IV: Other Fronts and Creforce
IV: Other Fronts and Creforce
Although the enemy on the Australian front was not very active at this stage, aggressive plans being suspended until Galatas should be taken, Brigadier Vasey was aware of the hard pressure against 4 Brigade and anxious to do anything possible to relieve it. The attack by 2 Greek Regiment the previous day had failed to drive the enemy from the high ground, and in a conference on 25 May at the page 321 Greek HQ it was decided that 2/8 Australian Battalion should try to seize the two hills which were the hub of his position. Such an attempt if successful might do much to relieve the pressure round Galatas. The attack was therefore planned for that evening1 and the plan was that 2/8 Battalion, having taken the two hills, would swing right and advance about a thousand yards to link up with the New Zealand front.
When news reached 19 Brigade, however, about two hours before dusk, that 4 Brigade's front was still unbreached it was decided to cancel the attack. This was as well. If such an attack were to be made at all the time for it was earlier in the battle. Withdrawal from now on was inevitable, and a forward move would have wasted lives and exhausted energies that were going to be severely taxed before the battle was over.
The 2nd Greek Regiment itself seems to have had little to do on this day, and the arrival of a party from 8 Greek Regiment with the news that it was still fighting, though so short of food and ammunition that it might have to break off action, had a depressing effect; so much so indeed that Major Wooller set off that evening to report the general situation to Creforce and see if any further supplies could be obtained. For he rightly felt that if 2 Greek Regiment threw in its hand the way would be open to the enemy to work round the flank and cut off the New Zealand Division.
It now appears, however, that the report from 8 Greek Regiment, though it may not have exaggerated the difficulties the Greeks were meeting, painted too black a picture when it suggested they might abandon the battle. And, since the resistance they continued to offer had an important influence on the main front, it is necessary to pause here and give an account of it. Unfortunately, owing to the absence of material from Greek sources, such an account has to be based largely on German versions of the fighting; but from these it should be possible to infer a story in its main lines reliable.
1 General Puttick remembers nothing of this and was presumably not informed.
It seems likely, however, either that Brown was misled by his Greek informants or that the Germans in Alikianou and Fournes were only scattered parties of parachutists, who soon found it prudent to withdraw on to their main body or were dealt with by Greek soldiers and civilians.
At all events Heidrich found himself with enough to do in these first three days without attempting aggression elsewhere than on the Galatas front, and we may assume that in this respite the Greeks —soldiers and civilians—had time to reorganise themselves for defence. It was not till 23 May that General Ringel had made enough progress on the Maleme front and had enough troops to decide the time had come for a drive through Alikianou which would emerge south of Suda Bay and cut off all the British troops defending Canea and the areas west of it. The operational diaries of Ringel's group for 23 May therefore show a considerable interest in Alikianou.
A reconnaissance report—probably air—at 1.30 p.m. on that day reports scattered enemy at Alikianou, while a report from 100 Mountain Regiment in the middle of the afternoon says that nothing was known of the situation there. It is evident, however, from a situation map for the evening, that I Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment was already probing in that direction. But there was not enough time and too great a distance had to be traversed over rough country for any collision to be expected that day.
Till now only I Battalion had been available and had been operating under the command of Colonel Utz, commander of 100 Mountain Regiment. But on the morning of 24 May Colonel Krakau, the commander of 85 Mountain Regiment, had arrived, with III Battalion close behind him. The plan was that the two battalions, and II Battalion as soon as it arrived, should be directed towards Alikianou to carry out the original flanking scheme. And while Krakau was taking over his regiment, Utz was either still in charge of I Battalion or was relaying to General Ringel its reports about Alikianou. Thus at 4.45 p.m. he reports that Alikianou is occupied by enemy, while a report late that night says that enemy troops are dug in there in the strength of about two companies with heavy weapons, with civilians taking part. The strength of the obstacle was such that reconnaissance to Fournes was impossible—a patrol leader had already been killed in Alikianou —but the evidence was that both Fournes and Skines were occupied.page 323
In these circumstances I Battalion, 85 Mountain Regiment, evidently decided that it would be more prudent to defer attack, protective posts facing the village were established, and patrols were sent out to see if a route could be found round the flanks. It seems a fair inference from all this that 8 Greek Regiment and its civilian auxiliaries were still holding the line, and with enough vigour to deter the enemy from a forward move until it could be made in overwhelming strength. Thus it can safely be said that the Greeks by their stoutness in this obscure part of the front had delayed a dangerous thrust.
General Ringel, however, was anxious that his ambitious right hook should be brought off, and his orders for 25 May were that I and III Battalions of 85 Mountain Regiment should take Alikianou and the area east of it, including the high ground. From there they were to push on to Ay Marina, two kilometres south of Suda. To ease their attack there would be heavy air bombing of Alikianou in the early morning.
Had the two battalions of 85 Mountain Regiment struck direct at Alikianou on 25 May there is little reason to doubt that they would have broken through the badly armed Greeks without much difficulty. But whether because Colonel Krakau overrated their strength and was deterred into timidity by his lack of artillery and fighter support, or for whatever other reason, his drive on this occasion was below the standards later associated with good German regimental commanders. By the beginning of the afternoon his own HQ had got no farther than Episkopi, I Battalion was somewhere on his left, and III Battalion was in Koufos. He was still sending out reconnaissance patrols to find the Greek flanks, and he seems to have been disproportionately distressed over the failure of two promised Stuka bombings on Alikianou to eventuate. At the end of the afternoon he had no change to report.
It is no depreciation of Greek courage, however, to say that Krakau's lack of initiative prevented an ugly threat from developing more rapidly. For the Greeks were badly armed and could hardly have withstood a determined attack. They were well aware of this but remained none the less in position, and by doing so frightened the enemy into time-wasting and futile flanking movements in mountainous country.
The fact that the main front had now begun to move so much closer to Canea was not without its effect on Suda Area. For the growing improbability of invasion from the sea or further air landings was now replaced by a strong likelihood that before long page 324 the units under General Weston's command would be drawn into the ground fighting.
Accordingly the arrangements of the previous day were modified and embodied in a formal order.1 Suda Brigade, constituted as we have seen,2 was to hold the defensive line of the Mournies River from the Prison–Canea road to the hills south of Mournies. In this way a secondary defence line was created which, extended next day by the reserves of 5 Brigade, would run from the hills in the south to the coast. Should the forward troops have to withdraw there would be a screen through which they could pass.
Northumberland Hussars and 1 Rangers now came as a single command under Major D. R. C. Boileau of the latter unit. They were to be known as Akrotiri Force and were to establish a stop line across the isthmus of Akrotiri, with the further task of dealing with any seaborne or airborne landings on the peninsula.
The 1st Welch under Lieutenant-Colonel A. Duncan was to act as reserve to Creforce and was to exchange places with 1 Rangers, which till then had been holding St. John's Hill in an anti-parachutist role. And the Suda Area provost, the Greek gendarmerie, and any other Greek forces in the area were to take over the local protection of Canea against parachutists.
Finally, various changes were made in the positions of the AA units round Canea, largely as the result of the bombing of the town which went on relentlessly and continually throughout the day.
It is interesting to notice that so much consideration was still being given to the possibility of sea invasion or airborne landing. Thus General Weston, at a time when the obvious need was for a compact reserve striking force which could be brought to bear quickly, used Northumberland Hussars and 1 Rangers, among the best troops available, to create a stop line which was of little importance and gave them a secondary role which they were most unlikely to have to play. And the result was that Suda Area was in effect without a reserve at all.
The enemy at Heraklion still had enough initiative to try a further attack on the town from the west. But this was beaten off by 2 Yorks and Lancs, which had taken over the town's defence from the Greek forces while these latter, reorganised into two battalions, were given the task of defending Knossos hospital and the road to Knossos. An encouraging development was the arrival of an advance party during the morning from 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Before midnight the whole battalion had come in and was able to relieve 2 Leicesters, who now went into reserve. The reinforcement was welcome as ammunition was running low.
Although 25 May was no less anxious a day for General Freyberg than any of the days that had preceded it, such news as reached him while daylight lasted did not seem to give any very special grounds for anxiety. Communications, owing to the move of Force HQ and of many of the subordinate headquarters, and the undiminished severity of the bombing, were worse than ever; but so far as the evidence went, until late in the day the troops in the forward sector were holding their own. Thus Freyberg was able to report to Wavell during the morning that in spite of a local withdrawal on the right flank the situation there was satisfactory.1 And a further report covering the situation up till 9 p.m. speaks of a land battle going on, synchronising with a heavy attack from the air, but shows no special signs of alarm.2
A personal message to General Wavell written late that night began to the same effect but was interrupted to give more drastic news. To quote General Freyberg:
On the night of Sunday 25th I sat writing my cable to the C-in-C after having watched a savage air attack on the forward troops by dive bombers, heavy bombers, and twin-engined fighters with machine guns and cannon guns. This is what I had written:
Today has been one of great anxiety to me here. The enemy carried out one small attack last night and this afternoon he attacked with little success. This evening at 1700 hrs bombers, dive bombers and ground straffers came over and bombed our forward troops and then his ground troops launched an attack. It is still in progress and I am awaiting news. If we can give him a really good knock it will have a very far reaching effect.
2 I. 85, HQ Crete to Mideast, 11.15 p.m., 25 May.
While I was writing the above the following message came in from Brigadier Puttick:
Heavy attacks about 2000 hrs have obviously broken our line. Enemy is through at Galatos and moving towards Daratsos. Right flank of 18 Bn was pushed back about 1600 yds 1800 hrs and 20 Bn moved forward and 23 and 28 Bns were moved to 4 Bde assistance. Tanks were also moved forward towards 18 Bn area to assist in restoring line. Hargest says Inglis is hopeful of establishing a line.
Am endeavouring to form a new line running north and south about 1200 yds west of Div HQ linking up on south with Wadi held by Australians, who have been warned to swing their right flank back to that line. A second or support line will be established I hope on the line of the river, from the right of the Marines on that river past the bridge at the road junct thence down the river to the sea.
Reports indicate that men (or many of them) badly shaken by severe air attacks and TM fire. Am afraid will lose our guns through lack of transport. Am moving my Div HQ about midnight 25/26 to near 19 Aust HQ for the moment. Am exceedingly doubtful on present reports whether I can hold the enemy tomorrow (26th).
E. Puttick, Brig., Commanding NZ Div.
On receipt of this I struck out the last sentence of my draft telegram (see underlined) and added in its place:
Later: I have heard from Puttick that the line has gone and we are trying to stabilise. I don't know if they will be able to. I am apprehensive. I will send messages as I can later.
This message I sent off there and then at 2 in the morning.1
Once he had told Wavell of the change for the worse, Freyberg's next thought was to reassure Brigadier Puttick and encourage him for what was to come. His message went at 4 a.m.:
I have read through your report on the situation. I am not surprised that the line broke. Your battalions were very weak and the areas they were given were too large. On the shorter line you should be able to hold them. In any case there will not be that infiltration that started before. You must hold them on that line and counter-attack if any part of it should go. It is imperative that he should not break through.
I have seen Stewart and I am sending this by G 2 who will tell you my plan.
I hope we shall get through tomorrow without further trouble.
No doubt Wooller was right and General Freyberg had seen the writing on the wall. Brigadier Puttick's message must have made clear to him what was indeed the case: that with penetration of the Galatas line and the enforced withdrawal to a new one the character of the fighting had radically changed. There was now little or no hope of a counter-offensive which could retake the lost ground. From now on steady withdrawal was the best that could be hoped for. But whether or not this was the case, the plans already being put into action were the only ones practicable this night—there would not have been time to get fresh troops from Suda area forward and into position on strange ground. And so relief of 5 Brigade was not for the time being possible.
Black day as 25 May had turned out to be, it had had for Freyberg and his troops one redeeming feature. Middle East had carried out its promise to provide all possible help in the air. And although that help was very far from being enough to turn the scale in the land fighting, the troops had been greatly cheered by seeing a force of Marylands, Blenheims, and Hurricanes attack Maleme aerodrome at ten o'clock in the morning and two further attacks by Blenheims in the afternoon. As Freyberg reported, this was a ‘great tonic for all personnel.’ Nor was this the limit of the RAF's help or attempted help. A force of Hurricanes and Blenheims had set off at dawn to attack the airfield but had failed to find it because of smoke and mist. And that night four Wellingtons bombed both Maleme and the beaches.
Besides affording help in the air, General Wavell was also doing his best to land reinforcements. Further commandos—D Battalion and HQ Layforce—had attempted to land off the south coast the night before, but the weather was too bad, their boats were washed away, and they were forced to turn back for Alexandria, arriving there at 7.15 p.m. As they returned a further force sailed for Crete, this time 2 Queen's and HQ 16 Infantry Brigade, which had had to turn back on 23 May.2 As on that occasion they were aboard the Glenroy.
To us who now know what the true situation was in Crete and how at this very time General Freyberg was being forced to admit to himself that the problem was now no longer one of holding Crete but of saving his force from capture, there is a certain irony in considering the state of mind in Cairo and in London, where distance and the time lag in communications justified hopes which had no ground in reality.
The irony must have been even more present to Freyberg when he read such a message as General Wavell's sent on 25 May, Wavell having just returned from Iraq. General Wavell complimented Freyberg on the splendid fight he and his troops were making and went on to say that its results for the whole situation in the Middle East would be profound. The enemy had lost a large percentage of his trained troops and the survivors must be weary and dismayed. Instead of an easy win they were confronted with the prospects of a costly defeat. In aircraft, too, the enemy's losses had been heavy. And Wavell went on to promise maximum effort by the RAF and a further cable about reinforcements. To Freyberg it must have been already clear that no support the RAF was likely to be able to give and no reinforcements the Army was likely to be able to spare would turn the scale.
In London the Chiefs of Staff were still discussing the situation in the light of the military and naval appreciation they had received from Middle East HQ. The Prime Minister thought that Admiral Cunningham should be prepared to take greater risks and that if the seaborne landing could be held off for another three days the battle would be won. Admiral Pound, however, thought it was difficult to tell Cunningham to accept heavy losses indefinitely page 329 unless everything possible were done to help him. Could not main Beaufighters be sent to his help?
They could be sent, said Lord Portal. But they would first have to have their secret night-fighter apparatus removed and could hardly come into action before 31 May. Even so, it had to be remembered that they were not fitted for fighting in the tropics, that they had no rear gunner and so were an easy target for fighters, and that they could patrol over Crete for an hour at a time only. To do even this a whole squadron would be needed operating from Egypt. And because of lack of spares there it would be difficult to keep them serviceable. He concluded that they should be sent only if their presence was likely to make a substantial difference to the outcome.1 It was eventually decided that none should be taken from Fighter Command.
In the upshot a further telegram was sent to Wavell which indicates a certain discontent with his appreciation. Unless more effective action was taken than that appreciation envisaged, the Chiefs of Staff pointed out, the enemy would be able to reinforce with troops and supplies. The Commanders-in-Chief must therefore co-ordinate measures at once to clear up the position, and the Navy and the RAF must take whatever risks were necessary to prevent reinforcement by sea, whether it was attempted by night or by day. If RAF reconnaissance showed any vessels congregating at Melos or putting to sea, then the Navy must be ready to operate north of Crete even by day. Considerable losses might be probable and there was nothing except experience to show how long they might have to be endured. But they would have to be accepted.2
Except for a report from Air Marshal Tedder on the attacks he had already been able to put in against Maleme and on his plan for trying single Hurricanes with long-range tanks—a desperate expedient, as he realised—and a report from Wavell which gave strengths and dispositions as they had been before the Galatas breakthrough, still unknown to him, the Chiefs of Staff were to learn no more that day. Not till the morrow were they to know how radically the situation was now altering for the worse.
1 COS (41) 189.
2 War Office to C-in-C, 25 May.