IV: Retimo, Heraklion, and Creforce
At Retimo the enemy made no attempt on 22 May to reinforce, and the spirit among the defenders was briskly offensive. Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell had planned two attacks, one to the east and one to the west. The eastern attack began at dawn with a junction between two companies, each less a platoon, of 2/1 Australian Battalion and a Greek battalion just south of the Stavromenos oil factory. The factory was then bombarded by such mortars and guns as could be brought to bear and at 6 p.m. Australians and Greeks began a converging attack. But the latter made no headway and the Australians were held up fifty yards short of their objective. The attack was eventually called off and the Australians were ordered back to guard the airfield, while the Greeks remained to contain the beleaguered enemy.
Meanwhile, in the west 2/11 Australian Battalion had once more set out to attack Perivolia. All day the men tried to get forward under heavy air attack but were held up by heavy machine-gun fire. page 242 A simultaneous attack by Greek forces coming up from the south forced the enemy into a church but failed with heavy losses to take the church itself.
Once again therefore Campbell had to postpone his hopes till the following day. But by now one of the two I tanks which had been recaptured with the airfield had been got going again and men from a carrier company began to train with it so as to take part in the next day's attack.
At Heraklion the decision of the German High Command to concentrate on Maleme had also had its effects. The onslaught from the air was noticeably reduced. Supplies were dropped and some light guns, but most of this fell as manna into the hands of the defence. Towards evening, however, there was further strafing of the airfield and finally more parachutists came down—about 300 of them west of the town and about 500 west of the airfield.1 Of the first party, a strong force dug itself in astride the road to Retimo about two miles west of the town.
Our own troops were far from inactive. Patrols from 2 Yorks and Lancs mopped up south of the town and were busy all day; and west of the town Greek troops did good work cleaning out machine-gun posts. The Greek barracks at the west end of the airfield was finally cleared during the day while patrols from the Black Watch, aided at first by two I tanks which soon broke down, cleared the east end.
The 2nd Leicesters and 2/4 Australian Battalion patrolled to the south of their positions, and the former with the aid of the guns forced the surrender of a fairly large body of enemy.
The only serious danger to the general position at this stage was in the east, where the Germans, mindful no doubt of their orders to deny us the use of the airfield, held on strongly to positions from which they could enfilade it. It was not possible to muster a force strong enough to drive them out, but two companies of 2 Leicesters were sent to reinforce the Black Watch in case they should attack.
1 This is according to British reports. Enemy records do not confirm the dropping of more parachutists here until 24 May, but 4 Air Fleet report mentions that weapons, ammunition, supplies and dressings were dropped ‘where required’. So the British observers may have been mistaken.
Indeed, his main problem was how to reinforce this. At 2.10 p.m. he signalled to Wavell asking that the battalion of Queen's Royal Regiment, which he hoped would be sent from Egypt as reinforcements, be put ashore at Suda Bay since too much loss of time would follow if it were to land at Tymbaki according to plan.1 But back came the reply that, after consultation with the Navy, General Wavell had decided it was impossible to land any troops in Suda Bay, and there was nothing for it but to try and hold on with what troops were already there. It is evident from this message that Wavell, not yet realising how desperate the situation was, still had hopes that the enemy might not be able to go on standing up to his losses; and he promised relief when the situation allowed it. More concrete was his statement that he was trying to arrange for a commando to land in the south and cross the hills northwards to help. And if Freyberg thought the situation at Maleme was really grave he would try and arrange for RAF fighters to strafe the front early next morning and land within the defence perimeter when their ammunition and petrol were exhausted. He advised Freyberg to consider whether it would not be possible to move troops from Retimo to Canea, replacing them with troops from Heraklion, and in Heraklion making good the loss by replacements from Tymbaki.
There was scant comfort in all this for General Freyberg. The addition of a commando to his force would not turn the battle; nor would a raid by fighters, however cheering the sight of the RAF might be for his men. Still, he must take such heart from it as he could, at the same time doing his best to ensure that the true situation was seen plainly at GHQ Middle East.
At Retimo and Heraklion the situation was reasonably satisfactory. But the former was probably cut off from the latter and from Canea. None the less, he had ordered the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to close on Heraklion, with which they were already in touch, and try to make their way from there by road to Suda.
At Maleme the enemy had kept on landing troop-carriers, not only on the airfield but on the beaches and in the area to the west. In three hours during the afternoon 59 had been counted landing, and this rate of 20 an hour might be taken as an average for this day and the preceding day. Freyberg's intention of attacking the aerodrome area that night had been frustrated by a thrust up to the coast road which would cut off the troops on the Maleme front. He had therefore decided he must secure his defence by withdrawal to a shorter line. But this meant that Maleme could now become an operational airfield in enemy hands and within a very short distance of Suda Bay.
Nor was this the only danger. Some small German parties were reported to have been landed by sea on the Akrotiri Peninsula already that day. It had to be remembered that all the routes used by the defence were vulnerable to landings by sea or parachute.
Taking everything into account, he had been forced to decide on the shorter line. But the enemy would soon be equal in numbers and his own troops could not fight without rest. None the less they would fight all the same if they could be maintained. But this would have to be done by using Suda. For Tymbaki and Sfakia were the only ports open in the south, and only the road to Tymbaki was complete, while there was not transport to enable the use of either.2
The maintenance problem, which had now become so pressing, General Freyberg dealt with at greater length in a message sent the following morning, and it will be convenient to defer treatment of it until a later chapter.3
It is evident from the messages sent about this time that although Freyberg was still painfully conscious of the fact that his communication routes were vulnerable to sea landings, the danger was much less acute than it had been. This was largely due to the Navy's successful operations during the previous night and these have already been described.4 But the Navy's losses had been heavy, and full credit cannot be given to its men for the part they played at sea unless we make clear in what difficult circumstances that part was played.
When we left the Fleet Force D had destroyed or dispersed the vessels of the enemy's 1 Motor Sailing Flotilla, and Force C, under Rear-Admiral King, after making contact with what must have been 2 Motor Sailing Flotilla leaving Melos, had withdrawn because ammunition was running low and because the speed of the force was the speed of its slowest vessel, HMS Carlisle.
Force D after its engagement with the enemy convoy took a further sweep to the east and north but met with nothing further. At 3.30 a.m. its commander, Rear-Admiral Glennie, turned west, giving his ships a rendezvous for 6 a.m. about 30 miles to the west of Crete. His original orders from the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean had been, if there were no developments during the night, to work to the northward; but there had indeed been developments, and the force was so low in AA ammunition that he felt it might not be able to deal with the air attack that must certainly be expected if it were caught by day in northern waters. Accordingly the force sailed to the west, and it was not till it had already left the Aegean that it received an amplifying order from the Commander-in-Chief by which it was to join Force C and sweep in search of convoys within 25 miles of Melos.
2 Even if the units were available the necessary fast shipping was not.
This was the reason why Force C found itself alone when it encountered 2 Motor Sailing Flotilla near Melos. Had the two forces been together they might have felt justified in pressing home an attack, relying on their combined AA power to deter bombing attack. Withdrawal did not save Force C, however, from this: the force was under continual bombing attack from 9.45 a.m. till 1.15 p.m., with the result that Naiad had two turrets put out of action and her speed reduced to 16 knots, while Carlisle was also hit.
Finding his force isolated under this severe attack, the commander of Force C called on the main body west of Crete, Force A 1, for help and made towards the Kithera Channel. The commander of Force A 1 answered the call for support at 12.25 p.m. by making for the Aegean. It was by this time without Force D which, because of its ammunition shortage, had been ordered back to Alexandria. But it had been joined by Force B which had made no contact during the night, had found itself at daylight about 25 miles north of Canea and, after a bombing which lasted from 6.30 to 8 a.m. and in which Fiji and Gloucester were both hit, had joined the main body at half past eight.
The whole of this force was also rather short of ammunition, Gloucester being reduced to 18 per cent, Fiji to 30 per cent, Dido to 25 per cent, Orion to 38 per cent and Ajax to 40 per cent. Valiant and Warspite were best off, with 66 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.
It was a serious weakness with which to face what was to be a punishing day. The first casualty was Greyhound. About the time of the junction with Force C, she was returning from the sinking of a large caique when she was hit by two bombs. At 2.6 p.m. she sank. When she was hit, 15 minutes before, Kandahar and Kingston were sent to pick up survivors. At 2.2 p.m. Fiji, and five minutes later Gloucester, were sent to give Kandahar and Kingston AA support. The men from Greyhound swimming in the water and the ships trying to rescue them were alike bombed and machine-gunned continuously.
Force A 1 now closed with Force C—at only 18 knots as Warspite had been hit and her 4-inch and 6-inch batteries put out of action—to help, and its commander told the commander of Force C that Fiji and Gloucester were very short of HAA ammunition. Accordingly the commander of Force C ordered both to withdraw.
At 3.30 p.m. both Fiji and Gloucester were seen coming up astern of Force A 1 at high speed with enemy aircraft overhead. Twenty minutes later Gloucester was hit, set on fire, and page 247 immobilised. The air was too hot with enemy planes for Fiji to be able to help, and the commanders of Force A 1 and Force C decided they could not risk the battle fleet to go back and support her.
Air attack continued for the rest of the afternoon with a break after ten minutes past three. But it was renewed at 4.45 and Valiant was hit by two bombs, though without serious damage. By this time both forces were withdrawing to the south-west, Force C almost out of HAA ammunition.
The next casualty was Fiji. With Kandahar and Kingston she had lost sight of the main fleet and was 30 miles due east of it when she fell victim to a lone Me 109. A single bomb dropped alongside and the engines were crippled. Other bombs followed and at 8.15 p.m. the ship heeled over. Kandahar and Kingston lowered boats and rafts and then withdrew to wait till dark. They then returned and rescued 523 men. At 10.45 they set off to join Force C.
Meanwhile Force A 1 had been joined during the afternoon by 5 Destroyer Flotilla from Malta—Kelly, Kashmir, Kipling, Kelvin and Jackal. As soon as he learnt at 7.28 p.m. that Fiji was sinking, the commander of Force A 1 sent 10 Destroyer Flotilla— Stuart, Voyager and Vendetta—which had left Alexandria the preceding day and was now en route to join him, to the rescue.
It was by now dark and the day's losses were complete: two cruisers and one destroyer sunk (Gloucester, Fiji and Greyhound), two battleships and two cruisers damaged (Warspite, Valiant, Naiad and Carlisle). The fleet claimed two enemy aircraft certainly shot down, six probably shot down, and five damaged.
But the day's work was not yet over. The commander of Force A 1 received orders at half past eight to send Decoy and Hero to the south coast to pick up the King of Greece, and on his own account sent 5 Destroyer Flotilla to patrol inside Kisamos and Canea Bays. Kipling developed steering trouble almost at once, but Kelly, Kashmir, Kelvin and Jackal carried on without her. In Canea Bay the first two met a caique full of troops and damaged it badly with gunfire. They then bombarded Maleme and withdrew. As they did so they met a second caique and this they set on fire. Kelvin and Jackal after investigating some shore lights withdrew independently.
Meanwhile 14 Destroyer Flotilla—Jervis, Ilex, Nizam and Havock—were patrolling off Heraklion, where they were to have been joined by Ajax and Orion who were on their way back to Alexandria with the rest of Force D. But at 10.30 p.m. the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean received a message from the commander of Force A 1 reporting on the ammunition situation. page 248 From this message the Commander-in-Chief understood that the battleships were out of pom-pom ammunition. He therefore decided to withdraw all forces to Alexandria.
The other naval activities of the day that ought to be mentioned are those of the Abdiel, which laid mines during darkness between Cephalonia and Levkas, and of the Rorqual which did the same in the Gulf of Salonika. And it was this night also that the Glenroy sailed from Alexandria for Tymbaki with HQ 16 Infantry Brigade, 900 men of the Queen's Royal Regiment, and 18 vehicles. Escorting her were Coventry, Auckland and Flamingo.