New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
CHAPTER 5 — The Campaign in Crete
The Campaign in Crete
Headquarters 2 NZ Divisional Engineers, 19 Army Troops Company less a detachment (Lieutenant Page), and No. 3 Section, 7 Field Company, less a detachment (Lieutenant Hector) had wrecked their trucks and embarked on the Glengyle at Porto Rafti on the night of 24–25 April, bound for Crete.
By the time the escorts had herded the transports into position there were not many hours of darkness left, but the men were too tired to worry about the organisation of the convoy, its destination, or, after dawn, about the black spots in a cloudless sky. The ships' anti-aircraft armament gave staccato tongue and the German planes did not pry too closely.
Towards midday a mountain range broke the horizon, then headlands, shimmering in the sun, took shape and substance. Little white smudges turned into villages on the hillsides and, later, the now familiar clusters of olive trees could be traced on the lower slopes.
The convoy entered the roadstead of the single-jetty harbour of Suda Bay already crowded with ships diverted from Greece. Barges and tugs, local craft and Navy boats were weaving in and out of the deep-water channel ferrying men ashore.
The Engineer units were not taken off until late afternoon, and when they reached the quay, the landing staff, at its wits' end over the influx, waved them off the quay and towards a transit camp near Canea, the island's capital city.
They passed through a small town behind the port. It showed its polyglot ancestry by a stone fountain and four guardian lions that could have come from Venice, a Moslem mosque and a Greek Orthodox church. There were cafés with vacant tables and empty chairs spread over the narrow pavements for it was siesta time; the town had watched Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Venetians and Turks march off the same jetty and eventually go away again. Doubtless these strangers would do the same.
Nineteenth Army Troops Company joined the groups straggling along the dusty road from Suda Bay, halted awhile at a camp where the British garrison provided hot tea—if the sappers could provide something to drink it from—then trudged another four or five miles until they were directed into an olive grove. Here they were issued with a blanket and rations and told that page 124 this was the Perivolia transit camp. A little later Headquarters' sappers, who had been without an officer until Lieutenants Peacocke1 and Yorke, after a search that had begun at Cape Knimis in Greece and ended at the refreshment stop in Crete, also arrived. No. 3 Section, 7 Field Company, commanded by Sergeant Hultquist2 in the absence of Lieutenant Hector, did not get beyond the refreshment stop.
The troops sorted themselves out in the morning and began to take an interest in their surroundings. There was good cover from view under the trees with the gnarled trunks and the green-grey leaves, a factor they had already learned to appreciate at its full value, and only a few miles inland there were steep-sided dove-coloured hills. And there would be villages and cafés if one knew where to look for them.
Sergeant Hultquist's party marched in during the morning, footsore and weary, but glad to meet again some of their own kind. Nineteenth Army Troops had been reorganised but the result was not impressive, for all they possessed was what they stood up in, plus a rifle which they knew little about and had seldom fired.
Major Langbein, acting CRE,3 returned from a conference confirmed in his previous impression that Crete was only a resting place for the harried Expeditionary Force and that the ultimate destination was Egypt. A British division was to augment the existing garrison, for Crete, now considered vital to operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, was to be held at any cost. But until shipping to switch the forces was available, the 160 mile long by 36 mile wide mountainous island was to be defended by the troops on the spot. As a start the New Zealand contingent, 5 Brigade and attachments, would defend the Maleme airfield on the western end of the north coast from any attack coming in from farther west.
Brigadier Hargest, the senior New Zealand officer on Crete, selected Ay Marina village as New Zealand Force Headquarters, and Lieutenant-Colonel Falconer,4 commanding 5 Brigade, page 125 settled in at Platanias village. Nineteenth Army Troops Company and attachments were placed in brigade reserve, thereby being transferred from engineers without equipment into infantry without training. Maleesh! It wouldn't be for long.
These dispositions, expressed in a few words, took most of the day to iron out and the deployment did not begin until the next morning (27 April). For the sappers it meant a ten-mile march which brought them to a bushy gully at Ay Marina, where we must leave them in the meantime and follow the fortunes of the other Engineer companies.
The detachments left behind at Porto Rafti were taken with some 500 other oddments on a TLC5 to the small green pinnacle rock of Kea Island, 15 miles off shore. They stayed there until the night 26–27 April, when they were picked up by the same craft and taken to the transport Salween en route to Egypt. There was a stiff breeze and a heavy sea, and with both landing craft and transport wallowing and bumping, only a few managed to climb to the decks high above them. The rest were taken to the more sheltered roadstead and divided between the transport Glengyle and the cruiser HMS Carlisle. The sappers were embarked on the cruiser and went to Crete, together with 5 Field Park and 7 Field Company already on board, while the Glengyle sailed for Egypt.
‘When we landed in Suda Bay we had practically nothing except weapons,’ wrote Captain Morrison. ‘We went to some sort of reception depot under the olive trees and had tea and sandwiches, rather like a large open air picnic. Capt Woolcott of 6 Field Company was there. He and I got some bacon and eggs from somewhere and made ourselves a picnic meal with an improvised frying pan. When I collected the Company we marched from Suda Bay to Canea and we were first sited with 19 Battalion near Galatos.’
There was still one party of 7 Field Company in Greece. Before embarkation somebody must have remembered that some troops had been sent to Kea Island, and the supposition was that they were there and very likely to stay there. Captain Ferguson was detailed with a party of twenty sappers to go to Lavrion, where he would find, watered and provisioned, a craft which he would take to Kea Island, pick up any men who might be there and then sail for Crete. He found his command, which was neither watered, provisioned nor expecting him, plus a crew page 126 of a captain, an engineer, a deck hand, three British officers and a Greek interpreter, so he sent twelve of his own party back to Porto Rafti. Ferguson's ship was about 35 feet long with a 15-foot beam, two masts and a diesel engine. He sailed for Kea Island after dark and probably passed the TLC en route. He wrote home later:
‘After breakfast I took my batman and the Greek interpreter across the hills to the main harbour where I found six stranded NZ soldiers who had been left there by mistake. I got mixed up with the harbour master and the chief of police, both very nice fellows who invited me to an undrinkable wine which I managed to drink. I then ran into a Lt Commander RNR…. He had a fleet of Faluccas and each evening went over to Greece to embark troops. I learnt that several of the islands north of Crete were occupied by Germans so that rather put me off doing too much sailing in their direction. I came to the conclusion that I was doing the same job as this naval chap so I considered it best to hand my falucca over to him…. We sailed at about 4.30 that day for Porto Rafti. We had the deuce of a job to get the capt. of my falucca to sail as he had seen a falucca just come into port with 2 wounded and 8 dead. They had been machine gunned just outside the harbour by aircraft.
‘Well we sailed and got attacked by aircraft five times on the trip. The last time by 7 Messerschmidts who circled us 3 times firing machine guns and cannon shells. Why we did not have any casualties I don't know. Probably because it was my birthday. The ship was like a collander and full of holes. My suitcase had five holes in it and my primus was blown to pieces. The incendiary bullets set fire to the ship but we put it out and I can tell you it was pretty exciting. Anyway no one was hurt. Darkness fell soon after that and we breathed again. We then reached Porto Rafti and loaded about 150 men and took them off to a destroyer where I embarked too with my men, leaving the Falucca to the naval chap and very pleased I was to do it too.’
Captain Ferguson and party rejoined 7 Field Company the day following the landing of its main body.
A further dispositional shuffle set 19 Army Troops and attached sections retracing their steps eight miles eastwards to the vicinity of Galatas. The panorama of terraced vineyards stepping back to wooded foothills, groves of silver-tipped olive trees, tobacco plantations and wheatfields not yet in ear did page 127 not compensate them for their apparently aimless wanderings. They had been pushed around Greece by the Germans and now they were still being pushed around by their own side.
Engineer Headquarters, Page's detachments, 7 Field and 5 Field Park were already there, and apropos of this Sergeant Hultquist noted in his diary:
‘approx 1400 hrs I received info’ to the effect that the remainder of our Fld Coy were encamped independently about 2 Miles nth; I promptly gave orders to my personnel to up anchor and contact our Cmpy without loss of time. On arrival we were met by Lt Hector who immediately resumed command of my section.’
The only duty the sappers were required to perform was to patrol the beach, which was done between periods of swimming and sunbathing. It all ended suddenly. No. 2 Section of Army Troops, living in luxury in a large flat-roofed house, were told to vacate the premises immediately as it was needed for a conference. It was an historic conference for there General Wavell, who had flown in from Egypt, told General Freyberg that he was to command in Crete; that there was neither time nor ships to bring in new divisions; that he could expect an airborne attack plus a possible invasion by sea; that there would be no additional air support; that the Navy would do what it could.
Seventh Field Company was not at that stage affected and carried on recuperating, a process which consisted mostly of sleeping and eating oranges.
Fifth Field Park also stayed in the area doing odd jobs:
‘I recall going into Canea to buy some axes for the Division, but axes were sold in one shop and axe handles in a different shop. The shops seemed to open and shut at different times so it was very difficult to tie up the axes with the axe handles. The church bells rang one signal for an approaching air raid and another for the all clear, but since at least one church bell page 128 seemed to be ringing at any time no one was quite clear what was going on and it was very difficult to do business with axe merchants.’6
Headquarters New Zealand Engineers went into the grenade and mine manufacturing business to help remedy the total lack of these weapons in the New Zealand Division. Major Hanson7 gives the recipe for making anti-personnel grenades, Crete pattern:
‘What we did make in large quantities in Crete was a kind of “jam tin” bomb but I believe with improvements on those which I understand were used on Gallipoli in World War I. Our bombs or grenades were bully beef or jam tins containing a plug of gelignite surrounded by small river shingle and metal chips collected along the road edges. The gelignite was fused with a detonator and a four or five second fuse. The stones and explosives were kept in place by sealing the top of the tin with bitumen which we collected from some road works. Some of the bombs had pull igniters fitted but we kept a number of these to fit to the improvised mines which we had hoped to use on the Maleme Aerodrome. Those bombs which were not fitted with pull igniters had to be lighted by holding a match on the end of the fuse and then sliding the striker portion of the match box along the match. This was much better than using an ordinary lighted match or cigarette. Under test against walls the stones were shot out with deadly effect. Indeed their effect was not unlike that of a German S mine which we were later to encounter in the Desert.
‘We distributed many hundreds of the jam tin bombs and it was reported that they were often used with good results. As the battle developed most of our infantry became well supplied with captured hand grenades and therefore there was at this stage no need for further jam tin bombs.’
The CRE with some of his staff made ‘recces’ and appreciations of all likely spots between Canea and Kisamos Kastelli for seaborne landings, a possibility which had been forecast at the Wavell conference. In addition reports were submitted on likely parachute dropping areas west of Maleme, and particularly on areas suitable for emergency enemy landing strips as well as the time necessary for cutting down trees and preparing runways.page 129
While the pattern of defence was being worked out, Headquarters 5 Brigade did not worry 19 Army Troops Company, who enjoyed another couple of days of peace.
The engineers had been under command of 21 Battalion, which had been assigned the dual role of defending the beach between the Platanias River mouth and the Maleme airfield, and also of counter-attacking in support of 22 Battalion defending the airfield. This plan was abandoned because it was realised that a unit that had lost over 50 per cent of its effective strength in Greece, plus a party of specialist troops, would be in no shape to push home a counter-attack.
The final 5 Brigade deployment took place on 3 May, when 21 Battalion was placed south-east of Maleme airfield and 23 Battalion occupied the lines so vacated. Both units were to be ready to support 22 Battalion. Twenty-eighth (Maori) Battalion in brigade reserve was to move into 23 Battalion's old area around Platanias, while the ground between the Maoris and 23 Battalion was to be held by an Engineer detachment composed of 19 Army Troops Company and 7 Field Company, named for the purpose NZE Detachment.
There was another area suitable for an enemy landing around Kastelli, about 12 miles west of Maleme, where about 1000 newly raised Greek conscripts were camped and, perforce, the defence of that area had to be left to them.page 130
The engineer command on 7 Field Company's arrival was: CRE, Major Hanson; Captain Ferguson commanded 7 Field Company; Captain Anderson8 commanded 19 Army Troops Company; Captain Morrison commanded 5 Field Park Company, and Captain Ferguson commanded the newly formed NZE Detachment.
Before 7 Field Company became part of NZE Detachment Lieutenant Wildey, Sergeant Solon,9 Corporal Larson and Sapper McCutcheon were sent to Alikianou, south-west of Galatas, where some thousands of Italian PWs10 were held in camps guarded by Greeks, who in turn were being trained by New Zealand infantry instructors.
The sappers' job was not to instruct the Greeks but to fence in the Italians, and for the assignment they were provided with barbed wire but no labour. The only thing to do was to induce the Italians to fence themselves in, and eventually a bargain was struck whereby for so many cigarettes so many yards of double-apron fence was erected. It was a neat job done in record time and in perfect amity. The prisoners even invited their overseers to an occasional bowl of soup. It was much better soup than the Kiwi variety.
Captain Ferguson, with approximately 370 sappers and two miles of front to cover, was left to make his own dispositions. Nineteenth Army Troops were placed on the right facing the beach and were separated from the Maoris by the Platanias River, at that point running through a half-mile-wide steep-sided valley. Unlike most of the Cretan rivers, the Platanias never dried up in summer and varied in depth from ankle to waist deep. On each side of the valley tracks led back into the hills and into the Aghya valley south of Galatas.
Seventh Field Company, on the left, was separated from the Army Troops sappers by a gully and a watercourse and was in touch with 23 Battalion, while Detachment Headquarters was situated in the rear and on higher ground between the two groups.
North-west from Modhion and covering the Engineer rear was another composite group of prisoners and guards, both Kiwis, constituting the Field Punishment Centre. The Engineers were page 131 not unrepresented in the ‘clinic’, 5 Field Park especially so on account of residing close to Canea and thus having more opportunities for tangling with the Provost Corps. One situation, involving a sapper, a Cretan girl, her brother, a knife and a chair leg was being resolved when the German onfall put an end to the investigation. When the time came both prisoners and guards resumed their vocations as fighting men and did so well that later all mention of their misdeeds was deleted from the records.
The only road between 5 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters, at that period at Ay Marina, was a fairly good metalled one skirting the coast and carrying on eastwards to Suda Bay. A successful enemy landing could therefore cut off 5 Brigade, and to answer the possible threat a composite force, later to become 10 Brigade, was deployed from the coast to Cemetery Hill near Galatas, and around a road junction by Lake Aghya, in what was known as Prison Valley. Fourth Brigade was farther east in general reserve. The other airfields and important positions were held by Australian and British formations.
Neighbouring units gave advice on the siting of their posts, but like everybody else the sappers were woefully short of tools and supplies were slow to arrive; a few picks had been distributed and 19 Army Troops Company had one solitary shovel which could be used only at night; during the day it was the property of the sanitary squad. The position gradually improved by issues through the ordinary channels—and otherwise. Sergeant Ivan Dow,11 thumbing a ride back from Suda Bay, found that he had selected a truck loaded with shovels just off a ship. He dropped unobtrusively off the back of the vehicle with two bundles each containing six shovels and returned in triumph with his salvage.
There was plenty of good cover from view, aerial view—the only view that mattered with enemy planes beginning to appear—but the greatest care was taken to leave no signs that positions were being constructed. Camouflage screens made from bamboo were laid over the weapon pits when the air sentries gave the alarm and it is probable that this precaution was responsible for the fact that the engineer positions were not bombed prior to the main attack.
This was followed by a request from Divisional Headquarters for fifty sappers with experience as winchmen, stevedores, etc., to work at the Suda Bay jetty. Lieutenant Peacocke commanded this party, which will be called for convenience the Suda Bay Detachment. The men began work immediately unloading petrol and oil from a TLC and discharging guns and ammunition from the Themoni into lighters. Lieutenant Peacocke was at the same time interviewing the port officials and naval authorities because no arrangements had been made for quarters and rations, and at one stage it appeared that the Kiwi sappers were supposed to exist on fresh air and scenery. Some time that afternoon the Suda Bay Detachment came under command of Lieutenant-Colonel McNaught,13 OC Troops, Suda Bay.
There had been air raids on Suda Bay, and the reason for the recruitment of New Zealand stevedores to join Australian and British parties at the port was the understandable reluctance of Cypriot and Cretan civilian labourers to work ships under fire.
The engineer-watersiders were not molested for the first week, during which time they worked the Araybank, Themoni, City of Canterbury and Lossiebank, but during the night 12 - 13 May they had a taste of things to come in the form of bombing and something more than a taste the next and following nights.
The NZE Detachment between Platanias and Maleme continued a placid life, with Modhion village conveniently near and the beach not too far away. But on 13 May the seriousness of their situation was brought home to the rank and file, who had been discounting the possibility of a German attack, by a very heavy raid on the Maleme aerodrome. Thereafter digging and wiring assumed a new seriousness.
That full-moon night 12th - 13th was actually the opening date of the German preparation for the attack on Crete. It had two objects—to prevent the working of Suda Bay harbour, which did not succeed, and to smother the tiny RAF formation, which did.page 133
No. 30 Squadron, late of the Greek-Albanian front, was at Maleme, and after a week of being shot up on the ground, where the anti-aircraft defences were of nuisance value only, and in the air, where the pilots died in the best traditions of the Royal Air Force, the survivors were flown out of Crete. For the troops on the ground it was to be Greece all over again only more so—very much more so.
Seventh Field Company had been trained in the south of England in methods of making airstrips unusable as a precaution against enemy airborne invasion, so when the RAF departed that seemed to them the obvious thing to do. Captain Ferguson writes in this connection:
‘While we were preparing our positions in the Modion area one of our officers—it was either Hector or Thomas14—drew up a scheme with a plan for the blowing up of the Maleme aerodrome by use of anti-tank mines. We found that there were ample anti-tank mines, cordex, as well as electric detonators and f.i.d.15 and exploder cable. His scheme was based on a principle of laying mines on a grid system across the areas used as runways. This scheme allowed for the aerodrome to be used up until such time as it was desired to blow it up. I passed over the plans to Brigadier Hargest, who I understand passed them on to the General. I was later informed that the scheme was not to be undertaken for the reason that we might be landing more aircraft of our own and this might jeopardise the use of the ‘drome. Incidentally, my own feeling is that had this been put into operation it might well have been the turning point in the Battle of Crete, as the major number of German forces that landed came in by troop carrier.’
There are many methods of putting an aerodrome out of action for a period, but the one obstruction that parachutists cannot deal with rapidly is ploughing. Re-compaction is necessary but is not so easy without proper equipment. At the same time as Lieutenant Hector was working out his grid system, the CRE was moving heaven and earth to get permission to plough and mine the runways on Maleme.
He wrote later:
‘I did seek permission with all the persuasive powers at my command to plough and mine the aerodrome when it seemed that the German attack was imminent. The Acting Div. Command [Brigadier Puttick] more than nibbled at the idea. He page 134 asked me if I could mine the aerodrome without preventing its use by our own planes. He himself suggested loading the runway with charges which could be fired electrically. This I agreed might be satisfactory but some of the wires for electric wiring would almost certainly be cut by initial bombing and straffing, and it would therefore be much better to run a few furrows across the runway with the ample supply of locally available ploughs, and mine with charges which would explode on contact with a landing plane. The Div. Comd. was certainly impressed and went up with me to look at the 'drome. He agreed to give the proposal of destruction, by whatever means, some thought and he promised to let me know in a day or two. We already had charges and improvised mines ready, but a day or two went by and I could not obtain the permission. I was told that our own Air Force still required the aerodrome. I am almost certain that, had the Div. Comd. been allowed to make his own decision, I would have been permitted to carry out my plan. As it was the enemy arrived before I could gain approval.
‘I may say that local type ploughs were readily available and several, along with donkeys, had been “earmarked” and, of course, there were a few motor vehicles which could have provided the motive force for the ploughing. Improvised charges with their pull-trigger fuses could have been quickly laid to operate on trip wires being struck by landing aircraft.
‘The ploughing alone, in a very short time, could have put the aerodrome out of operation. It was interesting to us that the ploughing which the Germans did on some North African aerodromes was very effective and was not easily remedied.’
Fifth Field Park Company which, up to this date, had been under command of 4 Brigade and was regarded as a spare infantry company, had been moved to several different areas before it now came under command of the Chief Engineer, Crete, for works and of the New Zealand Division for administration.
Company Headquarters, Workshops and Stores Sections moved to an area a couple of miles east of Canea and started on a job of excavating an underground shelter for Force Headquarters. Bridging Section (Lieutenant Pemberton) went to Suda, where they worked on dug-in accommodation for the naval staff. In addition, crews were provided for four caiques with the idea, after the engines had been overhauled and the vessels got into sailing trim, of running a coastal service to Retimo and Heraklion.page 135
Upon the completion of the wiring job (13 May) Lieutenant Wildey, Sergeant Solon, Sergeant MacNab16 and Sapper McCutcheon were sent to Headquarters 6 Greek Regiment at Cemetery Hill, at the eastern end of the Alikianou valley, to instruct the Greeks in simple field engineering. A day or so later Solon and MacNab were sent to Headquarters 8 Greek Regiment at the top of the valley, where a reservoir separated them from a Divisional Cavalry detachment.17
Another week passed quietly enough for the engineer instructors at Kastelli and in the Alikianou valley, very busily indeed for NZE Detachment near Maleme, and anything but quietly around Suda Bay where a non-stop hate on the harbour made cargo-working a chancy business.
‘They had to work in total darkness, except for the light of the stars and later of the moon. They had none of the cranes and other unloading tackle of a modern harbour to aid them. They had to use whatever gear they found in the ships they were working to lift and manoeuvre heavy equipment overside into the lighters or on to the pier. When a ship's facilities were inadequate they improvised as best they could…. The German bombers were over the harbour every night. Darkness did not deter them from blitzing the general vicinity, hoping for a lucky hit. They dropped so many bombs that they naturally scored hits in their blind attacks. The number of holed ships lying on the harbour bed steadily increased.’18
The list below amplifies the quotation:
|14 May||British ship SS Dalesman||Sunk by bombs|
|16 May||British ship SS Logician||Sunk by bombs|
|Greek ship Kythera||Sunk by bombs|
|Greek ship Nicolaou Ourania||Sunk by bombs|
|17 May||British tanker SS Eleonera Maerak||Sunk by bombs|
|Greek ship Themoni||Sunk by bombs|
|18 May||British corvette Salvia||Damaged by bomb|
|20 May||Minesweeper Widnes||Bombed and beached|
It was during this period (on 16 May) that a small craft powered with a single cylinder semi-diesel engine reached Crete page 136 from Spetsai Island. It contained some 56 British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek troops, of whom 21 were 6 Field Company sappers, last-known address the Corinth Canal, who had been harried across southern Greece and over half the islands in the Aegean Sea. Among the New Zealanders were Lieutenant Chapman, Sergeant Ty Mandeno19 and Sapper Jack Farnham, who, it will be remembered, had been caught in the ambush at Elevtherokhorion and came out with Colonel Kippenberger.
Portions of a letter written to the author by Sapper Farnham follow:
‘I started off across the vineyards towards Corinth and headed for an olive tree for cover but changed my mind after some near ones as I realised it made a sighting mark. I came on Cpl Duncan20 of Waiuku hit in the foot or leg and told him, “Johnny lie there and if I get help I will know where to find you.” By a small monument on the crest of the hill above Corinth came on some more of our chaps, one of them, Rayner21 was hit in the body. Told them the same as Johnny, but one of them, I think his name was Chunningham22 said, “You got out before you might do it again. I am coming with you.” We ran down into Corinth, saw a truck full of Jerries and turned up a side street. Met two Aussies who had been directing traffic and they joined up with us then met more Jerries coming the other way. [They were sheltered in the nick of time by a Greek who kept them until dark. After more such encounters they found themselves among pine trees in a range of hills. They were hungry and thirsty and passed an old Greek while looking for water.]
‘… heard someone running behind us; got off the road and waited. It was the old Greek with about ¾ of a pound of bread dry and rancid but you never tasted anything better. We took it though we knew it was most likely all he had. I still feel bad when I think of it. [Later Farnham and party met more fugitives] … it was L/cpl Jennings or Jenkins23 from the Bay of Islands, one or two sprs, I forget now and an 18th Batt chap page 137 McMein24 I think, he was shot in the shoulder but was going well. [The augmented party went into a village, where McMein's wound was dressed and a guide provided to take them to an embarkation beach farther down the coast on the other side of a fairly high range.] … it was full daylight by now, we saw a man ahead on a donkey. When we got nearer we saw it was Sgt Ty Mandeno of No. 3 Section going the same way as we were. At our request he took charge of us as a group as we had a lot of faith in Ty.’ [The party reached an embarkation beach, most likely Kalamata, only to find it in enemy hands; they then pushed on south until they met a Greek who offered to row them to an island (Agisthus) where they might get a fishing boat. They slept that night under some trees on a hill, were fed by the villagers, told there was only one small boat there and were rowed back to the mainland again. So they went on day after day, with more narrow escapes than would fill a dozen thrillers, until fishermen rowed them over to Spetsai Island, where they found the rest of the refugees and the only boat that had not had some vital part removed.]
The command, and approximate strengths, of the Engineer component of the New Zealand Division on Crete on 20 May was as under:
|Headquarters||Strength 28 ORs|
|Maj Hanson, CRE|
|Lt Rix-Trott, Field Officer|
|7 Field Company||Strength 145 ORs|
|Capt Ferguson, OC|
|19 Army Troops Company||Strength 210 ORs|
|Capt Anderson, OC|
|5 Field Park Company||Strength 116 ORs|
|Capt Morrison, OC|
|Lt Carlton, Attached LAD||page 138|
|Suda Bay Detachment||Strength 50 ORs|
|Lt Peacocke, OC|
|With I Greek Regt at Kastelli|
|Lt Yorke, WO I Baigent, L-Sgt C. H. W. Adams|
|With 6 Greek Regt in Aghya Valley|
|Lt Wildey, Spr McCutcheon|
|With 8 Greek Regt in Aghya Valley|
|Sgts L. A. Solon and D. G. MacNab|
|NZE Postal||Strength 23 ORs|
|2 Lt H. S. Harbott|
The morning of 20 May did not differ at first from those of the preceding fortnight and cooks all over Crete were either cooking, had cooked, or were about to cook breakfast. Then 19 Army Troops Company from their grandstand seat at the base of the foothills three miles east of Maleme watched the incredible preliminaries of a full-scale aerial invasion. A rumbling sound grew rapidly to an ear-splitting roar as planes swept in from the north like a plague of locusts—Heinkels, Dorniers, Stukas, Messerschmitts. Bofors pumped shells into the unending target, machine guns crackled and small-arms fire rose and fell in surging waves. Planes tumbled out of formation and crashed in flames; bombs pounded the earth with terrific detonations; trees caught fire. Finally, smoke hid the Maleme airfield.
For an hour the hellish din never ceased. Then the Junkers troop-carriers came out of the north-west, many of them towing huge gliders, and disappeared into the smoke cloud; when they emerged again the gliders had been cast off.
Nearer the airfield target 7 Field Company saw the troop-carrying planes dropping parachutes like a destroyer dropping depth-charges. Sergeant Hultquist's diary states:
‘Tues. 20/5/41. At 0720 hrs, a Sapper hurried in from his O'pip with the info’ that paratroops were literally raining over the Drome. One quick look from his O'pip more than confirmed the report. N.C.O.s and Sappers were immed’ automatically in motion, rushing off thru’ the olive groves to take up their various MG posts and positions in our sector. Almost simultaneously yellow nosed fighter planes swooped in from nowhere—filling the air with the deafening crash and rattle from the full blast of their MG's as they skimmed the tree tops combing and raking the surrounding ground, spurs and gullys. My com- page 139 plete personnel somehow managed to gain their posts and the comparative shelter of the slit trenches without casualty.
‘Approx’ 0830 hrs the yellow nosed Mess'ers disappeared, only to be replaced by wave after wave of Junkers paratroop carriers droning in from the sea, appearing to just skim the surface of the water and gaining altitude as they approached the coast line. One by one they passed at a low altitude overhead, slowly circling the spurs at our rear, and as they again appeared overhead, spewing their cargoes of paratroops and equipment over all and sundry as they headed back to sea….
‘Troop carriers continuously arriving and making more or less abortive attempts to land and discharge their cargo under a terrific barrage of bursting shells thrown in by our artillery.
‘A small NZ Artillery Troop equipped with four French 75m'm guns and positioned on our section sector just in rear of my bivouac, caused colossal havoc at almost point blank range with direct hits continuously adding to the debris the wreckage of planes on beach and drome.’
Between 100 and 150 paratroops were dropped in Lieutenant Hector's left sector. Seventh Field Company, trained for such a contingency in England, shot many in the air (you knew when they were hit because their heads dropped forward). Others were shot on the ground while they were disengaging from their harness. The troubles of those who had so far escaped attention were far from over because the Field Punishment Centre, in the rear of and above the company, was on to them. So much so that Hector and his Headquarters sub-section had to stop stalking for fear of being shot by the Punishment Centre marksmen. Later in the day when the firing had stopped, Lieutenant Hector again took his patrol out; four Germans surrendered and six more were found dead or dying. Hector then decided to complete the sweep he had had to break off in the morning along the western side of the gully. No live Germans were encountered until the patrol was almost home, when they were fired on from a drain hidden in the undergrowth and two sappers were killed. Sergeant Hultquist's diary carries the story on:
‘We immediately jumped for available cover and commenced closing in on the position. Spr. Jefferies25 was our next casualty dropping with a hole drilled through his chest from side to side. I therefore appealed to Lt Hector for permission to clear page 140 page 141 the position with hand grenades but he decided to close in yet more—himself setting the example by stepping out from cover and entering the wheat field bordering Jerry's hide out, four of us following suit. A couple of tommy gun bursts from us were promptly retaliated by Jerry with a succession of grenades resembling a fireworks display as they burst around us. Mr Hector suddenly dropped mortally wounded and simultaneously Sprs Horsfall26 and Kennett27 were put out of action suffering a liberal splattering of surface wounds.
Of the two remaining Germans, one surrendered and the other escaped. The diary note ends: ‘Mr Hector proved himself to be one of the most courageous and conscientious men it has ever been my privilege to associate with.’
The only other enemy to land near the Engineers' area that day were in a glider and a troop-carrier that crash-landed on the beach in front of 19 Army Troops' position. They were dealt with by, first, the guns of C Troop, 27 Battery, referred to in the Hultquist diary, and finally by a fighting patrol from the Maori Battalion.
Near Divisional Headquarters two gliders, probably off course, tried to make a landing and the occupants were all killed or wounded. Headquarters NZE contributed to the shooting up of one glider and had five or six men, including Major Hanson, shot up from the air, but only three of the sappers were seriously wounded and evacuated. The war artist, Peter McIntyre, used this episode in his well-known picture of crash-landed gliders.
The position in 5 Brigade's sector at last light was that 21 Battalion had shot up a small shower of paratroopers and 23 Battalion had dealt with a veritable downpour of enemy; 22 Battalion, after days of bombing and ground strafing, had got some of its own back, but numbers of Germans had landed and consolidated where there was nobody to hinder their preparations.
Farther west a detachment had dropped around Kastelli, and page 142 the Greeks, disdaining the use of cover and forgetting anything they might have learned about tactics, killed about fifty and took prisoner twenty-eight others, fifteen of them wounded. Major Bedding, for the prisoners' own safety, had them locked up in the local jail for they were in a fair way to joining the other fifty. The locals did not appear to like the invaders very much and were very weak in their understanding of the provisions of the Geneva Convention.
Alikianou was another enemy objective in the plan to capture Canea and Suda, and two battalions of paratroopers were dropped near 8 Greek Regiment, with whom Sergeants Solon and MacNab were working. The Engineer Battalion of 7 Air Division was attacked by the Greek recruits, many of them little more than boys who, for the most part, had never even fired a rifle. MacNab has placed his impressions on record:
‘On the morning of 20 May enemy gliders and paratroops landed all round the area. Some paratroops landed in swampy ground north of the battalion's position and were unable to free themselves of their heavy equipment and were drowned. The Greeks immediately undertook mopping up. They attacked with great dash and reckless gallantry with little or no prudence or tactical skill. It was guerrilla warfare in its most primitive form…. They were joined by villagers with shot guns from the little village to the north (Kirtomadhes) and even an old house wife came dashing down the road brandishing the family meat axe with which she did considerable execution on the wounded before the Germans shot her.’
The Germans failed to take Alikianou and concentrated instead towards the main enemy forces in the Prison Valley. The Greeks had lost many killed and wounded, others had expended their few rounds of ammunition and dispersed, but the rest had armed themselves from dead paratroopers and were holding their positions.
There was a gap, before the attack, of about two miles from where the 6th Greeks were holding the left of 10 Brigade's line from an old Turkish fort in the hills to the Divisional Petrol Company's positions astride the valley road.
The New Zealand instructors had messed together and took turns at cooking. It was McCutcheon's ‘day on’ so he, with about thirty to forty Greeks who were being instructed in field works, was the only one of them near headquarters. He was making his toilet and was arrayed in boots and shorts when the paratroops began to fall (another battalion of 3 Parachute page 143 Regiment). The Greeks soon shot off their half-dozen rounds, whereupon some made for the hills and the rest staged a bayonet charge which drove the enemy towards Galatas. McCutcheon left the charging Greeks at the Petrol Company lines in the hope that Wildey might be around, and saw the Greeks returning to their positions. The two did not meet until some time in the afternoon, when with a following of some thirty Greeks they worked their way back to 19 Battalion and dug themselves in. They stayed there for nearly a week.
A company from 3 Parachute Regiment dropped north-east of Galatas and with a determined attack captured the undefended 7 General Hospital and 6 Field Ambulance. After some exceedingly one-sided fighting about 500 walking sick and medical orderlies were assembled and marched off under guard to join the main enemy body. It was unfortunate for the Germans that 18 and 19 Battalion patrols were in the way.29
A Divisional Postal group was involved in this affair, as the following extract from the Postal war diary dated 21 May describes:
‘Report received from Cpl Brooks30 that his office in the Hospital area was taken by the enemy during the raid on the 20th May. All equipment, mail, including stamps, Cash and Registered Articles, were taken by the Germans. Cpl Brooks, Sprs Wright31 and Balneaves32 were taken prisoners but released by 18 Bn. Spr Yandle33 in hospital was also taken prisoner and later released. Spr Farrell34 was not seen again and presumed killed during the raid. Spr Sprague35 who was admitted to 6 Fd Amb, climbed a tree, evaded detection and reported to me the following morning.’
At Suda Bay the bridging section of 5 Field Park Company stood by and wished the shelters they were digging were much deeper; the sappers who were working on the coastal craft were page 144 sent back to their unit; the rest of the company at Canea manned a ridge and waited for parachute troops who did not come. D Company of a battalion of the Welch Regiment were close by and advice was obtained from and close liaison maintained with them. Fifth Field Park Company must be considered as working with the Welch Regiment until further mention is made of it.
As at Maleme and Galatas, the German programme was disrupted at Heraklion and Retimo, where other airfields were located, so that the opening round of the Battle for Crete might be fairly called a draw.
At first light (21st) the position at Maleme had altered dramatically to our disadvantage: 22 Battalion, in face of the hostile build-up, was withdrawing, thereby giving the enemy the use of the airfield—if the guns and mortars still in action could be silenced or if the risk was accepted of landing under fire.
There had been little sleep for NZE Detachment for there were still pockets of enemy around; one party tried to enter a post where Corporal Blakey36 had taken the precaution of providing himself with a supply of German grenades. The visitors departed, leaving behind a Spandau as a memento of the occasion.
The German Command, making the best of an ugly situation, had decided to concentrate everything on Maleme, where the chances of securing a landing ground seemed less remote. The morning was thus a time of reorganisation and it was not until about 4 p.m. that more paratroops were dropped among the NZE Detachment—this time on 19 Army Troops and the adjoining Maori Battalion.
Nineteenth Army Troops shared about twenty-four plane loads of paratroops with D Company, 28 Battalion, in about equal numbers. The Maoris, not without loss, made a pretty complete clearance of their quota and the Army Troops Company, for line-of-communication troops without much practice in the finer points of personal combat, did not do too badly.
When the attack opened on the previous day Army Troops' forward posts had been withdrawn to reserve positions in rear of an irrigation canal and a secondary sunken road, both of which covered the unit front.
Captain Anderson wrote later:page 145
‘Then came May 20 and Jerry in full cry! During all that first day we sat and watched the fantastic sight from our perfect grandstand seat. No paratroops were dropped in our area that day although the 7th Fd Coy caught it pretty heavily. We sent a detachment of thirty men to assist the 7th on the evening of the 20th. The morning of the 21st was again quiet but just after midday we got our share of bother. They came over in waves similar to those we had watched the previous day and they dropped everywhere. Our fellows behaved well and did some sound destruction. Every man who could handle a rifle did his bit. Officers—cooks—bottlewashers—all were in it. Unfortunately we had only one Bren on the strength but the two chaps using it did a magnificent job.’
Elsewhere the second day passed without much fighting. The enemy landed more troops at Maleme and preparations were made for a counter-attack to recapture the airfield.
On the outskirts of the battle Kastelli was still waiting for the supposedly defeated enemy to be driven that way, and at Alikianou Sergeants Solon and MacNab were prisoners. MacNab did not know much about it for he had suffered a head wound. As a prisoner of war he was a dead loss to his captors, according to the citation for the award of the Engineers' first DCM:
‘S/Sgt. MacNabb [sic] was the leader of an organised escape party which left Greece for Turkey in October. Every detail of the escape was carried out by S/Sgt. MacNabb himself. He managed to hire a boat, the money for which he obtained by collection from various Greek helpers. He collected together a party of escapers and sailed for Turkey. The skipper of the boat endeavoured to betray them and MacNabb took charge. He navigated the boat and reached Turkey successfully.
‘The party unfortunately landed in a closely guarded Military Zone. By skilful manoeuvring and forced marching he managed to get his party right through the military area before being captured by the Turks.
‘Whilst in Greece S/Sgt. MacNabb ran an “Intelligence Bureau” in Athens for the collection of military information. On leaving Greece he collated all this and concealed it inside the lining of his clothing. It was discovered by the Turks during a thorough search and confiscated. MacNabb later managed to get the papers back and eventually passed them to the Military Attache. Through the enterprise and initiative of this N.C.O. a great deal of valuable information reached G.S.I., Middle East.’page 146
At last light on the second day (21 May) the Engineer position was that both companies were intact in their reserve posts but there were enemy hidden in the country between 19 Army Troops and the sea, while the point on the right flank was also in hostile hands. Captain Anderson was keen to have his front disinfested, but was not fully conversant with the technique and asked the Maori Battalion if it would mind obliging as night fighting was more in its line of business.
It so happened that Captain Rangi Royal37 (B Company) had already been ordered to clean up part of the area that was worrying Captain Anderson, for it was the forming-up place for a counter-attack by 20 and 28 Battalions in an effort to retrieve the position at Maleme. The Arawa Company, only too happy to do the pakeha engineers a good turn, stalked and killed a dozen paratroops who had not, like the other survivors, moved westwards towards Maleme.
The night was further enlivened by the sound of booming guns across the water and a lurid glow on the horizon. The Navy was putting an end to the enemy plan of a seaborne addition to his airborne forces. Apropos of this, OC 5 Field Park Company wrote:
‘We do not appear to have figured in a very active role. We didn't, just did what we were told. We were, however, ordered down to the beach at Canea on the night when the sea-borne attack was expected and prepared to sell our lives dearly, but the navy saved us the trouble.’
In the morning (22 May and the third day of battle) No. 4 Section, Army Troops, decided to return to their position on the hill covering their right flank but lost several wounded, including Lieutenant Patterson, before the attempt was given up. Later Captain Anderson and Lieutenant Page with a detachment tried from another direction. Unbeknown to them Captain Baker38 and a party of Maoris had seen movement in the area and were also taking steps. The upshot was that the garrison surrendered. The point must have been a rendezvous for walking wounded, for of the sixty-five prisoners few were page 147 without injuries. The serious cases were carried to a small hut in the vicinity and the rest sent to Brigade Headquarters.
Meanwhile the counter-attack, after very heavy fighting, was brought to a standstill with the enemy still in possession of the vital airfield. The afternoon of the third day wore on and the third sleepless night was interrupted by an order to make ready to move to Ay Marina before daybreak.
Captain Anderson wrote:
‘At some time during the night [22nd–23rd] we got orders to move. Ferguson had gone to 5 I.B. to find out the griff and they were put into something of a flap because the BM had apparently forgotten that he had a few sappers on his strength. However we managed to collect all the outlying pickets except one. This was a picket from the 19 Army Troops Coy that had been serving with the 7th NZ Fd Coy at the time and being with a strange Coy they were overlooked. It is pleasing to report that the men concerned extricated themselves from their position and made their own way through the mountains and eventually rejoined the remnants of the Company at Sphakia.’
This realignment was the result of the mounting threat to Galatas, the failure of the counter-attack at Maleme and the possibility of the enemy cutting in behind 5 Brigade. Section commanders had only an hour to collect their men before the march commenced. They managed somehow to keep to schedule, but only the danger of not being under cover by dawn kept the troops moving for they were in real need of rest. They didn't get much, for within a very short time odd snipers were potting at them and by 9.30 had become such a nuisance that steps had to be taken, not without loss, to comb them out.
Nineteenth Army Troops on the left of 7 Field Company, which was now facing west, had a small battle all to themselves. The Germans' 100 Mountain Regiment had elements moving through Modhion towards them, while groups from 3 Parachute Regiment in the Prison Valley were also feeling in their direction. Actually, it was only the very active right flank of 10 Brigade, plus B Company 18 Battalion, placed there for the purpose, that prevented a bigger battle. As it was an enemy party had occupied a house before daybreak.
‘We took up positions on the high ground south of the main road and immediately ran into trouble. One of our men was picked off by a Hun sniper soon after we arrived in our area. This same sniper got a hot time from the 7th boys in whose area he was hiding up. A little later, as we were siting our new page 148 positions we came under very heavy fire from a large farm house some 700 yards south of our positions and the morning was indeed sultry. Casualties were either 14 or 15, I forget the exact number. One of our junior N.C.Os39 did a very fine job of rescuing a wounded companion under heavy enemy fire and was subsequently awarded the MM.’40 Enemy casualties were unknown for he remained in possession of the farmhouse.
By dusk on the fourth day (23rd) 5 Brigade, still in a dangerous position, was holding a shaky line east of the Engineer Detachment and west of the Platanias River, where the critical point was the river bridge half-right from 19 Army Troops' old area. It had been captured and held in spite of efforts to retake it. At Heraklion and Retimo the situation remained more or less static, inasmuch as the enemy couldn't take the airfields and the defenders couldn't chase them away. In either case their possession was not now essential to the enemy plans, for Maleme was safely held.
The sapper companies were moving again by midnight. Fifth Brigade was being withdrawn once more to counter an expected full-scale attack against Galatas and was moving behind 4 Brigade which, with the remnants of 10 Brigade, was preparing to receive the assault. Tenth Brigade was really a remnant by this time; 20 Battalion had been taken for the Maleme counter-attack and the two Greek regiments were either dispersed or out of touch, so that all that remained was the Composite Battalion and a Divisional Cavalry detachment.
There was plenty of cover under the trees, which however did not compensate for the fact that the ground-strafing planes seemed to sense that the Engineers were orphans41 and attacked them savagely. Soon after the Luftwaffe departed in search of some more promising targets, General Freyberg happened along; and to illustrate the fact that even if the sappers were not professional infantry, they were, in spite of fifty-odd casualties, still full of fight, Lieutenant Page vouches for this anecdote:
‘“Tiny” came along and asked one of our sappers how things were going. “No bloody good” says sapper. “Why”, page 149 Tiny said, “Their infantry are just like rabbits.” “That's all right,” says sapper. “You keep these bloody planes away and we'll manage the infantry.”’
It was ‘these bloody planes’ that were winning the island for Germany. The garrison's total casualties to date were approximately 1900, of which the New Zealand share was in round figures 1400. Enemy losses were estimated to be more than 3300, but fresh troops and supplies were to be had for the asking—the sky was theirs.
General Freyberg's real appreciation of the situation is expressed in his report:
‘At this stage I was quite clear in my own mind that the troops would not be able to last much longer against a continuation of the air attacks which they had had during the previous five days. The enemy bombing was accurate and it was only a question of time before our now shaken troops must be driven out of the positions they occupied. The danger was quite clear. We were gradually being driven back on our Base areas, the loss of which would deprive us of our food and ammunition. If this heavy air attack continued it would not be long before we were driven right off our meagre food and ammunition resources. I really knew at this time that there were two alternatives, defeat in the field and capture or withdrawal.’
By Brigadier Puttick's orders NZE Detachment was divided and given new tasks. Nineteenth Army Troops came under command of 19 Australian Brigade, moved over that evening (24th) and were put into reserve near Perivolia village.
Seventh Field Company remained in situ ready to support 20 Battalion, which itself was under orders to counter-attack in support of 19 Battalion.
It is convenient at this stage to return to Kastelli, where we left Lieutenant Yorke and WO I Baigent with other instructors under the command of Major Bedding, a body of Greek conscripts and twenty-eight German prisoners. The two engineers were to have given instruction in wiring, but as there was no wire and no likelihood of any, Major Bedding turned Lieutenant Yorke into a musketry instructor and RSM Baigent into a quartermaster. They were, of course, completely cut off from the Division, but wireless reports from the BBC suggested that the enemy was being driven back from Maleme and the retreating force was expected daily.page 150
When the Germans did come on the 24th it was in strength and preceded by a dive-bombing attack that hit the jail, whereupon the guards departed, the prisoners escaped, armed themselves and took Bedding and Baigent prisoner. Meantime the Germans dispersed the Greeks, who retired to the hills, where they fought on for some days. Lieutenant Yorke managed to cross the island to Sfakia. RSM Baigent received promotion to commissioned rank in a somewhat irregular manner, for Major Bedding, without a vestige of authority but seeing the need for experienced officers with the Greeks, had given him acting rank as Second-Lieutenant. After the war and when the circumstances became known, the appointment was officially confirmed as from 20 May 1941.
On the left wing 19 Army Troops scratched holes between the roots of the trees with tin hats and bayonets while Australian fighting patrols clashed with enemy pockets. Both companies were ground strafed at intervals, but the expected attack did not come until late the following afternoon (25th).
The sappers were not involved in the fiercest fighting of the campaign, possibly the fiercest fighting of the whole war. Galatas was lost and retaken at the bayonet's point, but the whole New Zealand line was so weak that there was no alternative but to retire again: to give up Galatas and any remaining hope of a counter-offensive. Form a new line north from the Australian right to the sea, hold there as long as possible, then fall back to another line. When every move is dictated by the enemy the final result is capitulation or evacuation.
Fourth Brigade was now in pretty poor shape and 10 Brigade in ruins, but 5 Brigade had had a day's comparative rest so it was its turn again. It was 21 Battalion's turn as far as 7 Field Company was concerned, for it had come under command of that unit together with a party of Divisional Cavalry (Major Russell42) and a company of 20 Battalion (Lieutenant Washbourn43).
Twenty-first Battalion Group was placed before dawn on the 26th on the right flank along Hospital Ridge, east of 7 General Hospital. The ridge itself was stony and bare of cover, but in page 151 the shallow valley behind there were some trees. Colonel Allen,44 commanding 21 Battalion Group, made the following dispositions:
Headquarters Company and 7 Field Company were on the right between the road and the sea; the rest of 21 Battalion, organised into one company plus C Squadron of Divisional Cavalry, held the left. In reserve to the right flank were A and B Squadrons, Divisional Cavalry, and on the left was A Company, 20 Battalion. Nineteenth Battalion, the only reasonably fit unit in 4 Brigade, now under command of 5 Brigade, was immediately south of and in contact with 21 Battalion. When Lieutenant Wildey and Sapper McCutcheon, who by now had lost all their Greeks, heard that 7 Field Company was handy, they set off to find it.
‘Lieutenant Wilding [sic] reported to Capt Ferguson of 7 Fd Coy NZE somewhere near 7 Gen Hospital,’ wrote McCutcheon, ‘but Ferguson said that he [Wildey] and McG had been detached from 7 Fd Coy and … ordered them to move back. Ferguson handed W his nominal roll of all 7 Fd Coy and gave McC his camera, saying that 7 Fd Coy would never get out of page 152 this position (which was, of course, his reason for ordering W and McC back)…. [Wildey] and McCutcheon started to hike back.’
Twenty-first Battalion Group did what digging it could with bayonets and tin hats but the result was not reassuring. Some men built low sangars of loose rock to shelter behind. The usual ‘recce’ planes were over as soon as it was light enough and the observers must have rubbed their hands at the targets disclosed. It was not long before mortar shells were bursting on the stony ridge and dive-bombers swooping and screaming with all guns firing. Seventh Field Company, about 180 strong on arrival in Crete, had been whittled down by detachments, sickness and battle casualties to 135 all ranks. Captain Ferguson decided that no good reason would be served by having all his sappers put out of action and pulled the Company on to the reverse slope where there was some shelter. One half of 21 Battalion Headquarters Company had already done this and the other half followed Ferguson's example. Colonel Allen thought that they had been pushed back and brought up reinforcements.
The mixed group of infantry, cavalry and Engineers comprising 21 Battalion lost eighty-four officers and men before darkness brought an end to their sufferings. Once again the line was reeling back towards Suda. ‘A line is being formed two miles West of souda at approx the junct of two converging roads. Beyond this line all tps must go. Units will keep close together, liaise where possible to guard against sniper attack. 5 Bde units in general will hide up in area along road between souda and stylos turn-off. Hide up areas for units will be allotted by “G” staff on side of road after passing through souda. Bde HQ will close present location at 2300 hrs and travel at head of column. Will then set up adjacent to stylos turn-off. A dump of rations boxes already opened is situated near the main bridge on main canea road also some still at DID. Help yourself. It is regretted that no further tpt is available for evacuation of wounded. It is desirable that MOs should travel with tps. There is possibility of amn being on roadside near Main Ordnance dump. Take supplies as you pass.’45
Nineteenth Army Troops were not called on although the Australians were having a tough time, with the enemy feeling for the flank of the defence line and finding it before the day was out. The Australian brigade was ordered to fall back that page 153 night to a position two miles west of Suda behind 42nd Street, as some humorist had named the sunken road that came down from the hills to Suda.
Captain Morrison, who had not received any orders for 5 Field Park Company since the attack began, sent a patrol with a message to Force Headquarters at Suda detailing his situation and asking for instructions. The patrol found that Force Headquarters had departed but met General Weston who commanded the area. He ordered the Company to make for Sfakia on the south coast. Morrison moved his sappers that night to Suda Bay and bedded down with the bridging section.
Twenty-first Battalion Group formed up on the road. Night-flying planes assisted them with the latest German parachute flares, the first the troops had seen. They lit up the countryside like lightning, and a man feels very naked under such a light when he does not know how close his enemy is.
The Battalion Group dropped in its tracks behind 42nd Street at 4 a.m. but there was still no rest to be had. The battalion commanders discovered each other but did not know where Brigade Headquarters was, and although they thought they were safe for the time being with a covering force between them and the enemy, they decided to get into tactical formation and, if the unexpected did happen, to open fire and charge. Seventh Field Company was placed in reserve in an olive grove on the right flank. Some of the men were scrounging for food, some were having a long delayed wash, others were asleep when there was a burst of small-arms fire followed by a terrific clamour in front—it was the Maoris leading a bayonet charge without the orders normally initiating such tactics.
Seventh Field Company, supposedly a reserve force, were not far behind. ‘At about 11 o'clock the Germans were attacking strongly when an involuntary attack on our part took place. No order was given but we all fixed bayonets and charged. The Aussies howled on our right and the Maoris bellowed awful cries on our left and we all went headlong into it.’ Captain Ferguson did not go into details for he was writing home.
Major Hanson, who as senior engineer officer had even less excuse for getting into bayonet affrays, explains how he was led astray. He was looking for a truck, the only vehicle with Engineer Headquarters. It had been filled with sappers with sore feet, others who had been wounded but not evacuated, and some sick for the move behind 42nd Street and could not page 154 be found. (It never was found, which accounts for most of HQ NZE personnel taken prisoner in Crete.)
‘I was still with the Maori Bn,’ he writes, ‘when men began to go over the top (the road was slightly sunken at this part) and the charge from 42nd developed. I think “developed” is the right word. As far as I know there was no definite order although there may have been some previously prepared plan. Sapper Les Adams46 who was with me called out: “Come on Boss, let's be in”, so with my tommy gun and Adams with his rifle we participated in the charge of 42nd Street.’
So fiercely did the Australians and New Zealanders express themselves in this spontaneous gesture of disapproval that I Battalion of 141 Mountain Regiment ceased to exist as a fighting unit. Seventh Field Company suffered only three casualties and the Battalion Group claimed seventy dead Germans on its front. The rest of the day was peaceful.
Early in the afternoon 19 Army Troops was on the way south:
‘Just after noon I reported to 19 Bde HQ and was told to make for the village of Stylos—in small parties of three or four. We pushed off in small groups on an extremely hot afternoon. We managed to evade a few prowling Stukas and on arriving in sight of Stylos found a very savage air attack in progress. I arrived in Stylos just before sunset and took post beside the road in order to collect any Coy personnel passing through. Lt Page met the CRE in Stylos and he sent word to me to move the Coy back over the island that night. Page and I collected between 70 and 80 men of the Coy and about 2100 hrs we took the road. We kept going until about 0300 hrs—dumb slogging up hills and in completely foreign country. At about 0300 hrs we found a small well and decided to camp until morning and at daylight on the morning of the 28th we found enough tea among the boys to get a decent brew. After a bit of a rest we pushed on over the divide and when reaching the summit overlooking the Askipho plain we were met by an LO from 4th NZ Inf Bde who asked me to put the Coy on a Parachute watching brief down on the plain. That little incident got the remnants of the Coy out of Crete. Because we were brigaded and became part of an organised force. We camped by a farm house on the west wide of the plain and put out pickets while most of the men rested.’47page 155
Withdrawal orders already issued had not, owing to the chaotic conditions prevailing, reached either the Australians or 5 Brigade, but with secondhand knowledge that a retreat was in progress over the mountains to Sfakia, where it was hoped to embark, the two brigadiers gave themselves orders. The Aussies went first to cover a crossroads at Neon Khorion and 5 Brigade followed with the intention of holding the far end of a pass at Stilos—if the enemy did not get there first. In a way it was Larisa over again, for if Jerry got to Stilos before the Anzacs were through, it was the end of the penny section as far as they were concerned. It was a fairly tough march, about 15 miles, up hill and down hill, but the affray at 42nd Street had put new life into bodies that had not had a hot meal or a drink of tea for over a week.
The general conditions prevailing are described by General Freyberg, who is not prone to exaggeration:
‘There were units sticking together and marching with weapons … but in the main it was a disorganised rabble making its way doggedly and painfully to the South. There were thousands of unarmed troops including the Cypriots and Palestinians. Without leadership, without any sort of discipline, it is impossible to expect anything else of troops who have never been trained as fighting soldiers…. Never shall I forget the disorganisation and almost complete lack of control of the masses on the move as we made our way slowly through that endless stream of trudging men.’
Along some part of the road and among the rabble described by the General were 19 Army Troops, who had been instructed to break up into small parties of three or four, Headquarters New Zealand Engineers who were in the walking party of Divisional Headquarters, Postal Unit, Suda Bay Detachment and the rest of 5 Field Park Company. Only the last two maintained contact and formation. The other units lost men who could march no longer and dropped out on the side of the road. They largely account for the PW lists at the end of the chapter. The chaos grew worse each day.
The dog-tired troops were roused before daylight to line ditches and walls against troops of II Battalion of 85 Mountain Regiment, who we know now were making for Retimo in the mistaken appreciation that the New Zealand and Australian forces were moving to that area, where the investing Germans were more attacked against than attacking.page 156
There was quite a minor battle before they were chased away, but though 21 Battalion Group sent the Divisional Cavalry and A Company, 20 Battalion, to assist 23 Battalion which was most involved, the engineers were not called on. The question arose, however, and was debated at a brigade conference, whether to hold on and march at night or disengage and risk a day-march nearer the embarkation point. It was decided to march at once and chance the enemy planes shooting up the road and its occupants.
Twenty-first Battalion Group was last out and marched by sections in file, keeping to the sides of the road, British Commando units and the Australians sealed the road behind them, and 7 Field Company began the hardest march in its career. From Stilos to the Askifou Plain, which was the next halting place, is only 15 miles, nothing to fit infantry, five hours' marching at the most. But this road went over a mountain range with 3000 feet of zigzags and hairpin bends, with false crest after false crest, fifteen thirsty, hungry, straining, panting miles. And the engineers were men who normally rode in trucks.
‘For fresh men even in peacetime to cross this barrier would have been an exacting march. It came now as a cruel culmination to a battle which had ended in defeat; and not to be able to cross it was to become a prisoner…. The natural savage grandeur of the mountain road was overprinted with the chaos of war. Every yard of the road carried its tale of disaster, personal and military. The verges were strewn with abandoned equipment, packs cast aside when the galling weight had proved too much for chafed skin and exhausted shoulders; empty water bottles … steel helmets half buried in the dust; all the grotesque and unpredictable bric-a-brac of withdrawal, the personal property treasured till it became an impediment and then discarded so that its owner could keep up with his desperate urge for life.’48
The Battalion Group rested for a few hours at Vrises before the really tough ten-mile section of the climb began. Some tins of meat had been found by the Quartermaster (Captain Panckhurst49) and were distributed, one tin to seven men, who ate the meat and washed it down with cold water.
At dusk the weary troops hoisted themselves on to sore and blistered feet for the climb up a road already crowded with page 157 strays who had hidden from planes during the daylight. They made Sin Kares on the edge of the upland plain of Askifou by 2 a.m. Captain Panckhurst produced from God knows where a mug of steaming hot tea and the exhausted troops settled under the scrub on the hillside and slept for twelve hours.
The Battalion Group moved again late in the afternoon through 4 Brigade, where 19 Army Troops Company was doing anti-parachute duty, to the edge of the upland plain where they again dispersed. From their position a winding track took three or four miles to drop 2000 feet to the embarkation beach at Sfakia.
Captain Anderson, with the sappers of 19 Army Troops Company he had managed to collect, attached himself to 20 Battalion in the morning (29 May) and marched with it to a position above the road just south of the Askifou Plain. There was fighting behind them but they were not involved. It was the affair of the rearguard (23 Battalion) who were quite competent in such matters and the sappers left it to them.
That night they moved again to 4 Brigade's last bivouac area and were under the scrub on the west end of the road overlooking the coast in the early hours of 30 May. Tentative arrangements for embarkation that night did not include 19 Army Troops Company, who were transferred to 5 Brigade and put under command 21 Battalion, so that in effect the Engineer Detachment was together again. Fifth Field Park Company was not far away. Captain Morrison had gathered the sections from the different areas by the 27th (the day of the charge at 42nd Street) and about midnight started the march to Sfakia. On arrival, after experiences the reader will now be able to visualise, the sappers bivouacked in some caves near the beach and freshened up with a swim.
In the early morning of 31 May the augmented 21 Battalion Group marched down into a wadi near the beach. Colonel Allen was ordered to send 150 men ‘under good officers’ to picket the 2000-feet-high hilltops and help the defence until nightfall. Captain Ferguson was one of the officers detailed and of that climb he wrote:
‘The climb was so steep and difficult that by the time I reached the top I had only 25 men left—the others could not make it. I expect that had it not been for the biscuits and marmalade and cup of hot tea which was the first we had had for several days that was given us prior to climbing this ridge we would never any of us have got there.’page 158
After dark 21 Battalion Group ‘formed up for the last march in Crete. After a few more tense moments when half a dozen Stukas machine-gunned the head of the long column, the crocodile writhed, spread out, and bunched along the gully and on to the beach…. Assault landing craft and strings of lifeboats arrived like ghosts from the blackness over the sea, were filled, and disappeared again. The 21st Battalion's turn came at 11.30 p.m. and there were ready hands to help them on board the Phoebe.
‘Steaming hot cocoa and white buttered bread were passed around and, when the ship was fully loaded, 21 Battalion sailed and, in the terse report of the battalion war diary, “Arrived Alexandria 1630 hrs June 1. Arrived Amirya transit camp 1830 hrs.”’50
Captain Morrison describes 5 Field Park Company's last hours on Crete. ‘We had no exact information but a good hunch that the next night would be the last, so I organised the Company in single file so that we could tail on after the Maori Battalion of “5” Brigade. However there was a string of guards at the top of the steep track down to the port of Sphakia and an inner guard around the beach. Both sets of guards wanted to get off themselves and discouraged stragglers or unauthorised bodies of men with rifle fire and grenades. They would not allow the Company to pass so I went down to the beach with my DR, Wallie Eckert.51 After some bargaining with “Q” I got a chit from Brig. Hargest just as he was stepping on to a landing craft. I then left Wallie with my gear, ate the whole Company ration for two days—being one tin of M & V, and struggled up the steep path against a profane stream of Australian Infantry coming down, to collect the Company.
‘When we got near the beach there was more trouble with the inner guard. We got off 60 men, then 30 more and I was quite pleased when Sgt Len. Morris appeared. He had the strictest orders to stay at the tail and prevent straggling.
‘By the time all the chaps were on the way across the beach it was quite dark. I slapped Lt. Pemberton on the back and said, “Well, that's the lot”—but he stumbled in the sand and by the time we got dusted we had lost the Company! So Dick and I got onto another landing craft and eventually a destroyer. We slept on deck and in the morning the Navy gave us a page 159 wonderful breakfast of cereal, peaches and cream, and large cups of tea. So to Egypt—and the unbounded hospitality of an Aussie transit camp at Amyria.’
Engineer casualties in Crete were:
|PW||13, of whom 2 were wounded|
|Killed and died of wounds||24|
|PW||24, of whom 12 were wounded|
|Killed and died of wounds||16|
|PW||86, of whom 7 were wounded|
4 Brig A. S. Falconer, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Mosgiel, 4 Nov 1892; tobacconist and secretary; Otago Regt 1914–19 (BM 2 Inf Bde); CO 23 Bn Jan-Aug 1940, Mar-May 1941; comd 7 and 5 Inf Bdes in UK, 1940–41; NZ Maadi Camp, Jun 1941-Oct 1942; 5 Div (in NZ) Dec 1942-Aug 1943; Overseas Commissioner, NZ Patriotic Fund Board, Nov 1943-Feb 1945.
5 Tank Landing Craft.
6 Letter, Capt Morrison.
10 From the Albanian front.
15 Fuse, instantaneous detonating.
16 Capt D. G. MacNab, MC, DCM; Wellington; born NZ 15 Jul 1916; commercial artist; wounded and p.w. 23 May 1941; escaped Jul 1941; with Special Service unit in Italy and in Balkans; wounded, Albania, 6 Oct 1944; now Recruiting Officer, RNZAF.
24 Not traced.
25 Spr G. W. Jefferies; Eketahuna; born NZ 8 Nov 1913; labourer; wounded 20 May 1941.
37 Maj R. Royal, MC and bar; Wellington; born Levin, 23 Aug 1897; civil servant; served in Maori Pioneer Bn in First World War; 28 (Maori) Bn 1940-41; wounded 14 Dec 1941; 2 i/c 2 Maori Bn (in NZ) 1942-43; CO 2 Maori Bn May-Jun 1943.
38 Lt-Col F. Baker, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; born Kohukohu, Hokianga, 19 Jun 1908; civil servant; CO 28 (Maori) Bn Jul-Nov 1942; twice wounded; Director of Rehabilitation, 1943-54; Public Service Commissioner, 1954-58; died Wellington, 1 Jun 1958.
47 Letter, Lt-Col Anderson.