
The battalion's positions looked on the map roughly like the mark of a deformed left foot four and a half miles round, a page 38 considerable distance, and enclosing an area hopelessly large for all-round defence by twenty officers and 592 other ranks. About thirty all ranks had been evacuated sick just before the invasion. Headquarters Company,6 turned into a rifle company, was in and around Pirgos village; a platoon was away guarding the Air Ministry Experimental Station (a radar station). C Company was firmly planted about the airfield. D Company covered a bridge by the airfield and extended half a mile southwards along the east bank of the Tavronitis River (the western bank was not defended). A Company held high ground overlooking the riverbed and airfield; this high ground included a 300-foot hill called Point 107, and by this point was Battalion Headquarters. B Company was holding a ridge south-east of Point 107. The battalion, therefore, held and encircled the airfield and the vitally important Point 107. Telephones connected each company headquarters to Battalion Headquarters, but all lines were cut and useless when the blitz ended. An untrustworthy radio linked Battalion Headquarters with 5 Brigade Headquarters, four miles away to the east.
A brief glimpse at the enemy is necessary. Credit for the idea of invading Crete by air is claimed by General Kurt Student.7 The operation (code-named MERCURY) was commanded by page 39 Colonel-General Alexander Löhr. Despite close air reconnaissance and some espionage, the Germans did not locate the infantry positions accurately (our camouflage precautions had not been in vain), although their estimate of ten days for clearing Crete8 was only four days short. On the other hand, although they had planned to take all four main centres on the first day, none except Maleme was captured within a week or ten days. Organisational difficulties postponed invasion from 15 May to the 20th. Some 22,000 men were chosen for the whole operation, including mountain troops who could not be landed unless an airfield were captured or the sea route secured. On invasion day the four spearheads (about 10,000 men) would land from the air in distinct groups spaced along the northern coast of Crete. Nearly one-third of them would descend in the Maleme sector defended by 5 Brigade, where 22 Battalion, holding an area three times larger than that of 21 or 23 Battalion, would meet the brunt of the attack later in the day. (More paratroops would actually land in 23 Battalion's area; 22 Battalion would receive not only paratroops but almost all the glider troops, and would later have to withstand the pressure of two whole paratroop battalions which had landed and assembled out of reach on the undefended ground to the west.) Winning an airfield immediately was vital: only then could reinforcements arrive. The Germans clearly realised that, with no suitable ships and without control of the seas, the capture of an airfield was absolutely essential to success in Crete.
On invasion day the Assault Regiment,9 the élite of the invasion page 40 force, descended on Maleme. First came the gliders, probably forty of them, carrying about 400 men altogether (excluding the pilots). The glider troops, about to suffer 75 per cent casualties, were superbly equipped—whereas 15 Platoon, awaiting assault on the most westerly tip of the highly prized airfield, had grenades of jam tins filled with concrete and plugs of gelignite with fuses.
The Assault Regiment, Student's pride and joy, was to take the airfield and Point 107. A detachment from III Battalion plus some of its Regimental Headquarters, which grated down in belly landings just south of the Tavronitis bridge, was raked and cut with heavy fire (from D Company), but took the bridge. The detachment's commander, Major Braun, was among those killed. A second company of the Assault Regiment landed its gliders at the mouth of the Tavronitis River and made towards the airfield, but was halted and held (by C Company), and its commander, Lieutenant Plessen, also met his death. The third party of gliders (a battalion headquarters and a company) came slanting down along the south-east and south-west slopes of Point 107, to be dealt with effectively by Headquarters Company and B and D Companies, and again the commander, Major Koch, was killed.
Soon after the gliders descended, in came the regiment's paratroops, about a dozen men spewing out of each fat Junkers 52 at heights of 300 to 600 feet, some firing as they descended, ‘indiscriminately certainly, but keeping our heads down.’ Glider crews could rally quickly and fight as a team, but paratroops, scattered as they were, took longer to group together. Three battalions of paratroops came in over Maleme. Two of these battalions landed in comparative safety in undefended land west of the Tavronitis River along the coast road leading west from the bridge and out of 22 Battalion's reach.10 Here was the generous reserve of strength for continuing the assault on the airfield. The third battalion of paratroops, descending all unaware of its grisly doom west of Pirgos village and fairly close to the coast, was cut to mincemeat by 21, 22, and 23 Battalions and an engineer detachment—two-thirds slaughtered with all their officers.page 41
The commander of the Assault Regiment, General Meindl, soon to be severely wounded by 22 Battalion this day, pressed all available men into two assaults, one by the bridge and the other a right hook which crossed the river south of 22 Battalion and aimed north to Point 107. This two-pronged attack led to the crucial fighting of the day.
Twenty-second Battalion war diary: ‘Maleme. 20th May. Usual Mediterranean summer day. Cloudless sky, no wind, extreme visibility: e.g., details on mountains 20 miles to the south-east easily discernible.’
The daily hate followed the dawn. For days the bombing had been increasing steadily. Flying low, fighters and bombers raked vineyards and olive groves. No 22 Battalion men were injured. The planes turned to the sea and the men prepared for breakfast, but again the air-raid siren sounded from the mysterious Air Ministry Experimental Station tucked away up in the hills. The time was now nearly eight o'clock. Cursing men, still hungry, had just taken cover in trench and under trees when twenty-four heavy bombers appeared, the first of an endless fleet, wave upon wave, bombing, strafing, diving. The approach of the fleet was first felt through the ground rather than noticed from the sky, one man remembers. The whole of 5 Brigade's area received an unprecedented rain of bombs, particularly 22 Battalion's area, with an estimated 3000 bombs falling round the airfield. Dust and smoke billowed up; the earth shook with explosions; trees splintered; slit trenches caved in (in one substantial five-man trench only Joe Chittenden11 survived); men, dazed and numb with the fury of the assault, bled from ears and mouths. ‘The silence after the [blitz],’ writes Sergeant Sargeson,12 ‘was eerie, acrid and ominous.’ Says Sergeant Twigg13 of the intelligence section: ‘The immediate countryside before densely covered by grape vines and olive trees was bare of any foliage when the bombing attack ceased and the ground was practically regularly covered by large and small bomb craters.’page 42
A thick blanket of dust and smoke rising hundreds of feet blurred or blotted out many a man's view. Under cover of this the gliders and then the paratroops came in, and most of them were down by nine o'clock.
The majesty of the arrival of this armada and the descent certainly awed but definitely did not demoralise the New Zealanders. Action came as a relief—almost a grim joy—after cowering under cover for a fortnight of air raids, and the remark, ‘Just like the duckshooting season!’, was widespread at the time. Indeed the First World War was worlds away from this unique invasion, in which the enemy, the artillery, and the machine guns came from the sky, and a solid front no longer existed; each man was a front in himself, and the enemy could strike from in front, from both flanks, from behind, separately or simultaneously. In this new war the very moments were precious; in those first deadly, vulnerable ten minutes hundreds of paratroops were slain as they swayed and stumbled and groped and grouped over 5 Brigade's ground.
Captain Campbell (D Company): ‘My first thought was “This is an airborne landing”. I still have vivid recollections of the gliders coming down with their quiet swish, swish, dipping down and swishing in.’
Private Fellows,14 (HQ Company): ‘The first thing that met my startled gaze when I looked out was the descending paratroopers. My throat seemed to get very dry all of a sudden and I longed for company.’
A lance-corporal parachutist from Hamburg: ‘My parachute had scarcely opened when bullets began spitting past me from all directions. It had felt so splendid just before to jump in sunlight over such wonderful countryside, but my feelings suddenly changed. All I could do was to pull my head in and cover my face with my arms.’
Some gliders landed on the terraces stretching from 22 Battalion's headquarters down to the beach north of Pirgos; some landed in the valley east of Battalion Headquarters; most landed in the gravel bed of the Tavronitis River, above and below the bridge. No aircraft landed on the airfield on 20 May, but a few troop-carriers landed on the beach late in the day.page 43
The Luftwaffe crossed the coast a mile or more west of the airfield—out of effective Bofors range—and flew inland at about 500 feet. The two 3-inch anti-aircraft guns on Point 107 could not tackle effectively such low-flying aircraft. The planes turned towards Maleme in a broad swing, skimming low over A and B Companies. The slow troop-carriers do not seem to have been fired at by all of the ten Bofors round the airfield, an angry point with the infantry at the time and later.15
Glider and parachute troops numbering probably 500 (perhaps 600) landed in 22 Battalion's area, and at once the day's battle splintered into a confused series of individual actions by the companies, which are best followed by attempting to trace each company's experiences in turn. One enemy group landed by Pirgos village itself in Headquarters Company's area.
Headquarters Company (Lieutenant Beaven, three officers and about sixty men, mostly administrative staff not previously riflemen) was completely isolated all day from Battalion Headquarters. It was at once cut off when several gliders silently swam down between it and Battalion Headquarters, followed by perhaps ten, perhaps twenty, plane-loads of parachutists plus a small field gun. A second wave of parachutists fell about mid-morning. The invaders suffered severe losses, but the well-equipped survivors rallied to form awkward strongpoints in grape-vines and trees. These strongpoints made movement very difficult indeed. Within an hour the company suffered its most severe loss of the day. Sergeant-Major Matheson's16 platoon, out on a limb to the south, was cut off and overrun. Details are slender, but a survivor, Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant Woods,17 describes the scene: ‘Over comes the Hun with Stukas, page 44 Junkers and gliders, not mentioning the 109s. By the time the Stukas and 109s had left us the air round about seemed to be alive with Junkers, and believe me the birds that flew out of them were pretty thick. They looked impossible as the odds must have been easily 15 to 1.’ Shooting was good until grenades got the front trenches, Matheson received his mortal wound, and the platoon position fell.
Private Cowling18 tells of Matheson's stand. Just before the invasion broke, Matheson ordered Corporal Hall19 and Cowling over to the company cookhouse on fatigue. They had covered about half the distance when ‘we came across two signallers who said “The game is on you two, use that spare slit trench.”’ From the slit trench, facing towards Matheson's men, Cowling saw ‘quite a few paratroops in this area, they were all easy meat, those that came around…. the Transport Platoon were using machine guns. Boy, and weren't they using them too! We later found out they were enemy stuff they had conquered.’ Matheson's men held their own with ease until the Germans got a good footing in an adjacent brick barn. Then the story changed abruptly. Fire and grenades from this commanding position brought the end. In their slit trench Hall and Cowling bagged several paratroops (one, caught in an olive tree, dangled helplessly but fatally only six inches from the earth), and at one stage Hall said: ‘Hey, you're having all the fun, let's change ends for a while.’ But after the capture of the barn snipers shot Hall through the right eye, and then Cowling was hit and fainted. He was picked up by Germans next day and, together with about a dozen other wounded, was taken to the battalion RAP, which had been captured by that time.
Even after taking Matheson's position, the enemy got no further towards Pirgos village; he was content to retain small patches among the olives and try to edge westwards along the coast to the focal point—the all-important airfield. Headquarters Company continued to hold Pirgos. Company Sergeant-Major Fraser was annoyed that anti-personnel mines covering approaches to the company area had not been primed so as to allow any relieving counter-attack complete freedom of movement. He and Lieutenant Clapham had hastened to the page 45 company's western defences to encourage men to leave trenches and fire at paratroops in the air. This encouragement was not needed by a section commanded by the First World War veteran, Jack Pender, an armourer sergeant attached to 22 Battalion. Pender, with his corporal, Hosking,20 had recently been mounting Browning machine guns out of aircraft in various other battalion positions. His section covered paratroops falling twenty-five yards along the front. Very few of them landed alive. But two automatic weapons, set up in a blind spot, gave trouble all day.
Satisfied that the company's western front was holding well, Lieutenant Clapham, this time accompanied by Sergeant Charlie Flashoff, next set off to the east, to Corporal Moore's21 section, on the right flank near the sea and forward of Company Headquarters. Clapham and Flashoff were wounded and incapacitated by grenades. Moore's post held out, and so did another strongpoint by the beach commanded by Corporal Hosie.22 Hosie's men had an anxious time when, about 4 p.m., a large party of Germans marched down by the beach towards them, ‘but a three-inch mortar [actually a 75 millimetre French field gun of C Troop 27 Battery] landed about six bombs right smack on top of them, and what was left took cover in a house on the beach.’ The seaward posts kept survivors pinned down until dark.
Padre Hurst and a group of ‘cooks and bottlewashers’, manning a small defensive position and soon using up the few rounds of ammunition they possessed, were joined by Jack Pender, who ducked back to his armoury and returned with a bucket of bullets. ‘They kept us going till we moved out. Also with his help we got a German field piece going and he cleaned up a machine gun nest in a cottage—that was our greatest triumph.’ The field gun fired again at dusk.
The afternoon seems to have been relatively quiet for Headquarters Company. Twice during the day Private Fellows prowled around Pirgos quite freely, once filling his tin hat with eggs ‘and dropped the lot when a Jerry fired, missing my ear by about 1 ½ inches', and once ‘finding two of our privates in page 46 sole possession of the church, Arthur (“Wog”) Alexander23 and Frank Mence,24 who drank the holy water and complained about tadpoles.’ After an anxious morning the company commander, Lieutenant Beaven, seems to have remained confident. Beaven, his telephone wires cut, his signallers prevented by fire at 10.30 a.m. from further attempts to contact Battalion Headquarters by visual methods, had been in touch but once with the outside world. A cool and resourceful runner, Frank Wan25 (his companion signaller, Bloomfield,26 dead),27 had come from one and a half miles away to report that Wadey's platoon at the AMES was not in contact with enemy troops. That was all. Beaven sent runners to Battalion Headquarters and to B Company. None returned. The day dragged through in complete isolation. Three hours before sunset Beaven wrote this concise report and gave it to the indefatigable Wan, who was captured but hid and preserved the report in his boot until the war ended:
Paratroops landed East, South, and West of Coy area at approx 0745 hrs today. Strength estimated 250. On our NE front 2 enemy snipers left. Unfinished square red roof house south of sig terminal housing enemy MG plus 2 snipers. We have a small field gun plus 12 rounds manned by Aussies. Mr. Clapham's two fwd and two back secs OK. No word of Matheson's pl except Cpl Hall and Cowling.
Troops in HQ area OK.
Mr Wadey reports all quiet. No observation of enemy paratroops who landed approx 5 mls south of his position.
Casualties: killed Bloomfield
wounded Lt Clapham, Sgt Flashoff, Cpl Hall, Pte Cowling, Brown.28
Attached plans taken off Jerry.
G. Beaven, Lt OC HQ Coy
1650 hrspage 47
At dusk the enemy began collecting and calling the roll where Matheson's forward post had been. Forming a gun crew and manning the small field gun, Pender, Fraser and Hosking fired at point-blank range against the assembly point. ‘That quietened them down quite a bit,’ said Pender. They were as cheeky as hell, shouting out to each other and giving orders, but the field gun quietened them down except that orders turned to squeals and yells, which was very good.’
After dark a party of five went out to find that B Company had gone. Beaven checked for himself, found this true, but being reluctant to leave, held on until towards 2 a.m., when a party from 28 (Maori) Battalion passed through towards the airfield and returned in about half an hour. This sent Headquarters Company on the move too. In the night as the withdrawal began the captured German field gun got its own back with the last shot it would ever fire for 22 Battalion. Somebody stumbled against and fired the gun. The recoiling piece smashed into a man who cried: ‘My bloody leg is gone!’ Taking their four wounded with them (there were also three dead, apart from Matheson's platoon), Headquarters Company left Pirgos.
Kennedy29 and Wallace30 had some trouble in getting volunteers to help the wounded: ‘however several Aussies, probably ack-ack gunners, did a grand job.’ Charlie Flashoff, sorely wounded, lay on the stretcher; Barney Clapham, supported with a comrade on either side, struggled along. Another wounded man was taken in pick-a-back relays. Unhappily, somewhere about dawn, they ran into German light automatic fire. Ordered by someone to leave stretcher cases, Kennedy and Wallace joined others in the party and headed towards 23 Battalion area. Pirgos was handed over to the enemy, ‘why,’ writes Private Fellows, ‘I have never been able to find out. At no time during the night or day had Pirgos been occupied by the Jerries. A few had come through and a few stayed, but only the dead ones.’
C Company (Captain Johnson31) had a strength of just over 100, including signallers and stretcher-bearers, seven Brens, page 48 six Browning machine guns ‘borrowed’ from unserviceable RAF planes, nine tommy guns, and no mortars. Thirteen Platoon (Sergeant Crawford32), verging on to the beach, covered the northern end of the airfield; 15 Platoon (Lieutenant Sinclair33), facing the riverbed and the bridge, held the western end and was to halt any attack coming across the almost dry riverbed; 14 Platoon (Lieutenant Donald) and Company Headquarters, by the southern end of the airfield, would hold any attack coming from inland. A counter-attack by 23 Battalion was expected. In C Company's area there was one serious weakness: a large number (about 370) of Air Force, Fleet Air Arm and Naval men (MNBDO34 gunners), despite (it should be remembered) repeated requests by Johnson and Andrew, did not come under 22 Battalion's command. They retained their independence almost to the point of absurdity; even the current password differed among the three groups. Furthermore, not one serviceable Allied aircraft now remained in Crete. Many a soldier still wonders why this unwieldy group was not briskly cleared out of the way and the airfield destroyed.35
All sections, amply stocked with ammunition, were well dug in in partly covered slit trenches, two or three men to each trench. Mines were laid, but on strict orders from Force Headquarters were never primed because they might have blown up friendly Greeks. There was another weakness: at the south-west corner of C Company's position, where this company ended and D Company began near the concrete and wood bridge crossing the Tavronitis River, the RAF had its tented camp. The camp and the large number of airmen about it made it impossible for 15 Platoon to tie up thoroughly with the northern platoon of D Company: ‘one good defence line would have run straight through the officers' mess—unthinkable!’ Straight through this weak spot the Germans came.
The breakfast-time bombing, raising a sudden, blinding dust-cloud round C Company's positions, killed five men and page 49 wounded one in 14 Platoon and Company Headquarters close by. The dust hid the arrival of the first gliders: Company Headquarters saw no gliders at all. When the air cleared, men looking east saw the blue-grey uniformed, swaying paratroops landing round Pirgos (Lieutenant Beaven's area), and plenty more were coming down to the west, over the riverbed, from about 800 yards south of 15 Platoon up to the river mouth and even, fatally, into the sea itself.
Almost simultaneously an attack began from the riverbed against the twenty-three men of 15 Platoon. Shingle banks running north and south gave good cover. These glider troops directly in front of the platoon developed increasingly heavy fire. But the platoon, stoutly resisting, held on, halting an attack after the Germans are said to have taken the anti-aircraft guns in front of the platoon. ‘These guns lacked certain parts and did not fire a shot,’ says Lieutenant Sinclair.36 ‘The parts were to have arrived days before the battle. Crews didn't accept our suggestion to prepare positions near ours, and only two survived the blitz. These two joined Lance-Sergeant Vallis37 in his pit.’ The sergeant accepted a helping hand with a Browning automatic salvaged from a plane and mounted on bits and pieces of aircraft. The sights were a conglomeration of soap, chewing gum and screws. With unlimited ammunition Vallis fired this gun until it was white hot—and then still kept on firing.
Next the Germans, having been checked on the front, swung slightly to attack on the northern end of 15 Platoon (Corporal Haycock's38 section), aiming towards the western section of 13 Platoon near the beach.
The one phone link between C Company and Battalion Headquarters was out—bombing had cut the telephone wires. page 50 Signals for assistance in an emergency had been discussed (15 Platoon once had considered hanging a white or coloured cloth on a tree, and other men in the battalion remember vague suggestions of waving copies of the Weekly News), but none of these rather futile arrangements was made final, and perhaps just as well.
So from now on messages had to be sent by runner. At 10 a.m. Captain Johnson, believing the enemy was boring through the north flank of 15 Platoon to 13 Platoon, unsuccessfully sought permission to counter-attack with the two I tanks, which were dug in and camouflaged between 14 Platoon and Battalion Headquarters. These carefully hidden tanks, Colonel Andrew's trump card, were to be used only as a last resort. Unaided, therefore, the two northern platoons held this attack.
While the northern enemy party opened its at first unavailing attack against Corporal Haycock's area to the south, a far more formidable party, leaping and firing from behind one protecting pylon to the next, had crossed the riverbed and seized intact the concrete and wood bridge over the Tavronitis. The first crack in Maleme's defences was now being made. About 11 a.m. the enemy began his first attempt to drive a wedge between C and D Companies in a thrust on Battalion Headquarters. He was now in the vulnerable RAF camp, a cat among pigeons, and 15 Platoon, pinned to its positions, was now under fire from south, west and north. ‘Yet,’ says Sinclair, ‘with plenty of good targets and an interesting attack, we were not unduly worried. We seemed to be holding our own, so we just hung on and hoped. New uninitiated troops do not know much fear.’
The German spearhead, planting parties by the camp to fire across the airfield towards 13 Platoon by the sea (a long way, but movement on the opposite side of the airfield was clearly visible), moved on towards Battalion Headquarters, on Point 107. In front of the enemy, making matters worse, went unarmed airmen, either demoralised and fleeing or being driven deliberately as a screen. As the Germans, with the airmen in front of them, neared Battalion Headquarters, Captain Johnson sent Lance-Sergeant Keith Ford39 (14 Platoon) and his section across to help. Colonel Andrew sent them back with the words: ‘You look after your own backyard—I'll look after mine.’page 51
After returning to Captain Johnson, Sergeant Ford and two men were sent out once more, across the angry airfield to 13 Platoon. They used what cover they could find in approaching the eastern edge of the landing strip where it was narrowest, then ‘ran like hell’. One man, Private Porter,40 was lost on the way. Thirteen Platoon was to take a more active role by joining and supporting the hard-pressed 15 Platoon, still holding out in the middle section and at Platoon Headquarters. But the enemy (near the river mouth on the northern-most positions of 15 Platoon), firing heavily across the airfield towards the sea, made any such move impossible. Johnson could not check why no advance was succeeding. He could see fire from the RAF camp area, but not that from the river mouth. By this time, noon, Lieutenant Sinclair (15 Platoon) had fainted through lack of blood, and his batman, Jim Farrington,41 had been shot through the head. Although hit through the neck, Sinclair had kept going for an hour, trying unsuccessfully with tracer and incendiary bullets to ignite a petrol dump alongside a stack of RAF bombs.
Near Sinclair a soldier had given his life in one of the most gallant acts in the history of the battalion. When a grenade landed in his trench, Lance-Corporal Mehaffey42 unhesitatingly flung his helmet over it and then jumped on it in an attempt to save the lives of his two comrades. Both of his feet were blown off and he died soon after. Mehaffey was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross. ‘His behaviour and gallantry throughout the entire scrap until his final act of sacrifice was indeed of a high order,’ wrote Captain Johnson.
Before continuing the company story, here is a fragment from 13 Platoon. Forbes-Faulkner43 had the north-west section of 13 Platoon (that is, closest to 15 Platoon), with his headquarters in the small chapel. The field of fire was to cover a landing by sea. He writes: ‘In checking with the Aussie Bofors crews, their page 52 password and ours was not the same, nor did either coincide with the Fleet Air Arm…. On the morning of the invasion the Aussie Bofors gun did not fire a shot, I don't know the reason why. We were a fair distance from most of the activity, and the first intimation that we had that they were close to us was when we saw a Hun hop into the Bofors pit and cover the gun with a Swastika flag. Joe Hamlin44 shot him as he came out.’ The westerly half of the section held their own at first; later in the day they were taken prisoner and marched off. The rest of the section held out in their pits, getting ‘a few more as they moved towards the chapel, probably thinking it was defended, but from our position we nicely enfiladed them at about 25 to 50 yards.’
About 2 p.m. a spirited lieutenant from an English light anti-aircraft battery led eight men (two ‘bomb happy’), survivors from his troop of Bofors guns by the south-east edge of the airfield, into Company Headquarters. They volunteered to join C Company as riflemen and were armed. Captain Johnson carries on the story:
‘At 3 p.m. [Johnson is two hours out: the attack began just after 5 p.m.] the long and eagerly awaited order to counter attack with support of the two tanks arrived from Battalion Headquarters. I had discussed with the tank troop commander the day before just how we would work together. The troop commander, believing the Germans would have no anti-tank weapons capable of hurting a Matilda, feared nothing except enemy soldiers on top of his tanks. He asked that his tanks should be kept sprayed with small-arms fire. I asked how we on foot would communicate with the tank. He told me to press a bell at the back of the tank, and the tank commander would open the turret and talk. When the counter attack started, contact was attempted with the tank crews. Nobody answered the bell. [Throughout the entire war, no tank man ever seemed to answer the bell, and the exposed infantryman had to hammer vigorously on the tank with rifle, tommy gun, or metal helmet before the turret would open suspiciously.] Lieutenant Donald commanded the attackers on foot: 14 Platoon (about 12 below strength) was organised as two sections with a third section of page 53 gunner volunteers. The tanks left their concealed positions at 3.15 p.m. [5.15 p.m.] and moved west past Company Headquarters along the road towards the river in single file about 30 yards apart. The first tank proceeded up to the river, firing as it went, until it stopped in the riverbed.’
Sinclair, regaining consciousness for most of the afternoon, saw the tank ‘go down under the big bridge and out a little further west where it came to a halt. The place was seething with enemy plainly visible in the long grass. They seemed uncertain what to do.’
Johnson continues: ‘The tank went no further. Apparently the turret had jammed. The crew surrendered.’ [This comment is based on a report given Johnson by Corporal ‘Bob’ Smith,45 who was subsequently a prisoner of war employed on the airfield before escaping to Egypt. Sinclair has another version: some sort of anti-tank rifle burst through to the engine, the crew at pistol point were forced to service the damaged part but instead ruined it permanently. ‘From where I was,’ Sinclair goes on, ‘I thought this business with the tank and the men was futile. Of course I could see more perhaps of the opposition lying in wait.’
‘The second tank turned about before reaching the bridge and came back past Company Headquarters on the Maleme road,’ says Johnson. ‘It had not fired a shot. Bellringing was unavailing. When the second tank turned 14 Platoon was under withering fire from the front and southern flank. Their position was hopeless. Those who were able to withdrew, using the lee side of the tank for shelter. Donald, himself wounded, led only eight or nine men back, most of them wounded, from this brave but disastrous counter attack. The English officer (unfortunately I never learned his name) was killed in this attack after pleading with me to let him take part and lead a section.’
It was obvious now that the Germans were well consolidated —they did not waste time digging in, nor had they need to. Johnson sent a runner to Colonel Andrew with the disturbing news that the counter-attack had failed. Fifteen Platoon46 and page 54 the western section of 13 Platoon seemed to have been overcome; 14 Platoon was practically finished, and the cooks, stretcher-bearers, and Company Headquarters staff alone could not hold the inland perimeter of the airfield for long. The company would probably hold out until dark, but reinforcements would be needed then. The CO replied in his last message to get through to Johnson on 20 May: Hold on at all costs.’
Speaking of his men, Johnson pays a tribute to Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Vaughan,47 who worked untiringly to supply food and water, and says: ‘The surviving men were in excellent heart in spite of their losses. They had Not had enough. They were first rate in every particular way and were as aggressive as when action was first joined.’ He also speaks movingly of the performance this day of all the men in his company, mainly from Hawke's Bay and Gisborne: ‘I'll never know men like them again.’
Late in the afternoon two Ju52s attempted to land on the airfield, but the mauled company was by no means carrion yet. All weapons opened up and the planes, spitting back small-arms fire, swung out to sea.
From after dark until midnight German patrols were active in the neighbourhood. In the night no C Company patrols could contact Battalion Headquarters. Its old area was now found to be occupied by Germans, a severe shock indeed. Simultaneously (and here is another instance where the fate of the airfield hung delicately in the balance), a company 114 strong from 28 (Maori) Battalion came confidently right to the eastern edge of the airfield and failed by a furlong or so to contact C Company. This would be bitter news to C Company men when they heard some days (or, in some cases, several years) later of the Maoris' thrust. The company now believes the Maoris came to within but 200 yards of Company Headquarters and 14 Platoon, but halted by the knocked-out Bofors guns, and hearing only the shouts and tramplings of noisy German patrols, concluded that the airfield had fallen and pulled back. The position of Company Headquarters and 14 Platoon was marked clearly on maps in the hands of other battalions and even as far back as Creforce Headquarters. Had the Maoris made contact, C Company is confident that with Maori reinforcements it would have held out all next day (21 May), page 55 still denying the airfield to the enemy, despite the certainty of heavy casualties. In that event, the story of Maleme would have changed with a vengeance.
For three hours after midnight patrols failed to find A, B and D Companies. A man conspicuous for his one-man patrol activities was Peter Butler,48 over from Headquarters Company; his explorations were of paramount importance and greatly helped the evacuation from the airfield. Reluctantly convinced that no support was coming, now that the battalion apparently was gone, and believing that his few remaining men on the inland side of the airfield could not withstand the inevitable dawn attack, Johnson, after conferring with Donald, decided to withdraw at 4.30 a.m. on 21 May. The lateness of the time is worth remembering: dawn was approaching. Johnson and his company had stuck to their posts nobly: their withdrawal from the fateful airfield was a bitter reward for their day of steadfast defiance. A runner went to tell 13 Platoon and returned saying the place was bare.49 Every man removed his boots and hung them round his neck. Critically wounded men were made as comfortable as possible and left with food and water. The southern wire round 14 Platoon's defences was cut and, in single file, the wounded interspersed here and there, they set off. One man was practically carried, stooped over the back of a friend; another crawled all the way to 21 Battalion on his hands and knees. No stretchers were available; the party could not have carried them in any case, for they had to be prepared to fight their way out. They50 went past the snoring Germans to the page 56 right, through the vineyards separating C Company from A Company, up to A Company's deserted headquarters, on to the road, up the hill past a grounded and ghostly glider until, after dawn, they reached a wood near 21 Battalion's positions. As they fell dead-tired under the trees, German planes began the morning hate.
D Company (Captain Campbell) had about 70 men, supported by two machine guns of 27 Battalion on makeshift mountings, an uncertain number of Bren and tommy guns, and no mortars. The right boundary included the bridge over the Tavronitis River. Near here 18 Platoon (Sergeant Sargeson) was placed; 17 Platoon (Lieutenant Jim Craig51) was next, with 16 Platoon (Lance-Sergeant Freeman52) further inland on higher ground on the company's left flank. The last two platoons looked down on to the riverbed and across to flat ground on the other side. About a quarter of a mile south was an outpost, a platoon from 21 Battalion.
As the platoons were out of touch with each other during the day, their experiences will be treated in turn.
The most northerly platoon in D Company, 18 Platoon, 30- odd strong in Greece and wasted to only twenty-two by 20 May, was extraordinarily thin on its vital ground. Throughout 20 May Sergeant Sargeson had no contact whatsoever with C Company (on the airfield, on the platoon's right flank) or even with his company's remaining two platoons.
On the point of breakfast-time ‘it suddenly became expedient to keep your head down while our slit trenches concertina-ed in and out under the grandfather of all blitzes.’ Hard on this, Sargeson recollects, ‘the planes were literally wing-tip to wing-tip and all disgorging a skyful of multi-coloured parachutes. … I remember being fascinated by the spectacle and remarking to Corporal Bob Boyd53 who was beside me: “Look at that Bob, you'll never see another sight like that as long as page 57 you live”—and Bob's reply, eminently practical and much more useful to the cause as he picked up his rifle, “Yes, and if we don't shoot a few of the b—s we won't live too bloody long.” ‘
Any scattered paratroops who had overshot their intended mark west of the river to land near 18 Platoon's positions were dealt with; but detachments from the great bulk of the invaders, landing well out of range, formed up as the day grew older and attacked in orthodox fashion as well-equipped infantry. Eighteen Platoon's two-man picket on the bridge (Smale54 and Barrett55), according to plan fell back towards a position near the RAF cookhouse to cover the bridge from there with a Boys anti-tank rifle which Arthur Holley56 had devotedly lugged out of Greece. Barrett was killed and Smale soon wounded and later captured, and this tenuous grip on the highly important bridge was almost immediately lost. Corporal Neil Wakelin's57 group obviously could do nothing about the bridge, under which, protected by pylons, an enemy machine gun and mortar (subsequently identified by a dud round) promptly took post and offensive action, pinning down and pounding the handful of defenders in the two nearest pits (Gillice's58 and Minton's59). Accordingly, by mid-morning, with the noise of battle unabated, Platoon Headquarters saw the first minute fall in the avalanche which, starting at Maleme, would sweep the British from Crete: through the dust some 250 yards away a few of these men were being shepherded through the wire and dazedly gesticulating back not to fire. One of these captives, Arthur Holley, writes of their severe bombing, himself being blown up with a grenade, and of casualties widespread among his companions.
Sargeson, checking up, found Wakelin ‘all right, and agreed that his position and mine were now the front line. We knew page 58 nothing of C Company. Warfare continued spasmodically with a fair bit of activity directed at us from the M.G. and mortar behind the bridge. However, no direct frontal assault was made and we sat tight. If the enemy had realised how thin we were I don't doubt he would have dug us out but we parried shot for shot and I suppose he was guessing—or else was busy with C Company so that he could later outflank us.’
In the late afternoon, expecting an evening assault on what now was clearly the left flank of the whole airfield position, the sergeant went back (‘encountering no one except carnage’) to Company Headquarters, to be told by Captain Campbell that reinforcements were nil. The platoon had in fact received reinforcements at the beginning of the bombing: fourteen RAF ground crew, as arranged. These fourteen men, willing enough to be sure, were of no use, quite untrained as they were for any infantry task and hopelessly ill equipped, with no rifles and perhaps a few. 38 pistols. All clad in deceptive blue, they were hastily camouflaged by New Zealand greatcoats in the boiling sun. Nearly all were wearing light shoes which were soon in ribbons.
Returning to his platoon and learning that Wakelin's post had been in close action, Sargeson investigated with Corporal Boyd. Two survivors overlooked in their hole (Nickson60 and Velvin61) told how, surprised from behind, Wakelin and Doole62 had been led down to the canal and apparently tommy-gunned. When the four got back to Platoon Headquarters, darkness was approaching. Sargeson ‘decided that I could not prevent infiltration in the dark and that rightly or wrongly, I would not sit out on a spur but would withdraw my few men and consolidate with the rest of the company. And believe me we literally tiptoed away into the night and heard quite clearly the enemy moving in behind us (the Germans' habit of calling to one another in the dark advertised their presence).’
They ‘were a little disturbed’ to find the rest of the company had also withdrawn a short distance, and Captain Campbell and Company Sergeant-Major Fowler, with no information on the situation generally, were about to send a two-man patrol to Battalion Headquarters.page 59
While watching the gliders come in 17 Platoon saw seventeen land along the dry riverbed of the Tavronitis. The first one grounded on the hillside between positions occupied by Captain Campbell and Lieutenant Craig. At least five of the occupants were killed or wounded, and Craig with his batman, Bert Slade,63 were returning to their position with two unwanted prisoners when ‘a Jerry machine gun opened up and settled the problem for me, missing both Slade and myself but copping the two prisoners dead centre.’ Craig and Slade felt sure they had cleaned up the occupants of the glider, but the balance (four) were glimpsed making for the ridge just above them and disappeared in the direction of the coast gun. The full crew of a glider, hidden by a slight promontory, advanced together towards Allan Dunn's64 section, but the section posts of Tom Walsh65 and Kettle66 (the latter receiving ‘marvellous assistance from a couple of Air Force chaps [who] were great shots and knew no fear’) got the lot. ‘Our firearms were most inadequate,’ comments Kettle. ‘My section was issued with a Bren gun a few days before the blitz, with instructions not to fire indiscriminately with it as it was necessary to conserve ammo. We obeyed this instruction most explicitly unfortunately, for it was discovered upon attempting our first burst at the enemy that the gun was without a firing pin.’ They gathered enemy equipment, including a spandau, which gave good service until ammunition ran out at 12.30 p.m. Barney Wicksteed did good work as a sniper.page 60
Tom Walsh's section, with one trench blown in by a bomb, was fully occupied in firing at its front, the riverbed, ‘but,’ says Danny Gower,67 ‘Tom Walsh suddenly turned round with his tommygun and dropped three Germans suddenly behind us, the three enemy coming right out of the olive groves. We took turns then facing front and rear, but after a while there was not much doing.’ Sergeant Forbes-Faulkner68 saw across the riverbed Greek civilians being used methodically ‘during the day as cover while the Jerries organised themselves.’
As far as 17 Platoon is concerned, there seems to have been only one casualty; scattered paratroops (about twenty fell in the platoon area) had been quickly knocked out; the positions apparently held firmly all day, but movement in the afternoon brought fierce and most accurate fire from across the riverbed. ‘No. 17 Pln had a fairly easy time of it most of the day,’ writes Jim Craig. ‘As my position gave me a clear view of all my positions and I was expecting at any time to receive orders to counterattack, I did not deem it advisable to stray very far from my Platoon H.Q. where I could be contacted by Coy. Cmdr. or Bn. The sections seemed to be O.K. and had quite capable section commanders and I kept in contact with them by runner, however I now feel that on looking back I should have perhaps taken matters into my own hands, as we had cleaned out what enemy had come our way, in the nature of Paratroops and Gliders, and made a counter attack to retrieve No. 18's lost position, but it would have left our own position and the right flank of 16 Pln wide open.’ About 6 p.m. (according to Pat Thomas69) a runner began visiting sections with an instruction to move back to Company Headquarters in groups of two or three, for the enemy had the area covered with machine guns.
On the left flank of D Company, 16 Platoon held positions on the hillside overlooking the dry riverbed, with a good field of fire but out of sight of the rest of the company. The platoon commander was Sergeant Vince Freeman. The pounding from the air was severe; there were bomb holes everywhere, but not page 61 one casualty. ‘There was not a tree standing in my area and our trenches were half filled in,’ writes Corporal Pemberton.70 ‘“Windy” Mills71 had a Boys anti-tank rifle tied up in an olive tree,’ recalls Harry Wigley.72 ‘He had ideas of shooting at troop-carrying planes. I don't think that gun was ever found, nor the tree it was tied to.’
Stray paratroops (their chief object apparently was keeping the riverbed defenders occupied while the main force beyond landed and organised) soon were cleaned up by 16 Platoon, which dealt as well with two stray gliders, and also, the platoon fears, with several blue-dressed RAF men (‘our big worry’) escaping into the hills. A furiously swearing Private Gilbert,73 his Bren full of dirt from the bombing, had to take it down, clean it, and assemble it before opening up with marked effect on gliders and their occupants in the riverbed. But every time the gun fired it sent up a cloud of dust which drew heavy machinegun fire and mortaring from the enemy quickly grouping across the river. Two guns from 27 (MG) Battalion gave a spirited performance until ammunition ran low in the afternoon. A wounded machine-gun officer (Second-Lieutenant Brant74) was given first aid in Sergeant Freeman's pit: ‘he was offended because I pulled his identity discs out to check up just who was behind me. Wanted to know if I thought he was a Jerry.’
Apart from bursts of counter-fire from across the river, the rest of the morning for 16 Platoon passed ‘rather quietly…. In the afternoon there were no targets offering … nothing of interest’; it was ‘a reasonably quiet day and [the platoon] handled what there was around.’ Germans had worked up to under the riverbank in front of the platoon but came no further, content to call out in English, ‘Come down here, Comrade’. ‘They desisted in this when someone invited them to stick their— square heads above the bank and he'd give them Comrades.’
‘That night,’ writes Pemberton, who was in charge of half page 62 of the platoon, ‘16 Platoon was sitting very snug and in control of the position, and in the early morning I was surprised when Tom Campbell contacted me and said we were moving out as we could not contact the rest of the Battalion.’ The platoon suffered but one casualty all day: Private Simpson,75 shot in the foot. ‘We had hoped that the 21 Battalion would have been allowed to have come down towards [16 Pl] as we were undoubtedly undermanned, and in a real manpowered charge early in day could have swung the tide,’ summed up Sergeant Freeman.
At Company Headquarters some men were redistributed into section posts in the immediate area. Here Captain Campbell's exasperating day from sunrise to dusk (at 8 a.m. his signals post had a direct hit from a bomb) was by no means over: the hardest decision would soon face him. Now, after dark, Sergeant-Major Fowler76 and another soldier picked their way to Battalion Headquarters. ‘It was evacuated, all right. But where had they gone?’ Campbell continues: ‘From a conference held before the action there was the plan that we would congregate south if we lost the drome.77 Then I thought that my company position might be wanted as a sort of pivot round which a counter attack could swing, especially if the battalion had pulled back to the south. I took stock of wounded nearby. They knew nothing of a counter attack. I decided to pull out. It was then 3 a.m.’
The situation among perplexed, weary, hungry and thirsty page 63 men was not improved by someone suddenly shouting, ‘Every man for himself!’, for morale had fallen flat with the news that the battalion had gone. Remnants of 18 Platoon with Sergeant Sargeson went far south on a hazardous expedition. Some of 17 Platoon with Lieutenant Craig began making south along the riverbank, were blocked, moved towards Point 107, and at sunrise were surrounded and captured. Company Headquarters, 16 Platoon and various strays followed Captain Campbell along a track running due east, skirted a party of sleeping Germans, met Captain Hanton and other mystified groups from the battalion, and at daybreak were nearing the protection of 5 Brigade's lines higher in the hills.
‘Farewell to Maleme aerodrome and some fine cobbers,’ wrote Sargeson.
A Company (Captain Hanton and Lieutenants Fell78 and McAra79; exact strength and weapons unknown), with the task of all-round defence, held its fire until parachutists were about 100 feet from the ground. Twenty-two Germans who landed alive in A Company's area were accounted for. Hanton, moving about, ‘saw dozens of corpses on the ground or in the trees…. During the lulls the men grabbed any German stores that landed near them. There were canisters of gear, food, motor cycles and even warm coffee from Hun flasks. The detailed organisation of the force amazed us at the time; we had not realised that so much care could be taken to win a battle.’
After breakfast, which had been delayed in the blitz, Lance- Corporal Chittenden and Bill Croft80 had just returned to their pit near the coast gun when, unknown to them, the four German survivors from the glider came over the ridge. As Chittenden and Croft reached their trench Croft's ‘first reaction was to ask for a smoke,’ says Chittenden. ‘Producing tobacco I was passing some to [Croft] when I noticed his hands slowly rising and a look of alarm on his face. Looking upwards I was soon aware of the cause. Four Germans, tommyguns in page 64 hand, were standing at the end of the trench beckoning to us to get out.’ Croft, rising, received a full and fatal burst; Chittenden next knew that he was grappling with the German leader, rolling over and over, then was stunned by a heavy blow (a shot, or shots). Soon recovering, he walked off for first aid, and but for his wounds would have convinced nobody that four Germans were in the immediate vicinity. What happened to these four Germans is not known. Company Sergeant-Major Harry Strickland81 ‘was in our Company Headquarters area, not a German in sight, there was a bang, I was on the deck [a stretcher case] wondering what the hell had happened.’ Then along the ridge Lance-Sergeant McWhinnie,82 with two or three others, was bailed up, disarmed, and driven ahead until rescued, probably by one of the parties sent out from Battalion Headquarters.
The next excitement came when Germans from the captured RAF camp began moving towards Point 107: there seem to have been two such sallies within two hours, each time with RAF men in front of them. These men, some with their hands up and crying ‘Don't shoot! Don't shoot!’ probably were being used deliberately as a screen. Both parties did not get far, for each time they were dealt with by men from A Company and Battalion Headquarters. The first skirmish was over quickly, and here Regimental Sergeant-Major Purnell83 was killed. The second advance, beginning about 11 a.m. with a larger screen of RAF men, also ended when the Germans behind the screen came under fire.
‘From then on, there was the odd firing and movements from below [from the airfield and environs] but nothing of vital importance as far as we were concerned as a company,’ says Hanton. ‘Later on I tried to see how Fell and McAra were getting on in their platoon positions to the south. Neither a runner, nor myself later, succeeded in getting through. About lunchtime the CSM, Strickland, was shot through the stomach. … For the rest of the day, a comparatively quiet time. I page 65 don't recall being worried at all over the company's position and casualties.’
At 5 p.m. orders reached Company Headquarters that reserve companies of 23 and 28 Battalions would arrive by 9 p.m., and at that time the company was to pull back to the RAP ridge, and further back at midnight. Orders would come about the second move. ‘Was amazed to hear of it,’ wrote Hanton. ‘Things were not bad with me and T. Campbell whom I met next morning did not go out of his way to suggest that he was in hot water exactly.’
After dark A Company moved a little eastward to the RAP ridge. A runner took news of this move to Fell and McAra, and possibly during this move Fell, silhouetted against the skyline, was killed. The company stayed at this RAP ridge until the early hours of the morning. From there runners had been sent out on both flanks, north and south, to contact C and B Companies. Both returned to say they had gone quite a distance without meeting anybody. ‘All the time I had the gnawing feeling that I was all on my own,’ says Hanton. ‘I got the troops that were left, there might have been 50, and began marching down the RAP road, south-west, away from the coast,’ to meet, greatly to their relief, Campbell and a party of D Company men. After hiding in a gully for most of the next day, the united party went on and reached a new line being formed by 21 and 23 Battalions.
At Battalion Headquarters Colonel Andrew considered the blitz worse than the 1914-18 artillery barrages: ‘I do not wish to experience another one like it.’ He was wounded slightly: ‘a wee piece of bomb that stuck in above the temple, and when I pulled it out it was bloody hot and I bled a bit.’ A man nearby heard the angry Colonel exclaim: ‘We'll go out and get these b—s when the bombing stops.’ In the smoking and dusty aftermath no paratroops landed between Point 107 and the two ends of the airfield, but several gliders did, between Battalion Headquarters and Headquarters Company, coming down among dust curtains still hanging from the bombing. No glider troops fired on Battalion Headquarters, and the paratroops were too far away. For fifteen minutes pot-shots were taken at an enemy group about 700 yards away, near a dry watercourse page 66 towards Pirgos village. Two gliders were within 200 yards of Battalion Headquarters; their crews lay hidden and doggo among the plentiful cover of vines until the late afternoon.
An hour after the landing the erratic No. 18 wireless set was working again, and at 10 a.m. reported to Brigade the landing of hundreds of paratroops in the riverbed and further west. ‘It was now so quiet that we [Battalion Headquarters] were walking round freely,’ records Major Leggat, who goes further, saying he ‘was a bit bored from the lack of movement. Things were a bit quiet round Bn Hq and I went up to the top of the hill where I could hear a few shots.’
These shots came from a gunner enterprise. On the hill just above the two 4-inch coast guns, Lieutenant Williams84 of 27 Battery had an observation post which soon became useless for observing and directing fire when communications failed. By 10 a.m. the Germans were into the RAF camp, and soon a few had moved on into a clump of olive trees containing the RAF's RAP. From this grove the first advance (a tentative affair) began probing up the lower slopes of Point 107 in an area apparently not covered by A Company. Williams and another artillery officer, Lieutenant Cade,85 quickly grouped together straggling British gunners86 and airmen (one defensive position was along a stone wall), sent a runner to Colonel Andrew for aid, and then prepared a bayonet attack. Some men stuck knives on their rifles. ‘Very soon a large party (30 to 40) appeared variously uniformed, and partly uniformed men with hands above their heads, many terror-stricken, all yelling and pleading with us not to shoot (meaning at the enemy) but to let them come on or they would be shot in the back,’ writes Twigg, who was ordered on to the hill when the attack began. ‘Among these men were some of our Bn,’ including the battalion provost sergeant (few men would wish a provost sergeant such a fate), page 67 Gordon Dillon, and Sergeant McWhinnie. ‘When any defences were seen the Jerries just took one or two of us and pushed us ahead onto the defence. The Jerry doing it put a Luger in your back and just pointed. It was easy to understand,’ writes Dillon. ‘They would keep close behind in case of shooting. It was well planned and with the intention of pushing into our positions.’ He adds: ‘Some damn good shots picked the three Jerries off.’
Descriptions from various viewpoints now understandably enough clash, but clearly, with ‘astonishing ease’ the gunners, three or four men with Major Leggat, and Twigg with a few signallers dealt with the very few Germans behind this distressed screen and restored the situation. But the sally had cost Sergeant-Major Purnell his life. ‘During all this time [from 10 a.m. to at least 11 a.m.] parties of men were moving about on the aerodrome and the hill, and it was quite impossible to know who was who; there was a great deal of shouting back and forth and the ubiquitous adjective was the best countersign,’ noted Lieutenant A. R. Ramsay, of the Fleet Air Arm.
A similar assault occurring perhaps three hours later was only partially checked, but this time military etiquette was deliberately flouted. Petty Officer Wheaton (an electrician working on the airfield) and a RAF man, on capture, were given a red swastika flag by a German officer, ordered to march in front of a group of German tommy-gunners, and to shout to parties to surrender. Flag in hand, the hapless petty officer was driven forward until, with a sudden dash for liberty, he landed in a trench where New Zealanders, firing an automatic weapon, drove back the enemy and rescued the airman, now badly wounded. As this drive began, a Marine officer came down from the hill, spoke of ‘a screen of captured RAF men’, and urged Palmer87 to take his Bren carrier up to the gun position. ‘We had been told not to move the carriers without orders from Colonel Andrew,’ Palmer relates. ‘I suggested to the officer that he got permission from Battalion Headquarters. Private “Sandy” Booth,88 who was present, offered to gather page 68 a party of men and take them up to cover the gun position. He gathered a party of about 20 RAF and Anti-aircraft men telling them it would be better to fight on the hilltop (Point 107) than be killed like rats in the olive grove.’ A few followed Booth to the top of the hill.
Original officers of 22 Battalion
Back row, from left: 2 Lt T. G. N. Carter, 2 Lt L. Leeks, Lt R. B. Fell, 2 Lt B. V. Davison, 2 Lt F. G. Oldham, Lt E. J. McAra, Lt L. B. Clapham, Lt G. G. Beaven. Third row: Lt G. C. D. Laurence, Lt D. F. Anderson, 2 Lt C. N. Armstrong, 2 Lt J. L. MacDuff, 2 Lt P. R. Hockley, Lt S. H. Johnson, 2 Lt C. I. C. Scollay, Lt W. G. Lovie, Lt H. R. Harris. Second row: Lt W. G. Slade, 2 Lt H. V. Donald, Lt W. M. Manchester, Capt J. Moore, Lt E. H. Simpson, Lt M. G. Wadey, Lt W. W. Mason, Lt T. Thornton, Capt T. C. Campbell, Capt W. Bourke, Capt I. A. Hart, 2 Lt T. R. Hawthorn, Lt K. R. S. Crarer. Front row: Lt E. T. Pleasants, Maj J. G. C. Leach, Maj J. Leggat, Maj G. J. McNaught, Lt-Col L. W. Andrew, Capt P. G. Monk, Capt E. F. Laws, Capt J. W. Bain, Capt S. Hanton (Absent, Rev. W. E. W. Hurst, 2 Lt E. E. Tyrell)
Borax, the unit's mascot, on parade in England
Sir Cyril Newall, the new Governor-General of New Zealand, inspects 22 Battalion in England, December 1940. With Sir Cyril are Capt S. Hanton (right) and Lt-Col L. W. Andrew (left). Brigadier J. Hargest is behind the Colonel
View from the main road in 22 Battalion's sector—looking east from the exit of the gorge on the eastern side of Olympus Pass
Greece: a troop train moves through the mountains towards the front
German planes burning on Maleme airfield
Aerial photograph of Maleme airfield
German troops waiting to embark for Crete
Captured members of B Company at Bardia
Bren carrier with German machine gun, Gazala, December 1941
Pressure mounted steadily as the afternoon began and the drama of the airfield and Point 107 moved towards its climax. A few minutes after noon Battalion Headquarters wirelessed Brigade that enemy guns and heavy machine guns were firing at them from west of the river. In the early afternoon mortaring and strafing (presumably from the ground) was heavy, some of A Company were seen beginning to move back beyond Battalion Headquarters, saying that a strong enemy force was moving up between A and C Companies. (The southern posts of A Company did not move.) At 2.55 p.m. Battalion Headquarters reported to Brigade that ‘position was fairly serious as enemy had penetrated into Bn H.Q. area’, and at 3.50 p.m. ‘left flank had given way but position was believed to be in hand’. Headquarters appealed for news of its HQ Company as reinforcements were ‘badly needed’. Perhaps it was then that Andrew asked Hargest for a counter-attack and was told that 23 Battalion was engaged with paratroops (23 Battalion area was clear by 11.40 a.m., when companies were out hunting paratroops). So denied support and with no reserves due to the large area the 22nd covered, Andrew made his last throw, the two tanks, and to his bitter disappointment watched the attack fail. At 6.45 p.m. Point 107 was bombed by five planes. Major Leggat now saw the Luftwaffe resuming close support, for by now the enemy knew his spearheads had reached the top of the hill, and planes machine-gunned areas forward of that. Brigade's last recorded message from 22 Battalion (7.25 p.m.) ‘… asked for immediate assistance and reported their casualties as heavy….’
The counter-attack by 23 Battalion, freely discussed before the invasion, was widely expected, and when it did not come, the feeling of bewilderment and isolation increased. Apart from page 70 A and B Companies, nothing was known about the fate of the rest of the battalion or the brigade. The enemy, growing in organisation and confidence, challenged movement. Hidden enemy parties took heart. Practically all news was unreliable, just rumours. A hitherto most reliable man, suffering great strain, reported that D Company was wiped out.
‘The morale of Bn. H.Q. officers and men [in the morning] was good, and I consider up to the standard and far better than in the latter years of the war,’ writes Twigg. ‘The O.C. and 2 i.c. showed signs of strain during the day, and I put this down to lack of news and information concerning their own troops and the position in general. I am sure that the bombing or their personal safety did not concern these officers, but the responsibility was great.’
The brigade plan did not seem to be functioning; the CO had little information; neither wireless appeal nor the distress flares had brought the counter-attack; the enemy had exploited to the full the weakness of the defences by the RAF camp, over which the CO had little control; only A and B Companies seemed to be left, and these appeared likely to be overwhelmed with the dawn. Colonel Andrew therefore told Brigadier Hargest that he might have to withdraw, and he understood the Brigadier to reply: ‘Well, if you must, you must.’ By this—which may have been about 6 p.m.—Andrew meant a short withdrawal from the top of Point 107; he still intended to deny the enemy any use of the airfield.
Leggat takes up the tale: ‘Just before dusk [sunset was 7.50 p.m.] McDuff (I think) and I followed the CO to B Coy's HQ. We went up the road past the glider, which gives some idea of the quietness of the situation. Here we used Armstrong's slit trench and blanket and went into a huddle. Crarer90 tells me the Signaller had still his set with him but was having no luck in getting through. A company of 23 Bn under Carl Watson91 came through about 9. I took them across the road. McAra said he would put them in position (he was killed 5 minutes later).’page 71
The Colonel had decided to withdraw the rest of his battalion to B Company's ridge to anchor a flank and to reorganise. But on reaching the ridge he ‘found the enemy had pushed round my flanks further than I had expected, and I had to make the decision to withdraw to the 21/23 Bn line and this I did before dawn.’ ‘This decision must have been made about 10.30 p.m.,’ notes Major Leggat. Runners went out with news of the withdrawal, but only B Company knew of the move.
Leggat went on to Brigade Headquarters by carrier to report ‘that we were officially off Maleme’, and Hargest, asleep and in pyjamas, ‘was absolutely surprised and unprepared.’ Similarly, when Captain Crarer (B Company) passed at the end of his company through 21 Battalion, ‘Colonel Allen92 was surprised and totally ignorant that any withdrawal was to take place.’
The day had opened, and ended, with complete surprises. Yet the most bitterly surprised would be the four companies, mauled but still in position below in the darkness, still holding on and unaware ‘that we were officially off Maleme’.
B Company (Captain Ken Crarer, with Lieutenant Armstrong acting as second-in-command; exact strength and weapons unknown): 10 Platoon (Sergeant Bruce Skeen93) was to the south, 11 Platoon (Corporal Andrews) to the north, and 12 Platoon (Lieutenant Slade94) to the west. This company's task was an all-round defence of the area; to tie in with A Company and to protect two machine guns placed slightly to the north; to prevent any attack coming over the hill to the west and down to the airfield. In the last two days the company area had received its share of bombing and strafing. Pilots paid particular attention to machine-gunning the road.
The parachutists came in in a line running from the north-east of B Company across to the southern area of D Company: ‘As each flight of troop-carriers (3) emptied its load of about a dozen troops per plane, a fresh flight carried on extending the line until they were dropping directly over and beyond us. By page 72 this time the Browning was smoking hot and I was frantically reloading and spraying the Jerries as they continued the line to circle the drome.’ They fell thickly around the area where Slade's platoon was in position, and this platoon seems to have remained isolated all day.95 When Slade was wounded, Corporal Jurgens96 took command. Andrews's platoon got all but three of the paratroops who were dropped within 200 yards, ‘and one of my NCOs, L/Cpl. Elliott97 took a couple of men despite the standing order that no man was to leave his trench and went down into the valley where several Jerries had landed among the trees and cleaned them out. Keith Elliott got wounded in the arm and a tommy gun man, Tommy Thompson98 got one through his right leg. [Elliott's excursion probably took him to within 400 yards of Matheson's platoon at Pirgos.] As Elliott's venture proved to be the way to handle paratroops I sent out half the platoon at a time to scour our area and bring in all the machine guns, pistols, tommy guns and grenades that the Jerries dropped in containers. There was a container after every fourth or fifth man.’
A glider ‘sneaked in on us’ and dropped below the road between B and A Companies. Two men with a captured German machine gun ‘poured belt after belt into the glider’; a sniper wounded Johnny Adcock99 before he was himself killed.
Crarer says: ‘Apart from a bit of sniping and several prisoners surrendering, and an occasional drop during the day, the area remained comparatively quiet—a lot of shooting to the west where enemy parties were gathering. Communications with A Company were visual and by liaison. We had a carrier which had made two trips to Battalion Headquarters by early afternoon. I tried to make contact with Slade's area by sending two patrols forward, but they were shot up and did not get through. page 73 [Slade, alone at Platoon Headquarters, was wounded but dealt valiantly with three Germans with an anti-tank gun. Allan Holley100 says that from 10 a.m. onwards the hill was clear, and from early afternoon everything was quiet.] We had good liaison with Lieutenant McAra (commanding a platoon in A Company) who early in the day came over saying he'd been kicked out of his area, but he later on collected stragglers and before lunch re-established himself in his area.
‘There was no platoon attack, or no organised attack, on B Company. Casualties, not heavy in the company, would not have reached ten. [11 Platoon had three lightly wounded men.] We had all sorts of weapons; all fairly well capable of looking after ourselves. Any runners coming to our area before midnight would have found us at home.’
Australian and English stragglers from the airfield were ‘sorted into some sort of shape, organised into sections, given what enemy equipment they could raise, and that night organised a complete defence of the perimeter of Armstrong's and Sergeant Skeen's areas.’
By dusk all four Bren carriers had landed up by B Company's area. During the morning Privates Jack Weir101 and Maurie Cowlrick102 volunteered to drive up the road to form a road block on the right of B Company, and ‘the only firing was at odd paratroopers.’ Then two more carriers came up. Earlier in the day the Browning from one had been used for firing on paratroops in Headquarters Company area; later it was used to scatter a party of enemy attempting to retrieve a supply container on the ridge behind Headquarters Company. Although they were right on the road, the carriers were not strafed because the crews covered them with parachutes. About 8.30 p.m. the fourth carrier (Palmer's) made its second and final trip up to B Company's area. Weir and Cowlrick were told that if 23 Battalion support did not come, ‘Maurie and I were to wait until the last man would tell us he was the last man, only he didn't.’ The two stayed until nearly daylight. All the page 74 carriers were put out of action before being abandoned; apparently more or less forgotten, they had served little purpose this day.
Just after dark Captain Watson, with A Company 23 Battalion, came into B Company's area and was ordered by Colonel Andrew to take up a covering position in Captain Hanton's area. He wanted a guide and McAra said: ‘That's my area. I'll take you in.’
Corporal Andrews writes of his first inkling of the retreat: ‘At ten minutes to eleven that night I received word that I had to have the platoon ready to move out and clear a village nearby [half a mile directly south of B Company] and to guard the Battalion through the village. Up to that time we had no indication that the position was so serious.’
Crarer goes on: ‘Battalion HQ came into our area after dark and decided to withdraw at midnight. The withdrawal was OK. We got a message round to Slade's platoon by the shouting of orders round the chain of posts.’ Colin Armstrong led 11 Platoon (Corporal Andrews) out first, then Jurgens brought out some of Slade's men. Slade couldn't be moved and was left with food and water. ‘These chaps came out down the track and south of 21 Battalion's area. Then out came the last platoon, Skeen's (No. 10).’ The rearguard in the village saw the remnants of the battalion pass through safely and then followed along behind: ‘Indeed, every few yards we passed dead paratroops and even then they had begun to stink.’
Thus the battalion withdrew and the invaders of Crete gained the airfield they had to have to continue the assault. The chapter of misfortunes and misunderstandings which led to Colonel Andrew's fateful decision has been related.103 All next day 5 Brigade sat like a man bemused when the fate of the invasion of Crete, in the words of German commanders page 75 concerned, ‘balanced on a knife edge’.104 A counter-attack was in fact mounted on the night of 21-22 May, but it was too weak and too late. German officers are told in the course of their basic training that in battle ‘It is better to do the wrong thing than to do nothing.’
Remnants of 22 Battalion joined the defence line of 21 and 23 Battalions next day. In the late afternoon the last original 22 Battalion post was evacuated: the AMES guarded by Captain Wadey and his well-armed platoon of pioneers. The radar station, a mile inland from Point 107 and on high ground, two knolls with a saddle between, covered about half an acre and contained two RAF officers and about fifty airmen. Two painfully conspicuous 40-foot wireless masts were encircled by barbed wire. The equipment was very ‘hush-hush’, and not even Wadey saw inside some of the vehicles.
Two signallers, complete with flags, were attached for communication with Battalion Headquarters. ‘When the show broke, despite many wearying hours of flag waving they never made contact with the Battalion,’ says Wadey. The pioneers, untroubled by paratroops, shot up a glider which landed within range. In the afternoon Ju52s were seen crash-landing up the coast. Wadey ‘couldn't understand why something was not done about this’, so accordingly the two runners, Privates Wan and Bloomfield, were sent to Headquarters Company to link up, get information, and report the troops massing from the crash-landed 52s further up the beach.
The night passed uneventfully except for a large body of troops marching past the station. This was a sizeable part of 22 Battalion on the withdrawal, but no word was passed to Wadey. About 10 a.m. on 21 May stragglers and wounded gave the first reports of the battle and the withdrawal. Later, shots were exchanged with isolated groups of Germans. A private had gone back to 21 Battalion for information and failed to page 76 get any, so Wadey went out himself, later walked into Colonels Andrew and Allen, with Major Leggat and Captain MacDuff, and was told to hold his position at all costs, for the airfield was to be counter-attacked that night. He returned to find one of the RAF officers wounded.
Private Parker,105 with a section in an outpost outside the wire, reported enemy flag-waving (ground to air communication), fired, and checked this activity, but soon (perhaps 3.30 p.m.) the bombers turned to pound the mound, a concentrated target with the vehicles, the masts and the circle of bright new barbed wire. ‘We received what the battalion had had all the week … the whole hill was heaving in smoke and dust … one of the Stukas seemed to be going to drop right on us … this one carried a bomb, orange in colour, under the belly. I saw it leave the plane and dive for us and knew it was going to be close.’ This was the end. The pioneer platoon and the RAF detachment withdrew from the AMES. With a compound fracture of the leg, Wadey fainted and regained consciousness. He and other casualties from the mound were carried to the 21 Battalion RAP, where they were welcomed by Padre Hurst.
When Headquarters Company had pulled out of Pirgos towards dawn on 21 May, Padre Hurst, with twenty walking wounded, eventually reached 21 Battalion's RAP, where Captain Hetherington106 was in charge. The doctor had arrived by caique from Greece before battle commenced, and had been equipped by enemy supplies dropped in his battalion area. In a cottage turned into an RAP they worked for three days before capture. During that time a young German officer, Tony Schultz,107 wounded in the forearm, gave valuable help. He doubted if his comrades would recognise the Red Cross. To save the lives of the wounded, sixty British and ten Germans, a swastika flag was made by cutting up a red flannel petticoat (found in the loft) and fixing it to a white sheet. Lashing the page 77 flag to two poles, Hetherington and Hurst hoisted it above the hedge until firing ceased and slates stopped flying from the roof. Then a party of Germans, which Padre Hurst thought— perhaps mistakenly—was a firing party, lined up against a wall all who could stand. ‘An officer made a fiery speech in German and we thought we had had it,’ says Hurst, ‘until a wounded officer we had tended called out from his stretcher in the corner of the yard. He told how well we had looked after him and his men and we were reprieved. A nasty moment.’
About the time the AMES was attacked, more wounded were falling into enemy hands down in the valley. The battalion's medical officer, Captain Longmore, had remained at the advance RAP, close to the airfield, and had put through fifty-five to sixty casualties by 3 p.m. An hour and a half before dusk he was ordered by Colonel Andrew to evacuate the post: Battalion Headquarters was going back. Led by a battalion officer and carrying the wounded, they moved ‘up hill and down dale’ towards 23 Battalion's lines. There was an acute shortage of stretchers. A severely wounded man carried on a blanket recalls ‘a man on each corner struggling along in the dark, bumping and stumbling over things they couldn't see. I survived the bumping although I don't think I was supposed to.’ Morning found them camped in a clearing with 160 stretcher cases and walking wounded, among them Lieutenant- Commander Beale of the Illustrious, and later some wounded paratroops. Their officer guide left to collect stretcher-bearers but did not return. ‘The injured made a white circle from RAP gear,’ writes the doctor, ‘and all the crowd sat inside it. Planes flew all round but we were never hit, although bombs dropped all round.’ Twice they tried to get out messages and failed. At 5 p.m. they were taken prisoner.
Through these next two critical days, 21 and 22 May, the enemy kept up contact all along 5 Brigade's front. When not bombing and strafing, fighters circled positions, a bomb poised menacingly under each wing. Troop-carrying planes, heedless of fire, began landing methodically on the airfield about 4 p.m. on 21 May. Perhaps sixty planes landed on 21 May with about a battalion and a half. More paratroops came down west of the riverbed. Those men from 22 Battalion who had reached page 78 21 Battalion's lines waited all night with flares ready to guide RAF bombers on to the airfield. None came.
The RAPs used up the last dressings; food and water ran low or ran out altogether; the smell from the dead became sickening. Enemy parties probed south and behind the brigade. When flares suddenly went up in the dark from a ridge, accompanied by yells from gathering Germans, an exhausted 22 Battalion man ‘felt like when the police gave me a summons once.’ Yet at midnight on the 21st a great wave of gratitude went out to the Royal Navy from the weary men huddled in the hills above Maleme, for the watchers saw a furious display of searchlights and blazing guns: our warships were smashing and routing completely an attempt to land seaborne forces and equipment.
Before dawn on 22 May the counter-attack on Maleme airfield was launched by 28 (Maori) and 20 Battalions, the latter coming up from behind Galatas after an unfortunate delay. Consequently the attack, timed for 1 a.m., did not start until about 3.30 a.m. From the start line, two miles east of Pirgos village, the two units carved their way along the coastal area with plenty of grenade and bayonet work. One company (D of 20 Battalion) succeeded in reaching in triumph the eastern edge of Maleme airfield soon after daybreak, but mortars, machine guns and air attack gradually forced it back. The remaining troops battled into Pirgos village, but this was the limit of their advance. Some men from C Company 22 Battalion,108 with a company from the 23rd, joined the Maoris in the melée round Pirgos.
Over to the south-west, at 7 a.m., 21 Battalion's turn came to play its part in the counter-attack. Not under cover of darkness but in broad daylight the battalion achieved a spectacular advance, which showed how thin the Germans still were on the ground: in three hours it had partly cleared a corridor a little over a mile long towards Point 107. D Company 22 Battalion, which was operating with Colonel Allen's force, continued to push on until the leaders had nearly reached their old riverbank positions. Confirming this, Pemberton and Clem Gilbert (with Fred Palmer109 wounded in their section) say: page 79 ‘It was a hard struggle back after getting so far.’ However, planes had continued to land with more troops, who were rushed into the line, and about noon—when reliable news came of the failure of the counter-attack along the coast—advanced parties had to be pulled back. ‘They had used incendiary bullets on us and a whole patch of grain was set alight.’ In the late afternoon increasing enemy attacks from ground and air forced the 21 Battalion attackers back to their original positions.
As night came enemy infiltration increased; to the south strong enemy forces were working round 5 Brigade, whose last hours in the Maleme area were at hand. Men of the battalion were scattered among front-line units, and one of them records: ‘… gave up hope, didn't feel bad though, except thought tough on Mum, Margaret and everyone. Talked to B., he felt the same…. Waited and wondered what feels like to be killed. Heard firing and yells from Maoris about 100 yards away. Had chased Jerries off; could not believe true. Spent night on watch, half hour each, too tired for more, put tin hat where would fall on rifle and wake me up if dozed and nodded head. Told everyone in front were enemy.’ But temporary relief of a kind was coming. In the early hours of 23 May withdrawal was ordered and began, to the angry surprise of many, though to have remained would have meant disaster.
The next day (23 May) the brigade, hounded and chased from the air, split into small parties, and now in serious danger of being cut off altogether, drew back into the east, sheltering behind 4 Brigade, which was defending Galatas. Villagers on the way bravely ‘smiled and waved but there were tears in their eyes.’ Fifth Brigade Headquarters looked grotesque with abandoned band instruments lying about. ‘We weren't keen on music by that time, only a little hungry,’ wryly comments a D Company man. The condition of the men is indicated by this note: ‘Crossing stream … found several Jerries in water, smelt awful, had drink anyway.’ Just after this, by the little coastal settlement of Ay Marina, a small and most welcome party returned unexpectedly to the unit. Private Follas110 and one or two others from the battalion had been serving a few days' detention in the Field Punishment Centre in the Maleme page 80 sector when the invasion began. Collecting automatics and ammunition from canisters falling providentially near, the inmates and guards (sixty altogether) zealously dealt out punishment to paratroops, took prisoners, hunted snipers, and gave valuable protection to a nearby troop of New Zealand guns, whose officer, Captain Snadden,111 would say: ‘When we put a shot in there, you get everyone who runs out.’ In the general withdrawal a few in Follas's group collected a donkey, loaded it with four spandaus, carried the ammunition themselves and, after taking part in a brisk skirmish yielding twenty prisoners, met 22 Battalion survivors in the afternoon. ‘What have you been pinching this time?’ asked Colonel Andrew, viewing approvingly the donkey, the spandaus, and the ammunition. (On the subsequent retreat to Sfakia the donkey, already a well-known personality in the battalion and called ‘Sweet Nell’, was hit during an air raid and had to be shot.)
Behind the defenders of Galatas the battalion was just over 200 strong—enough for two companies under Hanton and Campbell. Their task was to defend Divisional Headquarters against parachutists, to defend a ridge which was part of the reserve line, and to counter-attack if needed. For two days the remains of the battalion stayed in these reserve positions, dug by other troops earlier and giving protection from spasmodic strafing. Movement was cut to a minimum, and troops were prohibited from opening fire on aircraft so that positions would remain concealed, an order hard to obey, particularly when one aircraft, nicknamed ‘George’, regularly swooped so low that the pilot's features could be seen. This passive attitude, for those unable to hit back, was most depressing.
The air attacks increased on 26 May, and the pressure continued on the sorely tried front-line units, by now forced back a mile behind Galatas after defiantly but briefly reoccupying the town at dusk in a last desperate bayonet charge. Twenty-second Battalion group's turn came in the afternoon of the 26th, following rumours (false) of an enemy break-through towards the coast. The battalion moved from its reserve positions along the ridge and across a road to help plug the rumoured breach. This emergency move, doubly dangerous in daylight, page 81 was cancelled half-way through, but not before men in Hanton's group were strafed in a ditch and had suffered ten casualties.
In the night the battalion joined 5 Brigade's retreat south-westwards of Suda Bay, Colonel Andrew and Major Leggat taking turns at the front and rear, but unfortunately the battalion split into two separate parties in the darkness. A brief stand was made in rearguard actions on 27 May on a line known as 42nd Street (this was a mile west of Suda village) and again at Stilos, seven to eight miles back on the road leading inland into the mountains and on towards the south coast.
One day was very like another. ‘All day you lay hidden in trees nibbling anything you could get. We struck a few trucks that had been hit and had some broken biscuits. No tea of course for we couldn't risk fires…. On other times we marched at night and into the dawn till the first plane was heard and that was the sign to take to the trees. You never saw such hills. The road had a good surface but went … [zigzagging endlessly] and you seemed hours in going half a mile. Two nights I think to get to the top—just with your head down and your tongue hanging out because there was no water.’ At Stilos on 28 May men, worn out and gaunt through long marches, little sleep, poor food, and the day-long blitzes, learned that their destination was Sfakia, on the south coast, about 40 miles by the twisting road. They rallied in the morning for the last and the roughest trek of all, heading into the dry and dusty hills.
Survivors still say there seemed to be no end to the road up ‘Phantom Hill’. Men, exhausted and ill, were held together by dogged endurance and the encouragement of their comrades. Mate helped mate. ‘The discipline on the march was a credit to the Brigade,’ says 5 Brigade's diary. One man felt he was going to crack. Colonel Andrew casually sat down beside him, and on learning where he was educated, yarned away quietly about school-days at Wanganui Collegiate. ‘I was OK after that.’
They hid up on a rocky, pine-dotted hillside near the beach. From here and there more parties and members of the battalion page 82 turned up.112 Major Leggat thinks that here came one of the most dramatic moments of his life: ‘… we were told they couldn't take us. No one spoke for quite a while and then we just rolled our pipe tobacco in our newspaper cigarette-paper’; and the major concluded his letter home: ‘You can see that it was not the glorious affair that the papers write about. All you needed was good feet and the ability to go without water.’
Instead of embarking, the weary battalion suddenly had been ordered to take part in the final rearguard, remaining ashore to cover the last evacuation that night, 30 May. Captain Stan Johnson writes:
After the exhaustion of the fighting of the preceding ten days, the incessant bombing and strafing, the frequent withdrawals and rearguards, the casualties, the lack of food and of sleep, and with that hollow feeling in one's stomach resulting not only from the knowledge of failure, but also from the feeling of having been let down some ten days earlier, when the counter-attack at Maleme did not eventuate as promised, this was almost a knockout blow!
How to tell our troops, those gallant fellows who had given of their all so uncomplainingly, that Egypt was not for us, that we were to fight on till 10 a.m. the next day? It speaks volumes for the morale of the Battalion and of the integrity and loyalty of the soldiers that not one man anticipated the order by leaving his post during the night.
The next day, spirits soared with the news that more ships were returning to Crete and that the battalion, after doing a final beach-perimeter and control-point duty, would be evacuated.page 83
Half an hour before midnight on 31 May the battalion began embarking, every man shaved, every man fully equipped (for those without gear equipped themselves from cast-aside material). Whalers, assault landing craft and motor landing craft took troops to the waiting ships: the minelayer Abdiel, the light cruiser Phoebe, and the destroyers Jackal, Kimberley, and Hotspur. Colonel Andrew and two other officers were the last aboard. In Egypt he wrote the last two pages which closed the battalion war diary for May 1941:
This record for May 1941 is of a young battalion which had been ‘blooded’ just a month before in Greece and was called upon to withstand a ‘blitz’ of the utmost fury and intenseness, fight against terrific odds, suffer severe casualties, and undergo tests of endurance and morale that many a veteran unit does not come up against throughout its service. Nothing which was encountered by units of the 1st N.Z.E.F. can compare with the period 20/31 May 1941, and yet I am glad to be able to report that this young battalion proved they could ‘take it’, give plenty in return and remain as a useful unit to the last day.
The casualties113 for the period 20/25 May were 53% and for the month of May 62.35% of strength….
Many lessons have been learned and we should benefit from these in future actions. We know now that we can deal with the enemy even with his tanks and/or aeroplanes, that he does not like night work or the bayonet, and that on the ground he is no match for our men. Even though we had to withdraw for eleven days we had our ‘tails up’ in defeat.
3 ‘I am quite certain that Col. Andrew remarked after the visit [of Brigadier Hargest] that he pointed out the need for troops across the Tavronitis from 22, but for some reason, probably lack of troops available, this was not put into effect.’—Sergeant F. N. Twigg, 22 Battalion Intelligence Sergeant.
4 ‘The garrison was expecting eight more Hurricanes with fresh pilots on 20 May (Lt-Cmdr Black had been sent back to Alexandria to fetch them), but before they could reach the island the airborne invasion began.’—Fleet Air Arm (prepared for the Admiralty by the Ministry of Information, 1943), a booklet which shows that the Fleet Air Arm men generally acquitted themselves well ‘against hopeless odds and impossible conditions' in the tragic twilight of Maleme.
5 Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, Royal Australian Artillery, New Zealand Artillery, New Zealand Engineers, 21, 22, 23 and 28 Battalions, 27 (MG) Battalion, Royal Air Force. Colonel Andrew had made several unsuccessful attempts to gain some sort of co-operation from the RM, FAA, RAF and Bofors gunners in his area. The RAF camp near the bridge seriously impaired 22 Battalion's defensive perimeter.
6 Three Bren carriers with drivers in charge of a corporal were on loan to 22 Battalion from 1 Battalion, The Welch Regt. As the battalion's carrier platoon had gone to Egypt from Greece, the crews for these carriers were supplied by 2 (Anti-Aircraft) Platoon under Lt J. Forster. No. 3 (Carrier) Platoon men who had been left behind in Greece later escaped to Crete. They were Cpl Jim Hurne (soon evacuated sick) and Ptes Jack Weir and Maurie Cowlrick. They manned a fourth carrier (which had been salvaged from a sunken ship at Suda Bay) and fixed up a Bren gun ‘with a bit of olive branch and a piece of tin.’ The second carrier had a Bren, and the remaining two had Brownings without sights, so tracer was used to give direction.
The three escapers mentioned above had pushed off from Argos in a Greek boat. They made down the bay (no rudder, rowing) and pulled into the shore for cover when planes came over. Landing on an island, they broke down the chapel door which yielded a rudder—of sorts. On another island they stole another boat with a useless engine and a sail and made their way to the tip of Greece, struck two islands (Kithira and Antikithira), and in eight days made the western end of Crete. Rations and water were slender (a glass of wine and a small boiled egg apiece were all they could manage for their first meal in Crete); ‘Jack Weir had a hunch (correct) over navigation. He was a born bush-mechanic.’
7 Student had the tables turned on him at Arnhem (4600 aircraft in this airborne operation). Watching ‘an immense stream’, he exclaimed: ‘Oh, how I wish that I had ever had such powerful means at my disposal!’ See The Struggle for Europe, by Chester Wilmot.
|Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation (Royal Marines)||92||1849||1941|
|Royal Air Force||61||557||618|
|Australian Imperial Forces||327||6213||6540|
|Greek Army and gendarmerie||268||9990||10258|
|New Zealand Division||381||7321||7702|
10 Less one company, which landed almost two miles inland, up the river well beyond the New Zealand area.
15 This was probably due in part to casualties among gun crews during the blitz. By no means alone in his opinion, Lieutenant Robin Sinclair (15 Platoon) is emphatic that some Bofors were out of action through faulty or missing parts. Captain Johnson speaks of a late order (19 May) telling certain guns to move positions slightly before opening fire again. Nevertheless some of these guns were still firing at 3 p.m., according to 5 Brigade war diary. One 22 Battalion man, Bill Hulton, says: ‘I have great admiration for [Bofors crews] and also for the Jerry pilots who attacked them. On many occasions I saw Stuka pilots diving down the fire of these guns, and had no misgivings as to whether I would have had the guts to withstand such a gaff.’
27 Attending the dying man were stretcher-bearers Trevor Wallace and Ray Kennedy. The two found ‘that the stretcher needed so urgently was being used as a bed by a driver, yes, we had to get [him] to part with it. Bloomfield, past our help, died shortly after we got him on the stretcher. We placed him in a deep dry watercourse handy to Coy HQ, an area we'd selected to place wounded.’
28 Not traced.
36 Captain Johnson cannot understand this statement. He recalls all 10 guns firing regularly on days preceding the invasion. He had hoped that some of the guns could have been silenced, resited, and then could have taken the German by surprise if an airborne invasion began.
The views of men who still stoutly maintain that the anti-aircraft guns did not fire on invasion day can be summed up in the words of CSM H. Strickland. Gliders, troop-carriers and parachutists, ‘an ack-ack gunner's dream, they were sitting shots but there were no shots. All due respect to … [D. M. Davin's Crete] the guns didn't roar into action, not at Maleme. There was an order that they were not to open fire, and they didn't.’ Perhaps one day this controversy will be investigated and settled.
46 Doc’ Fowke was apparently the only man to escape from 15 Platoon. He crossed the centre of the airfield after dark and rejoined Company Headquarters. Most of 15 Platoon were wounded or killed. He brought news of Mehaffey, whom he had nursed with two others in their weapon pit until they died.
49 13 Platoon, cut off, made its own way back after dark, greatly assisted by Bob Bayliss, then a private—a clear example of a natural leader coming to the fore and assuming control successfully when everything looked hopeless. Deducing (with German voices everywhere) that Company Headquarters had been captured, the platoon made its way east of B Company area and rejoined the company early next morning.
50 The total number to leave 14 Pl and Coy HQ area at 0430 hrs was approx 40 made up of about 14 unwounded, and the 14 wounded C Coy men and about 12 RAF and LAA troops. En route we picked up perhaps a further 12 mixed troops, some 22 Bn and some FAA; but we dropped 6 including the CSM Bob Adams, Cpl Smith 14 Pl, and Cpl Earnshaw Coy HQ. On the ridge we picked up 13 Pl approx 15 strong. The above figures are not accurate, but they are as near as I can remember. My check in 21 Bn area about 1100 hrs, after I had got all our wounded including Donald off to the 21 Bn RAP gave me 27 unwounded … C Coy men…. half of us had dysentery in a rather severe form. Donald did an excellent job—as always—clearing local area on ridge and covering the withdrawal of the wounded. He did not receive a decoration here, but I certainly recommended him for one for his magnificent behaviour and gallant leadership during the continuous period of 30 hours.’—Captain Johnson.
51 Maj J. W. C. Craig, MC and bar, ED; Tauranga; born Gisborne, 22 Aug 1911; accountant; p.w. 21 May 1941; escaped Jul 1941; served with MI9 (A Force) in Greece; recaptured Jan 1942; escaped (Italy) Sep 1943; served with partisans in Ligurian Mountains Sep 1943-Dec 1944.
64 L-Cpl A. D. Dunn; Stratford; born NZ 3 Jan 1914; storeman; p.w. 21 May 1941. Dunn writes that he later escaped ‘and spent three months searching around Crete for Transport back to Egypt…. [Because of] the heavy strain on the villages where these staunch people were trying to feed so many and mostly due to the severe punishment the Germans were handing out to those people caught assisting British Soldiers I decided with my companion, Pte D. Grylls, that on information which we had received we would try and find our way back to Greece and on to Turkey. After exchanging our uniforms for Civilian clothing we contacted a chap with a sixteen foot boat and rowed our way back to Greece landing at a Coastal Village…. After resting there for three days we decided to press on to Turkey, quite easy really, but we had picked up an English Soldier at the Village who wanted to tag along with us and did, but his lack of fitness started to hamper our progress and in allowing a rest on the outskirts of a Town we were invited to the Police Station where we were Jailed and sold to the Italians….’
76 Jerry Fowler, after paying a warm tribute to the way a nearby 27 (MG) Battalion section under Corporal Gould covered the bridge, sums up: ‘the whole of Don Coy held out the whole day and did not move from our original positions until night, and only then when we had found out that Bn HQ had fallen back, they evidently thinking that our Coy had been overrun. We were not overrun, and had more than held our own with all enemy landed or advanced into our area. In my opinion our Coy Com. Capt. Campbell put up a very good show and proved himself a very fearless and brave soldier. The soldier on that day whom I will always remember is our Coy runner Mick Bourke of Stratford. He did some very grand work that fateful morning, and his personal bravery I will always remember.’
77 The airfield was to be held at all costs; no alternative scheme is mentioned in available official records. This was purely a D Company plan. As far as the whole battalion was concerned, the airfield was to be held at all costs; but, remembering the lessons of Greece, Campbell had thought it wise to have an alternative plan and had instructed his platoon commanders to re-form to the south ‘if the worst happened’. The precaution availed D Company nothing.
79 Because the battalion had no mortars, McAra had gone to A Company as a platoon commander.
85 Col G. P. Cade, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Hawera, 10 May 1909; Regular soldier; 6 Fd Regt 1940-41; CO 6 Fd Regt 1945; Director RNZA 1948-54; CRA and GSO I NZ Div, 1954-57; comd Malaya Force, 1957-.
86 Watching the blitz, Williams saw British gunners (4-inch, 3-inch and Bofors) plastered and blown from their posts by bombs: one second-lieutenant remained alive among the officers on the 4-inch guns. This answers criticism by the infantry, who could not understand why the Marines on their two 4-inch guns did not fire a shot. In any case, the guns were sited for firing out to sea and could not sweep the critical western bank of the river where the Germans were massing.
89 In fairness to these men it should be said that by the afternoon a large part of the ill-armed congregation of displaced airmen, sailors, and gunners had sorted themselves out into some shape on the south side of Point 107. Lieutenant Ramsay (RNVR) says: ‘The F.A.A. had taken up positions directed by a combination of their own inclinations and any officer who appeared to know anything about the situation—Col. Andrew was occasionally seen for instance—but no one loved us or took any interest in us….’ The group in the afternoon ‘had a pretty bad time, but when dark came the situation seemed safe but highly uncomfortable except for the West side of the Hill which was now completely occupied by Germans.’ With no information and no guides reaching them in the dark, they nevertheless remained on the southern slopes of Point 107 until 4 a.m. (21 May), an indication that the group, although bewildered, was not demoralised. At 4 a.m. they struck out for the hills further inland. Ramsay's report continues:
We didn't know where our own people were.
We didn't know where the enemy were.
Many people had no rifles.
Many people had. 30 rifles and no ammo.
Everyone was desperately tired, thirsty and hungry. We had no food and no water.
We had no objective to make for.’
95 Yet within half an hour of the drop Slade's cook came over to Company Headquarters badly wounded in the face, ‘painting a grim picture of Slade's area being wiped out’. Slade is believed to have been killed in a German plane which was shot down while evacuating severely wounded prisoners to Greece.
97 2 Lt K. Elliott, VC; Pongaroa; born Apiti, 25 Apr 1916; farmer; twice wounded.
103 ‘Let me say at once, I do not for one moment hold Col. Andrew responsible for the failure to hold Maleme; he was given an impossible task, and he has my sympathy,’ writes General Freyberg in a letter to the author in January 1956. ‘I take full responsibility as regards the policy of holding the aerodrome. I did not like the defences of any of my four garrisons. I would have put in another Infantry Battalion to help Andrew, but it was impossible in the time to dig them in. The ground was solid rock, neither did we have the tools. Puttick, Hargest and I must bear our share of responsibility for the defensive positions that were taken up at Maleme, which were as good as we could hope for under the difficult circumstances.’
104 General Ringel, who commanded 5 German Mountain Division, and General Sturm, who (as a colonel) commanded the air landing at Retimo, made the following comments on an official German study of the Balkan campaign: ‘The passive attitude of the British Command in the neighbourhood of the important air-landing base of the Germans, Maleme, was decisive for the loss of Crete. The British were satisfied with firing against this landing place instead of recapturing the airfield in a counter attack immediately after the first landing. This would have made the landing of the 5th Mountain Division with transport machines impossible and would have doomed the parachutists so far landed in Crete … no sufficient naval material was available for a German invasion by sea in the entire Aegean.’
105 Not traced.
107 The Padre gave Schultz his wife's address in case a letter could be sent saying the New Zealander was captured and alive. Schultz, later captured in the Desert, spent the war in America, returned to Germany and, wishing to become a teacher, entered a university in the British Zone through a reference from the Padre. He is now a teacher and happily married. Padre Hurst has a photo of the wedding group.
108 The term ‘C Coy 22 Bn’ covers remnants of C Company and others from 22 Battalion; the same is meant by ‘D Coy’ in the following paragraph.
112 Sargeson's party, after hiding all day on 21 May above Maleme in a long, overgrown ditch, had tiptoed out undetected when night fell, and their luck holding, succeeded in making through the rocky ranges ‘rather like a bit of typical NZ mountain bush country I suppose, not so much bush.’ They shared one tin of M & V, spoonful by spoonful, between 14 hungry, weary and ill-shod men. One man sucked a raw egg. After reaching a village four miles from Souriya Bay, on the south coast, other escapers attempted and failed to reach Sfakia (already rumoured as the point of evacuation) by boat. Sargeson's party then made for Sfakia, following roughly along the rugged, arid coastline and suffering from hunger and thirst. Shooting a small goat and boiling it in salt water in a petrol tin found on the beach, they also drank the briny soup. ‘We learned that the pangs of hunger (which we had somewhat abated) were a trifle, compared to the punishing agony of thirst.’ That night, on a ridge, investigating the sound of croaking frogs (‘Hallucination perhaps’), they found neither swamp nor water. A day later, almost beyond care, they stumbled on a stream. Four scattered Greek settlements provided enough slender food and water to see them to Sfakia at 7 p.m. on 31 May, and only when on the minelayer Abdiel did Sargeson eat his army emergency ration: ‘I had argued that while I could still walk I could keep that concentrated can till I reached more desperate straits.’
|Killed in action and died of wounds||62|
|Wounded and PW||81*|
|Prisoners of war||94|
* Two of whom died of wounds while prisoners.