II: The Decision to Withdraw
II: The Decision to Withdraw
Once General Freyberg learnt that the Galatas line was broken and that 2 Greek Regiment was about to break up, he had to abandon his hopes that the enemy might yet be given ‘a really good knock’. His first thought was for the preservation of the new line, and in his letter to Brigadier Puttick, written at 4 a.m., he expressly says: ‘You must hold them on that line and counterattack if any part of it should go. It is imperative that he should not break through.2
Major Saville, who carried this letter, met Brigadier Puttick at 5.40 a.m., as Divisional HQ was settling into its new location near the wireless station. In amplification of the letter Saville said that Puttick and General Weston were to have a joint HQ near Suda, and that Brigadier Inglis was to report to General Freyberg at once.
While he was thus providing for the immediate security of the new line, General Freyberg had now concluded that the loss of Crete was only a matter of time. After the conference he sent off a message to General Wavell which reveals his view of the general situation. The troops had reached the limit of their endurance and the position was hopeless whatever the Commanders-in-Chief might decide. The force on Crete was too ill-equipped and too immobile to stand up against the concentrated bombing. Once the Canea sector was reduced the disposal of Retimo and Heraklion by the same methods would certainly follow. Except for the Welch Battalion and the newly-arrived commando, the troops were no longer capable of offensive action. Suda Bay was likely to be under fire within twenty-four hours. Casualties had been heavy and most of the guns, lacking transport, had been lost. If withdrawal and evacuation were decided upon at once it would be possible to bring off a certain proportion of the troops, though not all. If, however, the Middle East position was such that every hour counted, he would continue to try and hold out.2
At Divisional HQ early that morning Brigadier Puttick had also foreseen that further withdrawal would sooner or later be inevitable, and a letter written by him at 2.45 a.m. to Brigadier Hargest shows that he and Brigadier Stewart had been discussing the situation in these terms:
My Dear Hargest,
I think you and Inglis have done splendidly in a most difficult situation. All I have time to write now is to say that in the unfortunate event of our being forced to withdraw, we must avoid CANEA and move well south of it towards SUDA. Brig. Stewart says he will in that event try to organise a covering force across the head of SUDA Bay through which we would pass, south of the Bay, of course. This information is highly confidential to you but will indicate a line to follow in event of dire necessity.
Would you kindly pass one copy to Inglis.
Any doubts Puttick felt about the possibility of a prolonged stand were confirmed in the course of the morning. For in conference with Vasey and Hargest he found that the consensus of opinion was that the New Zealanders, and the Greeks on the left of the Australians, were now so exhausted that the present line could not be held much longer. In the morning Vasey himself seemed confident enough that his own brigade could keep its positions; for Hargest describes a visit by Vasey to 5 Brigade HQ at 11.30 a.m.: ‘Tall good looking a soldierly type. He was to be my comrade for one week and a good one. He said his troops were fresh and had not been engaged and could hang on indefinitely.’1
At this stage Puttick did not know of the command intended for Inglis or the proposed relief of 5 Brigade. Inglis himself had spent the earlier part of the morning handing over to Hargest and had then gone on to Division to find 4 Brigade. At Division, which he reached about noon, he learnt that he was wanted at Force HQ. There were further delays while a truck was found and he then went on. At Force HQ Freyberg told him he was to take over the new brigade. Inglis suggested that to add 1 Welch to 4 Brigade might be the better course, but the suggestion was not accepted, General Freyberg thinking that 18 and 20 Battalions were spent.
It had been arranged that the commanders of the units in the new brigade were to meet Brigadier Inglis at Force HQ, but only Major Boileau of the Rangers had arrived. After a wait of some time it was decided that Inglis would return to Division and that the unit commanders would come to him there. Accordingly Inglis went back to Division, arriving about half past two. At this time it was his understanding that he and his new brigade would be under Puttick's command.
1 Brig Hargest's diary.
2 It would take a long time to lay line. There was only one truck for Creforce Signals to move their wireless sets, charging plant and operators; and enemy aircraft would cause delays. The probability is that it was late afternoon before there was signal communication between Creforce and Division.
He seems to have had little doubt that he would be able to bring Freyberg round to his point of view. For, presumably in consequence of a warning order from Division, at 2.20 p.m. the Brigade Major of 5 Brigade was calling a conference of commanding officers for three o'clock and Hargest's instructions to the Brigade Major say: ‘In the warning order tell units we are working with Australians and a British covering force. The night's operation should be an easy one.’ Clearly, withdrawal was the subject of this conference.
But when Puttick reached Creforce HQ about a quarter past three he found General Freyberg adamant that the line must be held: the enemy must be kept well clear of Suda Bay until the supplies and reinforcements had been disembarked.1 At the same time Freyberg told him that he had decided to drop the idea of a joint HQ and to put General Weston in command of the forward area. Puttick and the New Zealand Division would be under Weston.
Brigadier Puttick now set off for his own HQ, taking with him Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan, the commander of 1 Welch, whom he had found at Creforce. Duncan was acting for the commanders of the Northumberland Hussars and 1 Rangers as well and was anxious to discuss the night's operation with Brigadier Inglis. The two officers travelled in Duncan's car; but, even so, because of attentions from enemy aircraft it was 4.30 p.m. before they reached Divisional HQ.
During Puttick's absence things had altered for the worse. A signal sent by Major Peart, the AA & QMG, to Creforce at 4 p.m. summarises the situation as it had developed in the interval:
Ruck [19 Aust Bde] reports enemy working round his left flank Wuna [5 Bde] reports situation dangerous counter attacking with one bn Comd Duke [NZ Div] had left on foot to visit you before situation deteriorated. Is it possible form rear line with fresh troops in event withdrawal being forced.2
1 Moreover the loss of Suda Bay was bound to follow soon upon further withdrawal and this in turn would make evacuation inevitable; but for evacuation General Freyberg had as yet no permission from higher authority.
As this message indicates, Brigadier Vasey had begun to take a darker view of the situation. Indeed, he was beginning to think in terms of withdrawal; for about five o'clock he visited 5 Brigade HQ and said that the situation on his left flank was critical. Since bullets from machine guns firing from his left rear were already landing near 5 Brigade HQ and Divisional HQ, this was not difficult to believe. He told Brigadier Hargest he believed he would have to withdraw and asked him when he was going to do the same. Hargest replied that he had no orders to do so.2
Telephone between Division and the two brigades was working, and Puttick says that between 4.40 and 5.30 p.m. both brigadiers, and especially Vasey, made strong representations to him in favour of withdrawal.3 It is not difficult to understand and sympathise with him in his predicament. His own reading of the situation quite early in the day had been that withdrawal would be necessary. The two brigadiers who were in the best position to know the strength of the front now supported this view. Freyberg's plan for the relief of 5 Brigade by the new brigade assumed not only that 5 Brigade would be able to hold on till nightfall but that 19 Brigade would be able to hold its positions next day. If Vasey's present worry was well founded this might very well prove impossible.4 Moreover, the fact that Ingiis was still waiting for the unit commanders other than Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan to appear, and had still received no explicit orders from General Weston about his night's role, could not have given Puttick any great confidence that the proposed relief would take place at all.
On the other hand, Weston was now in command of all forward troops and Puttick could hardly use his own discretion, especially as he knew that Freyberg hoped to hold the line for another twenty-four hours by means of a relief.
At length, Puttick decided that he must put the various considerations before Weston and, since he had no direct contact with him by wireless or telephone, to do so by messenger. Accordingly, he began to write the following report, timed 5.30 p.m.:
2 Report by Capt Dawson.
3 Diary of Events, HQ NZ Div, and statement by General Puttick, 1951.
4 Though the main weight of the enemy's force—Ramcke's paratroops, 100 Mtn Regt, and part of 3 Para Regt—was directed against 5 Bde, Brig Vasey would be aware that 2 Gk Regt was crumpling and his falling back on to the Mournies line could not give any long guarantee against the danger of being outflanked.
Right and left bdes report total inability to hold their fronts after dark to-day. There has been penetration on right of right bde and on left of left bde.
Air attack has been so severe, they report, that the men are completely unable to put up further resistance on a line just in rear, such as the one held by your tps.1
There have been no signs of the O.C. tps to form the new force under Inglis, except the Welch, and the indications are that they would not be available in the fwd area until after midnight at the earliest. To attempt to hold a fwd line with them would in my opinion prejudice the possibility of holding a line further back behind which the fwd tps could reform.
I suggest the Welch hold a line as cov.[ering] posn. through KHRISTOS 1553–TSIKALARYA 1552 with the commando extending the line to the South to block the road at AY MARINA.
Subsequent movements must be decided later.
Presumably rations &c., fwd of the line mentioned in para 4 would be cleared under your or Force arrangements, and all units instructed to take all possible food with them.
Force H.Q. has been asked by W/T to send B.G.S. here at once.2
Puttick had not time to finish this message; for at 5.45 General Weston himself and his GSO 1, Lieutenant-Colonel J. Wills, appeared.3 Puttick read the message to him instead. He underlined its arguments verbally, pointing out that the forward troops might have been forced out of their positions before the relief came up, that the relieving brigade would become needlessly involved in the forward area and would therefore not be available to stabilise the new line near Suda, and that all the time pressure on both forward brigades was growing. He might have added that, since pressure was so strong on the left flank, it would be very difficult to get the right brigade away if the line were held for another twenty-four hours.
At this stage Weston evidently decided to hear Brigadier Vasey's opinion for himself:
1 The action at 42nd Street next day and subsequent engagements suggest that the brigadiers were underrating the resilience of their troops; and till now the enemy had launched no night attacks. But another day in the line might have made withdrawal much more difficult. The second line referred to in this paragraph is presumably that held by Suda Brigade, on to which part of 19 Bde had already retired.
2 The signal calling for the BGS has not survived. It was presumably O. 183.
3 Weston's object in coming was to ascertain the local situation before ordering Force Reserve forward.—Statement by Brig Wills, 1951.
Weston was now about to set off to consult General Freyberg. Inglis decided that this was his chance to get his own position clarified:
As Weston was about to go, I tackled him about the ‘new brigade’. He was hurried and worried, and very short with me; but I gathered that he intended to use these troops himself and not through me. In any event, neither then nor at any other time did he give them any orders through me, and I did not attempt to make confusion worse confounded by giving them any myself.2
After Weston's departure—about 6.10 p.m. (although Brigadier Wills says at least 7 p.m.)—Brigadier Puttick found himself in much the same position as before: pressed by his brigadiers to withdraw but without authority to do so. Meanwhile both Brigadier Vasey's flanks were reported under attack, with the enemy making progress on the left—i.e., southern—flank. Brigadier Hargest, although the fighting on his own front had by now died down, could not but be alarmed for the situation of his brigade should 19 Brigade be overrun or forced back. From 9 p.m. onward both brigadiers were in constant telephone communication with Puttick and asking for orders. In one of these conversations Puttick expressly told Vasey, who said he would be forced to withdraw shortly, that he must not do so without orders, but that if line communication failed and the tactical situation demanded it he must, before moving, inform 5 Brigade HQ on his right and Suda Brigade in his rear.3
The anxiety of Brigadier Puttick at this stage may be imagined. His brigadiers were pressing him for orders to withdraw. His superior officer had felt unable to accept responsibility for the decision. He himself had no authority to order withdrawal, though he agreed with the brigadiers that it was inevitable and considered it tactically expedient. Further delay might make it altogether impossible. Yet his only course seemed to be to wait for further news from General Weston or General Freyberg. To emphasize the urgency of the situation, enemy machine-gun fire from the flank kept passing over his HQ.
2 Letter from Maj-Gen Inglis dated 16 May 1951. In another letter Inglis confirms this account and adds that as General Freyberg might still have told Weston to use him he therefore decided to wait on at Division for the next move.
3 NZ Div Report, paras 174, 177; statements by General Puttick.
At 10.15 p.m. also, a signal which had been sent at ten minutes past ten was received from Creforce. It may have been an answer to one of the earlier signals or may have been merely a routine confirmation of orders already issued verbally. In either case it was hardly helpful:
You are under command Lift who will issue orders.
In his report General Weston says that after his visit to NZ Division he told General Freyberg that Brigadier Puttick and the brigadiers did not think they could hold for another day and were urgent for withdrawal that night. This was at ‘approximately 0930′ hours. By this he presumably must have meant 9.30—that is, 2130 hours.2 General Freyberg remained firm that there should be no withdrawal. He decided to relieve the New Zealanders with Force Reserve and to go on holding the line with Force Reserve, 19 Brigade, and Suda Brigade.3
In the course of his talk with Weston General Freyberg apparently got the impression that 5 Brigade was ready to stand fast until relieved but that 19 Brigade might withdraw. Freyberg therefore ‘at once sat down and wrote an order that the Australians were to continue to hold their line.’4
1 This was O. 185. O. 183 and O. 184 have not survived. O. 183 was probably the message asking for the BGS and sent before General Weston's visit. O. 184—if a mistake in serial numbering is not involved—was presumably a request for orders.
3 So General Weston's report. Wills confirms that General Freyberg would have no withdrawal. He adds that Suda Bde itself had become involved in the fighting during the afternoon and that 1 Rangers and Northumberland Hussars were also engaged in dealing with infiltration. This was why it was difficult to communicate with them and why their COs did not come to NZ Div HQ.
4 General Freyberg's Report, p. 47. There was, of course, no question of 19 Bde moving independently of orders, and the impression given by General Weston was wrong. In The AIF in Crete, p. 3, Brig Vasey adds that Freyberg's order was to hold the wadi 1000 yards east of present positions. Similar orders were apparently sent to Suda Bde.
Meanwhile, back at Division Brigadier Puttick, referred by Creforce to General Weston for orders and yet having no communication with him, pressed by a situation which clearly was worsening, and urged by the two brigadiers who were in the best position to judge the danger, decided that there was nothing for it but to withdraw—with or without orders. The new line which he had already suggested to General Weston was that running through Khristos and Tsikalaria to Ay Marina. It was chosen off the map by Puttick as the only line which would be short enough, would give some protection to the left flank, and would still cover Suda Bay against infantry assault. From this point on it will be called 42nd Street, the name by which it became known to the troops and which it owed to the fact that the 42nd Field Company RE had been working there before the invasion.
While Puttick was waiting, Major Peart had gone to 5 Brigade HQ:
Eventually about 9.30 a representative from Div—Major Peart—came and said that Brig Puttick could not get permission for me to go or move, but I was to do so with Vasey.1
It is not now clear what was the precise significance of this visit. The probability is that Peart was asked to go and explain that, although orders had not yet arrived, withdrawal would probably take place and would have to be carried out in conjunction with 19 Brigade. Evidently 5 Brigade went on to make some preliminary arrangements.
At least we went ahead and arranged timings, warned bns and 19 Aust Bde. Then to the best of my knowledge we got orders from Div not to pull out at the arranged time but to await further instructions. No one knew the reason why. We waited 1–2 hours. Then we got the word to go by telephone from Div.2
1 Report by Brig Hargest. This was written in Egypt after the event.
2 Report by Capt Dawson.
The time was fixed when, at 10.30 p.m., Puttick issued his orders to the two brigadiers by telephone. The withdrawal was to take place at half past eleven. And before sending the order Puttick gave Captain Robin Bell,1 the Force Intelligence Officer, who happened to be at Division just then, a message for General Weston:
Duke [NZ Div] urgently awaits your orders. Cannot wait any longer as bde comds represent situation on their front as most urgent. Propose retiring with or without orders by 1130 hrs [11.30 p.m.] 26 May to line North and South through KHRISTOS 1553.
Now that the decision was taken Brigadier Inglis asked Puttick for orders about his own course of action. It seemed clear, after Weston's visit and his subsequent failure to send further orders, that Inglis' services were not being called on for Force Reserve and so Puttick sent him back to resume command of 4 Brigade and to put it in a position in reserve to the new line.2
It was now necessary that Divisional HQ should itself set about moving. Major Peart arranged for 1000 rations to be dumped where the troops could pick them up as they withdrew. The remainder of the rations were loaded on trucks and sent to Stilos.
While these arrangements were being made and when the withdrawal had already begun, about 10.45 p.m., Brigadier Vasey's Brigade Major rang and read over the telephone General Freyberg's orders that 19 Brigade was to hold on till dark next day. As Vasey says:
Discussion with NZ Div on receipt of this order showed that Div had received no similar order and that they were withdrawing to the SUDA BAY area as previously arranged. That HQ had no knowledge of being relieved in their present position by any other tps. Consequently I decided that to remain in my present positions with the Greeks dispersed on my left flank and the NZ's withdrawn from my right flank would only result in 7 and 8 Bns being captured…. This decision was reinforced when after the first message to 7 Bn I received information that the withdrawal of that Bn had already commenced and that they were being followed up closely by the enemy.3
2 Report by Maj-Gen Inglis, 16 May 1951. Inglis cannot recall when Lt-Col Duncan left Division but Maj Gibson of 1 Welch reports that he returned to the unit about dusk.
3 AIF in Crete. Vasey no doubt means that Div HQ had no confirmation that Force Reserve was to relieve 5 Bde or any information of the time at which this was supposed to happen.
This agrees substantially with Brigadier Puttrick's account, except that Puttick takes full responsibility for countermanding General Freyberg's order:
In any case the tactical situation had so altered since the issue of the order by the C-in-C that it could only be observed at the expense of sacrificing 19 (Aust) Inf Bde. The withdrawal of both brigades had already commenced, moreover, and the utmost confusion would have resulted had an attempt been made to cancel the movement.1
The decision to withdraw thus confirmed, arrangements went ahead as before. Shortly before midnight the main body of Divisional HQ moved off for Stilos. Puttick and Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry went in search of General Weston.
1 NZ Div Report, para 176.