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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Airborne Assault on 5 Brigade

page 117

The Airborne Assault on 5 Brigade

Gunners were told that the landing was expected on 19 May, they were ready for it, and when nothing happened they relaxed. They put it down to the usual faulty Intelligence. The Intelligence, however, were not far wrong. That night there was tremendous activity throughout southern Greece and at various other places as far north as Salonika, in the Dodecanese Islands, and on several of the larger islands of the Aegean, as two great German air corps, the components of 4 Air Fleet under General Loehr, jockeyed for position. The first heavy plane-loads of troops were in the air soon after midnight. The troops on Crete slept as well as usual and woke to another morning of bright sunshine, blue skies, and hardly a breath of wind. Bombers and fighters were over the airfield at Maleme almost at once, harried the Bofors guns there (which were ‘Exactly on the perimeter’, as Major Bull comments, ‘just like a child of ten would set out his toy soldiers’), and departed. The men on the ground got ready for breakfast. Before the dust from the explosions had settled back on to the red earth, while food simmered in petrol tins and troops began to line up for their meal, aircraft vividly marked with the German cross came over again, dropped their bombs, and the dust rose higher still. Bomb after bomb added to it and the dust rose into a fog which marked the airfield for watchers as far away as Canea.

The anti-aircraft defence of the airfield flickered briefly and then died down, though one or two Bofors fired in fits and starts for an hour or two with little apparent effect. The 3-inch guns fired one round each and that was all. The tracers of the Bofors were spasmodic and ineffectual. There were only 10 Bofors: a troop and a half of 156 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA, and a troop of 7 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RAA, and local command of all anti-aircraft guns was vested in a Major Kay of the former battery. The gun positions were obvious from the air and poorly protected. At least one Australian gun crew fired on and off for several hours, was then forced to withdraw, and later fought on as infantry. Orders for some guns to remain silent so as not to disclose their positions caused much confusion. The anti-aircraft side of the Maleme battle is not a happy story.

Bombing and strafing attacks carried on for an hour and a half and their weight and fury warned the defenders that the threatened landing was imminent. Captain Williams, Lieutenant page 118 Cade and their OP parties on Point 107 overlooking the airfield had a grandstand view and were among the first to glimpse the invading air corps. Bombs stopped falling on the airfield, but not on the hillsides. The air throbbed with the noise of the three-engined Junkers and in a few minutes the sky seemed full of planes. Then the gliders came in, strangely quiet, slipping through the smoke and dust to touch down, some on the hillsides, some on the beaches, a few on the landing strip, and many in the dried-up bed of the Tavronitis to the west. There the crews assembled under cover in the ‘dead’ ground and built up a considerable volume of small-arms fire in the 22 Battalion area. The parachutists began to float down everywhere.

Major Philp could not get through by telephone to A and B Troops and therefore dashed across country to warn them. A load of paratroops came down just as he reached B Troop and a few minutes of wildly exciting action ensued, as he tells in his diary:

‘Lieuts Gibson17 and Francis18 go to work with a rifle each and I frantically try to tell Lieut Gibson he is firing too high and also that there are three blokes under one tree just where he is firing. The troop riflemen are still below ground and so we raise them and organize them along the front edge of our position. After the first excitement … they settled down to a little duck shooting, another load of parachutists having toppled out. The troop Bren gun is back at the cookhouse and so I go back and send Bdr Tyler19 and the gunners up. We return to BHQ and send Gnrs Cantlon20 and Marshall21 off with our Bren and they do excellent work. BHQ now receives a carrier load right in our front garden and we get into the fun. One Hun is about 25 yards away in grape vines. A few rounds are fired away but he may be lying doggo. Gnr McDonald22 sets our anxiety at rest by coming up from the opposite direction, walking straight up to the Hun, and page 119 saying: “You'd look at me like that, you ba …, would you?”, with appropriate action. Another poor devil gets his on the wing, his chute catches in an olive-tree, and he finishes up by leaning on a rock wall, head in hands almost as though he had been meditating by the wall when death caught up with him.’

Where paratroops landed this sort of personal view was all that was possible. Men were too taken up with what was happening within a few yards to see farther. For a few minutes Captain Snadden's men on the spur above the engineers had a panoramic view and they gazed in awe and wonderment. Then they were taken up with snap shooting at paratroops drifting obliquely down in front of them to land in the area of 7 Field Company. They could almost reach out and touch the Ju52s as they thundered past from the south-west. Below them the sappers carried out a terrible execution of parachute and glider troops. Then paratroops began to land all round C Troop and were fiercely engaged by a group of gunners Snadden had stationed on the hillside above the guns. They fired rifles and Brens and then captured enemy weapons at the paratroops and the aircraft. Parachutes were still opening up and drifting down when C Troop opened fire. Targets were plentiful and Snadden picked out a glider and two Ju52s which had landed on the beach. Almost at once a cloud of smoke rolled upwards from one of the Junkers and the gunners cheered.

Williams, Cade and the OP parties of A and B Troops soon found themselves in the thick of an infantry engagement. Enemy landing close at hand were quickly dealt with by gunners and infantry; but for a few minutes bullets were flying in all directions and men wished they had eyes in the backs of their heads. The FOOs were impatient to take up their proper work of directing the fire of the guns. They found it hard to see over the airfield because of the smoke and dust; but they found it harder still to report back to the gun positions. Not only had the bombing interrupted telephone lines: the paratroops had been trained to cut them and did so in many places. In the gun positions at the other end of the line there was the same anxiety to get the telephones working. Sergeant McLeay,23 who was NCO in charge of the signals at B Troop gun position, at once took a party forward to repair the breaks. He carried on, mending the cable as he went, until stopped by infantry page 120 who said that the enemy was just ahead. With his rifle he stayed and fought until the pocket was overcome and then went on along the line until stopped again, this time by machine-gun fire. Again he fought; but enemy strength ahead increased and it became clear that the line could not be restored unless the defending infantry applied considerable pressure, which they evidently did not intend to do. Realising this, McLeay reluctantly returned to the guns.

The line between A and B Troops, however, remained intact and it was decided to engage targets by map reference, since no orders were coming through from the OP. It was easy to tell by the sound of firing that the enemy had become established in some strength beyond the river, and the target chosen was therefore the village of Tavronitis, on the coast road just beyond the riverbed. The fire was accurate and the gunners were pleased to learn later that the first few rounds, landing among the cottages, flushed out a large number of Germans. But the men at the guns were very much in the dark as to what was happening and what effect their fire had.

The scene around the guns and BHQ was like a surrealistic painting. Dead Germans were everywhere and parachutes draping the trees and bushes fluttered in the wind. One or two parachutes—mostly attached to canisters of equipment—had failed to open. Philp describes it vividly:

‘Most chutes are green; a few red appear to be the officer blokes, white for equipment. A prisoner is brought into BHQ, slightly wounded. Quite young, he can speak English reasonably well. Has a sketch—all NCOs had excellent maps [Philp was mistaken here, for many NCOs had never seen a map of Crete] and every chutist a sketch. Has the usual rubbish expected in the paybook of a soldier including a picture of a beautiful Fraulein…. Everyone without arms now obtains a Luger pistol, a rifle, or a tommy gun and grenades from dead Huns and we are reasonably well armed.’

Turning these events over in his mind years later Philp remembered most vividly of all the first moment of the landing. He looked at the men around him and saw them speechless and motionless, stricken with awe. For an unforgettable moment or two he feared for them. Then they sprang into action and ‘Presto! the weight was lifted from my heart.’

Those at the OP could see from their vantage point the development of the landing and the building up of an attack from beyond the riverbed, and they were feverishly impatient page 121 to get word back to the guns. Cade put a message through 22 Battalion and brigade headquarters; but it did not reach the guns until 10 p.m., garbled and useless. He and Williams sent another by means of the walkie-talkie wireless set carried on the back of an operator who followed the battalion commander on his rounds. This gave no more than a general indication of target areas; but it, too, failed to reach the guns before dark. Beyond the airfield for some miles to the west parachutists landed, formed up, and marched towards the river. Williams saw two anti-tank guns brought forward, one by a motor-cycle and the other towed by a car. Paratroops crossed the riverbed and took cover, some of them throwing flags like handkerchiefs over their shoulders as signals to the Luftwaffe. Fighters and bombers worked closely with them, attacking centres of resistance. In this way pressure against the western positions of 22 Battalion steadily increased.

Before long the OP party was directly threatened. Just below the OP were the positions of the two 4-inch coast guns and they had been heavily bombed. Williams saw men literally blown from their stations. All officers except a second-lieutenant seemed to have been killed and some of the gun crews were captured. It looked at one stage as though the enemy was using these prisoners as a shield for his advance. As an attack developed against the lower slopes of Point 107 the OP party found itself in the front line. Williams thereupon moved to the left flank and quickly got together a mixed group of Marines, Fleet Air Arm and RAF men, anti-aircraft gunners, and other stragglers and laid out a defensive position north-west of the OP, mainly along a stone wall. The OP party split up, Cade and one or two men going to the right of this position and Williams and the rest to the left. They sent a runner back to the battalion commander asking for help and got word back to hold on as help was coming. Then someone suggested a bayonet charge. Few men had bayonets, but others stuck knives or anything sharp they could find on the end of their rifles and sallied forth. They found it astonishingly easy to drive back the paratroops. Then Major Leggat24 of 22 Battalion arrived with a handful of men and this part of the hill was quickly cleared. Dead and dying Germans lay in front and Williams went forward to make sure they were not shamming, and in so doing he was wounded.

page 122

What made it all the harder for 27 Battery was that it had been formed from the unarmed party of the 5th Field and deficiencies of small arms had not been made up. Some seven plane-loads of paratroops dropped in the immediate vicinity of A and B Troops and for the first few desperate minutes there had been an agonising shortage of weapons with which to engage them. On Sergeant Tavendale's B Troop gun, for example, there was only one rifle among the 11 men and Tavendale himself used this while his men rammed rounds (with a pick helve) and fired the gun. A parachutist hit the ground about nine feet from the gun with his tommy gun blazing and attracted fire from all sides which killed him instantly. Then two supply canisters dropped nearby and their contents provided ample small arms and ammunition for the gunners who could spare the time to use them. In these confused minutes after the landing started those who had initiative and could lead men soon became obvious. One of them was Second-Lieutenant Francis, who was active stalking paratroops and investigating any source of trouble. His cheerfulness throughout was a source of inspiration for those around him.

The problem of observing and controlling the fire of the guns was not solved throughout the day; but it was slightly eased by requests which came from the infantry in mid-morning for searching fire on the area between Tavronitis and the riverbed. Word somehow reached the gun positions that this fire was accurate and the guns continued regardless of severe machine-gunning from the air of their general area. Then the gunners heard that the enemy was concentrating farther west and they extended their ranges.

The C Troop gunners were far better off. They could see what they were doing (and indeed had to see, or they could do nothing). They shelled a car which appeared just south of the airfield and it disappeared at once. Then they shelled the passengers of a troop-carrier which had landed on the beach to the north-east. They were forming up at an old olive press by the water's edge not far from 19 Army Troops Company and made a sitting target at a range of 1000 yards. C Troop hit the building with its first shot and sent the enemy scuttling in all directions. With this taste of power the gunners began to enjoy themselves. They engaged aircraft, gliders and troops on the airfield and foreshore and at noon were offered another prize. An enemy platoon had the audacity to march in formation along the road by the landing strip where the car had page 123 previously appeared. The point was doubtlessly hidden from the New Zealand troops nearby, but from C Troop's hillside it was in full view at little more than 2000 yards. The first round of gun fire landed squarely in the middle of the platoon. Another party came up, possibly to help, and a well-aimed shell sent it back hurriedly. No further efforts were made to help the wounded and they and the dead lay there until dark. A house on the shore had been turned into a strongpoint and No. 2 gun was detailed to destroy it. The usual delayed-action fuse made no impression after several direct hits at 1000 yards, so Snadden ordered ‘plugged shell’—no fuse, so that the round had the effect of solid shot. The first round went through the walls and the other three guns followed up with high-explosive, demolishing the building. The same technique proved similarly effective in dealing with a house which was causing the Maori Battalion to the east much trouble. Several such hits drove the enemy out. Meanwhile those gunners not needed to fire the guns were organised into squads which co-operated with the staff and prisoners of a field punishment centre just to the south, and between them they almost cleared the neighbourhood of paratroops and kept the surviving ones quiet.

So far so good; but C Troop could plainly be seen by enemy around Maleme village and by the airfield. It was attacked first by shellfire from one of the Bofors guns from the perimeter of the landing strip; but this was soon silenced. Either this or another Bofors, however, was soon in action from Maleme village, shelling the gun position persistently and eventually wounding Captain Snadden in four places (though he stayed with his guns). This Bofors was evidently well-protected and its fire could not be subdued. Then fighter aircraft began a series of machine-gun attacks on the unprotected gun position. These attacks were so persistent that had the gunners taken cover from them they would not have been able to fire at all, so they carried on almost regardless of them. At the end of the day C Troop had fired 350 rounds, B Troop had done likewise, and A Troop got away 200 rounds.

By the middle of the afternoon 21 and 23 Battalions, respectively south-east and east of 22 Battalion at Maleme, had largely cleared their areas of parachute and glider troops and were well placed to put into effect their role of immediate counter-attack to clear the airfield. But they did not do so. Partly this was because of poor communications, which as Philp says had a demoralising influence. Partly, perhaps, the Creforce page 124 instruction to hold positions was working like a poison in the minds of those who might have helped. Infantry companies by the airfield were still fighting splendidly and the gunners did their best to help; but the situation went from bad to worse and nothing was done at a higher level to reverse this trend, though the enemy had suffered catastrophic losses and the advantage still lay with the defence.

17 Capt N. McK. F. Gibson; Auckland; born Auckland, 16 Jul 1916; public accountant; wounded 20 Jul 1942.

18 Capt B. W. Francis; England; born Brockley, England, 29 May 1913; farm manager; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

19 Bdr S. C. Tyler; born England, 24 Feb 1902; mechanic; killed in action 18 Apr 1943.

20 L-Sgt W. F. Cantlon; born Warkworth, 2 Feb 1901; electrical inspector; wounded 5 Nov 1942; died on active service 20 Aug 1943.

21 Gnr H. Marshall; Christchurch; born Wellington, 2 Sep 1917; service station manager.

22 Gnr I. H. McDonald; Christchurch; born NZ 30 May 1914; truck driver; wounded and p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

23 Sgt K. A. McLeay, MM; born Napier, 22 May 1918; clerk; wounded Nov 1941; killed in action (sinking of Chakdina) 5 Dec 1941.

24 Lt-Col J. Leggat, ED; Christchurch; born Glasgow, 19 Dec 1900; schoolteacher; NZLO GHQ MEF, 1941–42; headmaster, Christchurch Boys' High School, 1951–58 died Christchurch, 16 Oct 1965.