I: The Maleme Sector
I: The Maleme Sector
To General Student on the evening of the first day the situation had not seemed encouraging. He must have an airfield if he were going to reinforce with troops, guns, and supplies on the scale required and at once; for the plan for seaborne support had been altered and the flotilla was not expected until the evening of the second day; and, even then, only when Suda Bay was clear. But only at Maleme had enough progress been made to warrant hopes of getting an airfield. And even here comparative failure—failure in terms of enemy plans, though success in relation to the hopes of the defence—would make it impossible to land 5 Mountain Division on 21 May, as had been intended.
Student's plan, in fact, had risked serious weaknesses. He had committed the whole of his glider-borne force and, except for a few companies, the whole of his parachute force. And he had committed them, not in one overwhelming blow which might confidently be expected to secure at least one airfield, but in four separate sectors, with three different airfields for objectives. The result was that he had dispersed his effort and, if he did not secure an airfield, would be dependent for reinforcement on the dubious chances of landings by sea.
His only chance now was to make Maleme his Schwer punkt. He had to make ‘a very grave decision. I decided the whole mass of the reserve of the parachutists would be put into action at the aerodrome of Maleme. That was a critical night for me. If the enemy had made a united all-out effort in counter-attacking during that night from the 20th to the 21st or in the morning of the 21st, then the very tired remnants of the Sturm [Assault] Regiment suffering from lack of ammunition could have been wiped out.’1
1 Proceedings at the trial of General Student. ‘The whole mass of the reserve of the parachutists’ is somewhat grandiloquent. Student could produce no more than three companies of paratroop infantry and a company and a half of anti-tank troops. Later, on 24 May, he was to be able to raise a further four companies for Heraklion. But these were probably not available on 21 May.
Once General Student, in an ugly situation, had decided to devote everything to Maleme, 11 Air Corps and 8 Air Corps got their orders accordingly. Eleventh Air Corps was to reinforce Group West by parachute on a scale sufficient to secure the occupation of Maleme airfield—a euphemism for the largest scale possible—and as soon as the airfield was occupied the landing of 5 Mountain Division was to begin. This complete, the drive towards Canea, junction with Group Centre, and the seizure of Suda Bay were to follow. Eighth Air Corps would abet these operations by protecting the landings, neutralising the defences, supporting the land forces, reconnoitring the seas round Crete, and by being ready to attack any warships detected.
In case reinforcement by air should fail, it seemed essential also that 1 Motor Sailing Flotilla, which had reached Melos on the night of the first day, should be directed to reach Maleme before dark on 21 May, apparently because only thus could the heavy weapons travelling by the convoy arrive in time to support the eastward thrust and the mountain troops sailing by sea be there. But reconnaissance had reported British warships south-west and south-east of Crete on 20 May and ‘the authorities in Rome’, still smarting no doubt from their defeat at Cape Matapan, refused to order the Italian fleet to sea. There was nothing for it; with or without the Italian fleet, the flotilla must put to sea, and at ten o'clock, 8 Air Corps having reported the sea north of Crete clear of British ships, it did so.1
Student did not know at this stage that 22 Battalion would withdraw, and plans were based on the assumption, based on intercepted wireless signals, that the defence force consisted of three New Zealand battalions with artillery and tanks and was established afresh in Maleme and Pirgos and the ridges south of these, but that between Pirgos and Platanias the ground was generally undefended.2
Summarised, the enemy's plan was to fly in ammunition for the troops already at Maleme, to land the remainder of the available paratroops and attack with them, and as soon as the airfield was taken to fly in a battalion of 5 Mountain Division. In case this should not be possible, III Battalion 100 Mountain Regiment of 5 Mountain Division was to go with 1 Motor Sailing Flotilla.
2 This last is a curious mistake on the part of the enemy Intelligence; for the same mistake the day before had cost the whole of III Bn, Assault Regt. A possible explanation is that the whole of 5 Bde was thought to be concentrated in the immediate area of Maleme and that the destruction of III Bn had been too thorough for a more accurate picture to be got back.
The next stage was the actual assault. This was once again to be made from the west and east. That from the east would come from a fresh landing of paratroops—5 and 6 Companies of 2 Parachute Regiment, which had not taken part with the rest of II Battalion in the Heraklion landings—east of Pirgos. The western attack would be made by the Assault Regiment, aided by a company and a half of the Parachute Anti-Tank Battalion and another company of 2 Parachute Regiment—presumably one of the two companies of I Battalion which had not landed at Retimo. These reinforcements to the Assault Regiment were to be put down west of the airfield in the early afternoon.2
Eighth Air Corps was to assist by strong attacks on Maleme and Pirgos and on the New Zealand guns covering the airfield. With the reinforcements landing in the west would come Colonel Ramcke,3 Meindl's successor as commander of Group West. The air attacks were to begin at 3 p.m. and end an hour later. The ground operations would then begin.
Pending the beginning the two groups which had pushed into 22 Battalion area during the previous day and night—one under Captain Gericke operating from the Tavronitis bridge and the other under Major Stentzler coming up from the south-west—stabilised on a line from the east edge of the airfield, through Point 107 and the height one kilometre south-east of it. We must no doubt discount as exaggerated the following details from 11 Air Corps Report: ‘The enemy, N.Z. sharpshooters, held their strongly organized and well camouflaged defensive localities with the utmost determination. Repeated counter attacks by the New Zealanders were repulsed.’4
1 Lt-Gen Willibald Utz; then aged 48; Comd 100 Mtn Regt; GOC 100 Light Div, 1943; GOC 2 Mtn Div, 1945.
2 Some paratroop reinforcements were landed in the early morning, according to CSM F. Teichmann. These were probably small parties from the Assault Regt which had not been landed on 20 May.
3 Gen Bernhard Ramcke; then aged 52; assumed comd Assault Regt, 21 May; Comd Ramcke Bde (North Africa), 1942; GOC 2 Para Div, 1943; GOC Brest garrison, 1944; volunteered as paratroop at age of 51; wounded at Alamein; captured four days after Brest fell; received highest honour for his defence of this port.
This pause provides a convenient opportunity to return to the 5 Brigade front and see how it was responding to the situation created by 22 Battalion's withdrawal.
Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew and his party had reached the lines of 23 Battalion some time between midnight and two in the morning.1 Brigadier Hargest had to be informed, and Major Leggat, the second-in-command, set off at once. The next thing, pending orders from Hargest, was to make advance preparations for action at daylight. Accordingly, at 2 a.m. a message was sent to Lieutenant-Colonel Allen at 21 Battalion, asking him to come at once to a conference at 23 Battalion HQ. The same message was sent to Major Philp of 27 Battery, reaching him by telephone about half past two.
The conference itself took place about 3 a.m. and the chief persons present were the three battalion commanders. Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie appears to have presided. No detailed record of what followed remains, nor can the memories of the surviving participants yield much. Only the decision reached is certain: the commanders resolved ‘to hold our positions next day’2; 22 Battalion would reorganise.
This decision, however, was too fateful to pass without comment. For now was the last chance to counter-attack to regain the lost positions before the enemy could reorganise and reinforce. The enemy in 23 Battalion area did not exist as an organised force, 21 Battalion had come under no serious pressure, and only 22 Battalion was very much the worse for the previous day's fighting.
1 Lt-Col Allen's report. 23 Bn reported the withdrawal to Bde HQ at 2 a.m. by telephone.
2 21 Bn Report.
Here, again, it is to be regretted that Hargest had not made 23 Battalion his advanced HQ the previous day or earlier. As it was, the vital decision had to be taken by his juniors. And they, too impressed perhaps by the fact that 22 Battalion had withdrawn and by the force and rapidity of the enemy's onslaught, were caught off their judgment, forgot the policy of immediate counter-attack on which the whole defence plan rested, and thought in terms of how to hold their present positions.
Indeed, this attitude was shortly to receive endorsement from Brigadier Hargest also. For Leggat now returned to say that Hargest was informing Division of the withdrawal and that he or someone else would come to 23 Battalion as soon as possible. Andrew thereupon borrowed a Bren carrier and himself set out for 5 Brigade, apparently reaching it about 5 a.m. There Hargest told him to get together as much of his battalion as he could and fit it into the line with 21 and 23 Battalions. There was no hope of pulling the battalion out of the line to reorganise.
Brigadier Hargest, learning of the conference's decision, may well have felt that the verdict of the men on the spot must be respected, even if it were not too late to alter it. But it seems surprising that he did not now feel that the time had come for him to go forward and see for himself. Instead he sent back with Andrew his Brigade Major, Captain Dawson.
The opportunity for counter-attack not having been accepted, all energies turned to reorganisation. The very circumstances which had made counter-attack so promising also favoured this so very much second-best course: the enemy was in no state to offer serious interference. And during the morning and early afternoon the parties from the missing companies came in to 21 Battalion lines, accompanied by numbers of RM, RAF, and FAA personnel. The last to arrive were Lieutenant Wadey's pioneer platoon, Wadey himself with a leg broken in the bombing of the AMES.
The 22nd Battalion was brought up by the new arrivals to a strength of 250 and divided into two companies, of which one, mainly D Company and Headquarters Company, was to remain with 21 Battalion while the other—made up from the other three companies—was to thicken up the line of 23 Battalion. With them were about forty men of the Fleet Air Arm, RAF and RM.1
1 Lt-Col Andrew says they had ‘put up a good show’ on 20 May.
For the guns of the three artillery troops things had become much more difficult. A and B had been deprived of their OP at Maleme and, although a new one was contrived at 23 Battalion, communications were difficult, especially to A Troop. All were harassed by aircraft—C Troop most seriously because of its exposed position.
Two Bofors captured at Maleme had been brought into action against the 23 Battalion area and C Troop. The guns of the defence could not bring direct fire on to them in return but they could fire on the general area of the airfield and did so, joining in the attack on the enemy plane which landed at eight o'clock. As we have seen, the Germans did not feel able to risk landing 5 Mountain Division until they were silenced.4
As the morning went on the earlier quiet became less marked, though most of the activity came from artillery and mortar exchanges. Shortly before three o'clock Captain Dawson, who had come forward again to replace the cut telephone with a wireless set, reported some action at the road junction east of Pirgos. The enemy—perhaps survivors from those who had jumped in that area the day before —had seized some houses there.
But the main attack was still to come. The Assault Regiment needed reinforcements before moving forward. These—two and a half companies of paratroops—arrived, presumably by an accelerated plan, in the early morning.5 CSM Teichmann arrived with ‘the second wave of parachutists’ about eight o'clock in the morning.
1 He was struck by the numbers of enemy dead in 23 Bn area. ‘Even around Bn HQ there were bodies everywhere, every 10–12 yds. One stepped over them as one went through the olive groves. And some very good looking fellows there were, too.’
2 About half of the two MG platoons on Maleme had got back with the withdrawal. But they had had to leave their guns as these were bolted to their mountings and there were no tools to unbolt them. The men from now on fought as infantry.
4 Maj Philp had made arrangements after the early morning conference for any aircraft landing on the airfield to be attacked by 27 Bty.—Report by Maj Philp.
5 5 Mtn Div WD reports that parachute anti-tank troops were dropped then.
But the enemy did not limit his attack to the two villages of Maleme and Pirgos. B Company and Headquarters 2 Company of 23 Battalion had an hour's furious battering from the enemy air force in the middle of the afternoon, and Leckie ordered C Company to be ready to support them in the ground attack that was bound to follow. As soon as the strafing stopped the enemy infantry came in near the Pirgos crossroads. The two 23 Battalion companies broke them up with Bren, spandau and rifle fire, the attack was a complete failure and, according to reports at the time, the enemy left about 200 dead in or in front of the scanty barbed-wire defences.
Simultaneously with this advance by the Assault Regiment, 5 and 6 Companies of 2 Parachute Regiment had jumped between Platanias and Pirgos. Once again, however, 11 Air Corps had been let down by its Intelligence and the two companies found themselves in a hornets' nest. Many landed in the forward positions of 19 Army Troops, where they were roughly handled:
Our fellows behaved well and did some sound destruction. Every man who could handle a rifle did his bit. Officers—cooks—bottle-washers —all were in it. Unfortunately we only had one Bren on the strength but the two chaps using it did a magnificent job.2
Some of the Engineers were between the canal and the main road and many of the paratroops dropped between them and the main positions south of the canal. But these forward sections managed to rejoin the others, though not without excitement:
1 CSM Teichmann says that a solitary New Zealand sergeant caused five or six casualties to the reinforcing paratroop party as it crossed the Tavronitis bridge and that the party was also fired on from houses on the airfield. The sergeant in question was probably Sgt J. Woods of HQ Coy 22 Bn, who was prowling in the area at the time. See p. 105, note 3.
2 Report by Capt J. N. Anderson.
The Engineers, after tactical withdrawals, managed to get the better of this engagement. The Maoris were no gentler with their share of the enemy, the rest of 5 and 6 Companies. D Company of 28 Battalion, in whose territory the landing came, were at this time divided. Captain Baker, the second-in-command, had gone out at one o'clock to deal with an enemy-held house about a mile to the east, and had taken with him 17 Platoon and part of 18 Platoon. By 3.35 p.m. he had sent back nine parachutists and was after still more. He was about to assault the house itself when 20 fighters began to strafe his force. In taking cover he was cut off from his men. He assumed they had fallen back and withdrew with his runner, learning en route that a large number of parachutists had come down not far away. Soon he was forced by enemy fire to take cover in a drain and then ‘we were surprised to see moving in from the sea a huge concentration of troop carrying planes.’ At first these planes made for Maleme, but then ‘apparently having filled the aerodrome commenced to land along the beach until finally they had landed right down past where we were taking cover.2
C Troop at once switched fire on to those planes landing on the beach and Baker witnessed the result. They ‘gave a first class exhibition of gunnery and accounted for the six planes nearest to us in a matter of moments. Certainly in practically all cases they were set on fire before the occupants had the chance of alighting and out of these six planes I saw only twenty men who ever left that beach.’
Baker and his runner were surprised shortly after by a single enemy. ‘He grasped my runner's rifle, threw it away, fired a shot over my head as I lay in the drain and called upon us to surrender. More by good luck than anything else I was able to get my hand on my revolver and rolling off my stomach drew it and shot him in the process, killing him outright.’ After an encounter with three further enemy in which Baker killed two and drove off the third, he decided to wait till dusk and then, finding himself cut off from his company, made his way to the Engineer Detachment.
1 Report by Capt Anderson.
2 Report by Capt Baker.
At this stage Jim Tuhiwai came to me in some excitement saying that there were many parachutists in area (F) who were shooting our people up. I ran over to the mill race and saw a German in the mouth of a filled-in well at (E) firing a tommy gun. Told Tuhiwai to lie on the bank and shoot at him and calling to a soldier to run out with me and we would rush the man from either side. We did that. As we got to him he crouched down shamming dead. I told the Maori to bayonet him. As he did so he turned his head away, not bearing the sight. Tuhiwai had now joined us and we rushed out among the Germans scattered every 15 or 20 yds…. One at about 15 yds instead of firing his tommy gun started to lie down to fire. I took a snap shot with a German Mauser. It grazed his behind and missed between his legs. My back hair lifted, but the Maori got him (I had no bayonet). We rushed on…. Some tried to crawl away. A giant of a man jumped up with his hands up like a gorilla, shouting “Hants Oop!” I said: ‘Shoot the bastard’ and the Maori shot him. That was because many others were firing at us and a Spandau from further off. Suddenly bullets spluttered all round my feet….2
By 6.50 p.m., except for a single machine gun which a patrol set out to stalk, the enemy in the Maori area were wiped out. Eleventh Air Corps reports that 5 Company lost all its officers and NCOs and that Lieutenant Nagele, the commander of the force, managed with great difficulty to make his way after dusk to the outskirts of Pirgos and there establish the 80 men of 6 Company which was all he could muster.
Thus neither the assault from the west nor that from the east was a success. Yet our withdrawal had in effect given the enemy the airfield and this meant that, risking the artillery fire, he was able to land an airborne mountain battalion. It was urgently needed; for counter-attack had been expected throughout the day and, though it had not come by day, the night seemed bound to bring it. The paratroops were tired and without the reinforcement might not have been able to hold.
It was about five o'clock when the Junkers 52 came in bringing RHQ of 100 Mountain Regiment and II Battalion. As Baker's story shows, these landings took place along the beach as well as on the airfield. Nor does his account of the losses seem exaggerated in the light of 11 Air Corps Report: ‘A number of JUs remained shot to pieces or burnt out on the beach and on the airfield.’3
2 Report by Maj Dyer. The letters in parentheses refer to a sketch map not reproduced.
3 5 Mtn Div WD says about 20 aircraft were destroyed.
Colonel Ramcke landed during the afternoon and reached the battle area about seven o'clock. Two hours later he had briefed himself and given his orders. They had the dual purpose of holding against counter-attack and preparing another thrust. II and IV Battalions of the Assault Regiment would maintain their forward positions, aided by a company of II Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, and would reorganise. Colonel Utz would use the rest of II Battalion to defend the airfield from the south and west. As soon as the units expected next day arrived he would deploy them for an enveloping attack round the south. This attack would have for its objective Monodhendri, the commanding hill three miles south of Ay Marina.
The forward units of 5 Brigade began the day by fitting 22 Battalion into their front. The main pressure from then on came against 23 Battalion's sector. Though the failure of Nagele's paratroops and the gingerly deliberation of the Assault Regiment took the sting out of the enemy's attacks, they had the coast road as their axis, and this meant that at most times of the day 23 Battalion had some enemy pressure to contend with. The day opened indeed with a skirmish in the rear when a surprise dawn assault by a group of paratroops in about platoon strength seized the hill beside 23 Battalion HQ. But a spirited counter-attack by Lieutenant King's1 14 Platoon remedied matters. Twelve prisoners were taken, the rest having been killed. A Nazi flag was also acquired which proved a useful bait for enemy airborne supplies, not the least valuable catch being a mortar which, in the hands of Lieutenant W. B. Thomas, put one of the enemy's captured Bofors out of action.
This was an isolated action. The main pressure was from the west. The enemy probably wanted to try to clear the high ground south of the main road so as to help the forces attacking along it. And he was especially anxious to get rid of the mortar and machine-gun posts in Headquarters Company area, for these could still bring fire on the airfield. He therefore put in several strong probes; but, although supported by continual fire from aircraft, machine guns, mortars, light guns and the captured Bofors, all the attacks were beaten off. At one stage, indeed, in the late afternoon, a withdrawal was made from the forward slope where the mortars and machine guns were sited; for the enemy had by now pinpointed the positions and ammunition was exhausted. But Leckie hastened to re-equip the machine-gun platoon with captured weapons, and a new line was held above the old positions and covering them.
At 5 Brigade HQ, meanwhile, a more realistic appraisal of the situation was possible for Brigadier Hargest. At 4 a.m. he had passed to Division the news of the withdrawal from Maleme. As the morning wore on the situation became at once more reassuring and more grim. On the one hand, although there was always the likelihood of a further flare-up, a new line was being held, 22 Battalion had come out less damaged than might have been expected, and the enemy did not seem to be following up very swiftly. On the other hand there had been further landings west of Maleme, the airfield was in enemy hands, and the only obstacle to his landing aircraft there was now the fire our few guns and the machine guns and mortars could bring to bear. The implications of this were so clear that the imperative necessity for counter-attack was beyond dispute. The only question was when and in what strength.
Two things are axiomatic about counter-attack: it should be made with all possible speed and with all possible force. It becomes necessary, therefore, to consider under these two heads the discussions and decisions which took place this day and which concluded in the operation which was the chief event of 22 May. In such a consideration the views and problems of Brigadier Puttick and General Freyberg are as much involved as those of Brigadier Hargest; but it will be clearer if the situation as it was seen by each of these commanders is treated separately. A beginning may be made with Hargest, whose horizon was naturally the most restricted.
The first evidence we have of his views comes from a telephone conversation he had with Division at 11.15 a.m. Counter-attack was being discussed and Hargest said that he thought it would have to take place at night, for machine-gunning from the air forbade large-scale movement by day. This seems to imply that from the first he envisaged other troops than the forward units of 5 Brigade taking part, unless he felt that even they would not be able to make an organised attack because of the danger from the air. Since this air menace was the chief argument against daylight attack and thus imposed delay when speed was urgent, it requires closer examination.
On the whole, the argument seems a valid one. It is true that on 22 May 21 Battalion was able to make a substantial advance by day and in spite of the enemy air force; but the main attack that morning by 20 and 28 Battalions was to be checked largely because of the severe strafing from the enemy's aircraft, and the relative calm on the 21 Battalion front was probably due to the fact that page 193 the enemy thought the coastal sector the one that needed protection. Had 21 Battalion continued to attack throughout the day, the enemy would no doubt have concentrated much more drastically against it.
Again, on 27 May, 5 Brigade was to deliver a successful counterattack; but this was suddenly organised and suddenly delivered and took place, besides, at a stage of the battle when the enemy's effort in the air was noticeably slackening.
The likelihood is, therefore, that had Hargest ordered his forward battalions to counter-attack by day on 21 May all the enemy's air power would have been brought to bear very quickly and, though the New Zealanders might have been able to make progress, the weight of air attack would in the end have been too much.
Similarly, since the enemy's 8 Air Corps had been given the task of preventing the movement up of reserves, it is unlikely that the forward movement by day of units in the rear would have been permitted—as indeed is apparent from the attention that we shall later see given to harassing a move by 2/7 Battalion. The 28th Battalion might have got forward early and relatively unmolested because it did not have far to go; but even this would have been risky.
The case for postponement of the counter-attack until night thus seems reasonably strong. And, given the postponement, it was perhaps natural that Hargest should ask for fresh troops with which to carry it out. For, by his understanding of the position, 22 Battalion had been badly hit, 21 Battalion was under strength from the beginning, and 23 Battalion was already committed to holding the line at its most hard-pressed part.
There remains the question of the force in which the counterattack was to go in. Brigadier Hargest, in the same telephone conversation with Division, said that 28 Battalion and a further battalion would be enough. And his only request, in addition to that for the extra battalion, was for 120 men to replace 28 Battalion and protect his line of communication against a thrust from the south. He made this request because he had only the Brigade Band to protect his HQ and because many marked maps taken from prisoners indicated that the enemy contemplated a thrust from the south up to the coast road, and because the beach near Platanias had still to be covered against invasion from the sea.
Yet, had he grasped how all-important was the recapture of Maleme and how essential and urgent was a full-scale and successful thrust to the airfield, he would probably have pressed Division for two battalions instead of one and would have judged that everything else, even communications, was subordinate to the supreme objective. But since Division does not seem to have stressed the vital importance page 194 of the counter-attack or to have doubted the adequacy of a counterattack by two battalions, it would not be just to hold the junior commander, with his necessarily more restricted view, entirely responsible—although one wonders whether, if Hargest had set up his HQ at 23 Battalion, he might not have been better placed to see how things were and take appropriate action.1 And lastly, it is always possible that even the two-battalion counter-attack might have been successful had it not been for the unlucky delays that were still to occur.2
His seniors, as we have seen, did not dispute Hargest's views about the necessity to wait till dark and the force that would be needed. Puttick did not go forward to 5 Brigade HQ to discuss the question directly. For he believed it was better to stay at his own HQ where he could keep in touch with the other brigades and Creforce HQ; and, given the situation on 10 Brigade front, the threat of invasion and all the other problems on his hands, the advantages of this course are plain. Yet 5 Brigade's was now the vital front, and had Puttick gone forward he might have been better able to judge for himself whether Hargest was right.
Even without such a visit, however, it is odd that he accepted so readily Hargest's estimate of the force necessary to secure success —or, rather, reduced that estimate, since he refused the extra 120 men asked for to replace 28 Battalion. His argument, of course, was that he had not the troops to spare. The 28th Battalion was the only unit in 5 Brigade free to take part. Tenth Brigade was fully engaged and likely to remain so. Of 4 Brigade, 19 Battalion having a front to hold, only 18 and 20 Battalions were left. The 20th was already earmarked to go forward with 28 Battalion. This left only 18 Battalion as reserve against fresh emergencies on 10 Brigade front and invasion by sea. Because of this last threat, even the departure of 20 Battalion ought to be made good if the coastal defences were to be maintained.
1 He did, however, send Capt Dawson to ascertain the forward situation.
2 It is fair to add that a three-battalion counter-attack would have been more difficult to mount over a narrow frontage in the dark and in country unfamiliar to the units.
The question brings us to the attitude of General Freyberg. He held a conference in the afternoon with Brigadiers Puttick, Inglis, Vasey, and Stewart. It was decided that a two-battalion counterattack would be enough and that the counter-attack would have to take place by night. No doubt the views of Puttick and of Hargest, as related by Puttick, counted for a good deal in these decisions. Both before Crete and in the campaigns that were to follow it Freyberg's practice was to let his commanders conduct their own battles, and on the whole this normally sound policy worked well. And, indeed, the need for him to give personal attention to the difficult administrative position and his many other preoccupations would have left him little time to consider departing from that practice now. But it is possible to regret that he did not make this occasion the exception and intervene in favour of adding more weight to this crucial effort.
That he did not do so was presumably due to the concern he felt for the defence against invasion by sea. Yet he had at his disposal, apart from the New Zealand Division, the following forces round Canea, Suda and Georgeoupolis:
19 Australian Brigade (2/7 Bn and half of 2/8 Bn: about 1000)
1 Welch (854 of a regular battalion)
1 Rangers (417)
Northumberland Hussars (279)
Royal Perivolians (about 700)
106 RHA (307)
16 Australian Inf Bde Composite Battalion (443)
17 Australian Inf Bde Composite Battalion (387)
RM Unit (300)
Dock defence force (RN, RM, Australian and NZ, about 600).1
1 Strengths of units are those which seem most likely among the alternatives in official British and Australian sources.
But concern for the sea invasion and perhaps failure to realise how much stronger the enemy hold on the airfield had grown during the afternoon prevailed. It was decided that 20 and 28 Battalions should do the counter-attack and 2/7 Australian Battalion should be brought from Georgeoupolis to replace 20 Battalion.
Indeed, uneasiness about the sea invasion more than rivalled worries about Maleme. Inglis recalls that as he was leaving Creforce a message came ‘in, as nearly as I can remember, the following words: “Enemy attempting seaborne landings beaches west of Canea tonight. Navy informed.”’1
This will have occasioned the following signal sent at 7.50 p.m. to NZ Division:
Reliable information. Early seaborne attack in area CANEA likely. Duke [NZ Div] remains responsible coast from west up to excl KLADISO R. Corn [1 Welch] forthwith to stiffen existing defences from incl KLADISO R to incl KHALEPA.2
The strength of the counter-attacking infantry having been decided there was still the question of support. Artillery support was apparently left to Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt,3 of 2/3 Royal Australian Regiment, who was appointed CRA of the Division that day, to arrange. A troop of light tanks from 3 Hussars was to move up with the infantry. Creforce arranged with GHQ Middle East that the airfield should be bombed between midnight and two o'clock in the morning.4 And the Navy would be active in the waters north of Crete, watching to intercept the sea invasion.
It was about 7 p.m. when Puttick arrived back at his own HQ from Creforce with plans for the counter-attack. These were passed on to 5 Brigade HQ by telephone; and Puttick, thinking that someone from Division should go forward to clear up any obscure points and no doubt thinking that with the invasion by sea imminent it would be inadvisable for him to leave the centre of his command, decided to send Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry. Accordingly, about 8 p.m. Gentry set off, meeting Major G. W. Peck, commander of C Squadron 3 Hussars, at a rendezvous en route. From here they went on together to 5 Brigade HQ.
1 Letter from General Inglis, 12 Feb 1951.
2 NZ Div WD.
4 ‘This was great news as we had not seen a British plane since attack began.’—5 Bde WD.
They found Brigadier Hargest with his Staff Captain, Lieutenant Mason,1 the Brigade Major being away at 23 Battalion. A rough plan was ready. ‘Although tired Brig Hargest was by no means despondent and no doubts were expressed about the plan which I thought was simple and straightforward. It was clearly recognised that success depended on the attack being carried out under the mantle of darkness.’2
At the conference which followed, besides Brigadier Hargest and Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry, there were present Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt, Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer3 of 28 Battalion, and Major Peck. The plan was considered in detail. It was decided that the troop of three light tanks should lead, moving along the road; that 20 Battalion on the right would carry the attack as far as the airfield; and that 28 Battalion on the left of the road would thrust through as far as the Tavronitis. The two battalions would form up 300 yards west of the Platanias River and their start line would be the village half a mile farther west. Zero hour would depend on the time 20 Battalion arrived; but it was thought that ‘it would be safe to count on 20 Bn being able to advance by 0100 hrs.’4
The first objective was to be Pirgos village. Having taken it the troops would rest for 30 minutes and reform before passing on to their final objectives. To avoid confusion about bombing targets —an optimistic precaution—a system of recognition signals with the RAF had been arranged and Peck lent his tank so that the necessary Very cartridges could be taken forward.
No formal operation order appears to have been issued, its place being taken by ‘Notes for C.O's.’5 This paper reads as follows:
Starting Time for Advance 0100 hrs 22 May 41
Starting Time for Attack 0400 hrs 22 May 41
Line of Advance: 20 Bn on right of rd, but when past MALEME CEMETERY and on to AERODROME, the left of the Bn. will move under the terrace, 100 yds left of the rd.
28 Bn to move to left of rd, and when nearing objective will make certain its left is on top of KAVKAZIA HILL (107).
On completion of task, 20 Bn. will move back to ridge in front of
2 Statement by Brig Gentry. It seems from this that Hargest's estimate of the force required had not been altered by the enemy landings that had taken place since the morning.
3 Brig G. Dittmer, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Maharahara, 4 Jun 1893; Regular soldier; Auckland Regt 1914–19 (OC 1 NZ Entrenching Bn); CO 28 NZ (Maori) Bn, Jan 1940–Feb 1942; comd 1 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) Apr 1942–Aug 1943; 1 Div, Aug 1942–Jan 1943; Fiji Military Forces and Fiji Inf Bde Gp, Sep 1943–Nov 1945; Camp Commandant, Papakura Military Camp, 1946; Commandant, Central Military District, 1946–48.
4 Statement by Brig Gentry.
5 23 Bn WD.
28 Bn as soon as task is finished and it has handed over to 20 Bn will withdraw to its location at PLATANIAS by covered routes.
21 Bn will occupy a line from Pt 107 back to wireless station.
Bde Report Centre at Old Bde H.Q. PLATANIAS VILLAGE.
5 Inf Bde,
21 May 41.
This was meant, so far as Captain Mason recalls, for the commanders of 20 and 28 Battalions and was intended to confirm verbal orders. A copy was sent to 23 Battalion, however, at 10.45 p.m. in Peck's tank.1 After it had gone Captain Dawson, on his way back from 23 Battalion, rang from the Engineer Detachment's HQ and was told by Hargest to return to 23 Battalion and brief Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie. Dawson, ‘a little perturbed at having to return immediately when an LO had already departed’, did so and ‘warned 23 Bn about “mopping up role” after the attack passed through immediate position.’2 It seems clear, therefore, that Hargest had decided as an afterthought that 23 Battalion should assist the counter-attack in this way.
Through the double source of Captain Dawson and the liaison officer 23 Battalion learnt of the plan about midnight. The 21st Battalion records getting orders at 12.40 a.m., and so it may be assumed that orders on the same lines were passed on to it.
There are some minor inconsistencies in the sources about starting times and start lines, but these can all be reasonably explained and may be passed over here. The weaknesses in the plan, of which the main lines have already been set forth, need to be dwelt on a little further.
1 The W/T set taken to 23 Bn that afternoon by Capt Dawson had been put out of action by air attack.
2 Statements by Capt Mason and Lt-Col Dawson.
However faulty the plan, the stage was now set. If the counterattack succeeded it might still be possible to hold Crete. If it failed, it was only a matter of time before the island belonged to the enemy.
1 There were no troops to spare at Bde HQ but parties might have been sent out from 23 Bn and NZE. Lt-Col Dittmer stressed the danger at the conference and urged an early start to allow for it. By then, of course, it was too late for any clearing-up activity.