The Battle of Crete, the subject of this volume, is the final act of the war drama that resulted in the occupation of Greece by the German and Italian forces.
The loss of the Battle of Crete by the British forces which were assembled in the island in a disorganized condition and, in some cases, without weapons after their struggle in mainland Greece, was largely due to total lack of air support and poor means of antiaircraft defense. Lack of coordination in the defense efforts of the British forces, the result of the destruction of the communication means of the British command with its subordinated forces from the very first hours, also contributed greatly to the unfortunate outcome of the battle.
The Greek units, hastily organized, with only very limited arms and equipment, as well as the voluntary participation of the local populace of Crete in the struggle, could not prevent the inevitable, despite their acts of heroism.
The crushing, continuous activity of the German air force and the inherent strength of fresh, elite troops such as the German paratroop units, were a decisive factor and proved to be more than a match for the defending Greek and British forces.
This unprecedented ten-day battle, which is presented for the first time as part of GreeceΥs military history publication project, offers the student of military history plenty of insights and lessons on the operational tactics of parachute and airborne troops as well as on the methods to defend against them.
In a future war, such actions will be more frequent and to larger scale than the one presented in this volume.
Athens, May 1959
The present volume, being a part of the series The Hellenic Army During the Second World War,Σ recounts the last phase of the operations that unfolded on free Greek territory, the Battle of Crete.
At the time the events narrated took place, the victorious Hellenic Army of the Albanian front was no more and the whole of mainland Greece had fallen to the German forces. The Greek units which took part in the Battle for Crete were not part of the regular Hellenic Army. They constituted hastily formed units, raised from mostly untrained recruits, ill-equipped and completely unprepared to face the peculiar type of combat against paratroop forces, the elite military corps of the Third Reich.
The above deficiencies were in part substituted by the determination and heroism displayed by these inexperienced and hastily organized units in carrying out their mission, by the side of the British, Australian and New Zealand forces, assisted by the battle-hardened inhabitants of the island.
It is a great pity that records have not survived. These would have enabled us to cite the names of most of the commanders and officers of the troops of these hastily-formed, poorly-armed Greek units, which fought an heroic struggle in Crete.
Thus, a full order of battle of these units cannot be put together.
Even the accompanying list of personnel killed in action may be incomplete. If some names of these heroes, however, are missing, the memory of them all shall remain indelibly marked in the hearts of the Greek people.
The sources used by the author are the following:
-Reports by commanders of Greek units in the AHD Archives.
-The New Zealand official history (Crete, by D. M. Davin, 1953).
-The official British edition (Greece and Crete 1941, by C. Buckley, 1952).
-The report by the Creforce Commander, General Freyberg.
-An account of the Battle of Crete by the commander in chief of the German invasion force, General Student.
-The official British history of the war in the Mediterranean (The Mediterranean and Middle East. Vol. 2 of History of the Second World War, by Major General I. S. O. Playfair, 1956).
-Die Eroberung von Kreta, by General Julius Ringel.
-Greece, Crete and Syria, by Gavin Long (Australia in the War of 1939Π45), 1953.
-Diplomatika paraskenia 1941-1945 (Diplomatic backstage 1941-1945), by Emmanouel Tsouderos, 1950.
-The Memoirs of Winston Churchill (Vol. 3).
-The German Campaigns in the Balkans (Part 4), by the Center of Military History of the United States Army.
-Various documents, studies, diaries and private notes of Greek and foreign troops that participated in the battle.
Despite the difficulties encountered in this particular kind of fighting, the constantly fluctuating and fluid phases of the battle and the differing accounts of the action by each commander, as it was impossible for anyone to have the complete picture, great effort was put into cross-checking the various pieces of information, to establish the truth of these historic events.
However, the reader should be reminded that the present volume, as well as the previous and future volumes of this series are considered essentially provisional in character.
If anyone is in possession of additional information on events, names etc., which could render this volume more complete, he is welcome to present it to the AHD so that it may be considered in the preparation of a future edition.
In the Appendixes are included the most important documents relative to this period at AHDΥs disposal, as well as explanatory notes and other related data.
Athens May 1959
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1. Crete During the Early Period of the War 1
The IslandΥs Strategic Value 1
Greek Plans for the Defense of the Island 3
The British Assume Responsibility for the IslandΥs Defense 5
CHAPTER 2. Crete Under British Responsibility 11
The Reinforcement of the IslandΥs Defenses by Greek Means 11
The King and the Government of Greece Arrive in Crete 14
British Efforts to Systematize Action 16
CHAPTER 3. Preparations and Plans of the Opposing Sides 24
British Preparations 24
The Organization of the Greek Forces 28
General Deployment and Missions of the Forces in Crete 34
German Plans and Preparations 37
CHAPTER 4. The German Airborne Attack 42
The Preliminary Bombardment and Its Results 42
The German Aerial Assault of 20 May 1941 44
Engagements in the Sector of the 5th New Zealand Brigade 45
Engagements of the 1st Greek Infantry Regiment and of the Military Academy of Cadets 58
Engagements of the 10th New Zealand Brigade 60
The Battle Unfolds 62
Engagements of the 4th New Zealand Brigade 69
Fighting in the Suda-Chania Sector 73
Decisions and Actions of the Opposing Sides 76
CHAPTER 5. The Fighting Around Maleme Airfield (21 May 1941) 79
The New Zealand Division Sector 79
The German 5th Mountain Division Begins to Land 82
Engagements of the 10th New Zealand Brigade 86
German Decisions for 22 May 88
CHAPTER 6. The Third Day of the Battle (22 May 1941) 90
The British Counterattack to Recapture Maleme 90
German Actions and Plans During the Third Day of Battle 95
The Decision to Withdraw the 5th New Zealand Brigade 96
Fighting in the Areas of Galatas, Aghya, and Alikianos 99
CHAPTER 7 The Final Abandonment of Maleme Airfield 103
The Withdrawal of the 5th New Zealand Brigade 103
The Decision for Further Withdrawal 109
Readjustment of the Forces of the New Zealand Division 112
Capture of Kastelli, Kandanos, and Palaiochora 116
CHAPTER 8. The Collapse of the Defense of Western Crete 122
The Fighting Around Galatas 122
The Collapse of the Defense of the Chania-Suda Area 127
The Decision to Evacuate Crete 135
CHAPTER 9. Withdrawal to Sphakia and Evacuation 138
The Fall of Chania and Suda 138
Evacuation of Western Crete (28 MayΠ1 June 1941) 142
CHAPTER 10. Fighting in the Rethymno Sector 148
Disposition and Missions of the Greek and British Forces 148
Invasion and the Development of the Battle 150
The Collapse of the Rethymno Sector 161
CHAPTER 11. Fighting in the Herakleion Sector 165
Disposition and Missions of the Greek and British Forces 165
Air-Assault and Clashes in the Herakleion Area 168
Evacuation of the Herakleion Sector 178
- The Proclamation of King George II on 23 April 1941 185
- The Proclamation of King George II on 23 May 1941 186
- Composition and Strength of the Greek Forces in Crete 188
- Document of the British Expeditionary Force, 21 January 1941 192
- Military Command of Crete Order to Establish a Militia 193
- Order for the Allocation of Militia Forces 195
- Hellenic Army General Staff Order Pertaining to the Militia 197
- Hellenic Army General Staff Document to General Headquarters, Pertaining to Equipping the Militia in Crete 198
- Excerpt of a Report by the British Liaison Officer on Militia Operations 199
- Order by the Ministry of the Army Pertaining to the Transfer to Crete of Troops in Training Centers 200
- Excerpt from the Cadet Handbook 1964 201
TABLES OF COMMAND AND ORGANIZATION, AND OF SIGNIFICANT EVENTS
Higher Military Command Crete 205
1st Military Command 205
2nd Military Command 205
Military District I 206
Military District II 206
Military District III 206
Military District IV 207
Military Academy 207
1st Infantry Regiment (of Crete) 207
2nd Infantry Regiment (of Crete) 208
3rd Infantry Regiment (of Crete) 208
4th Infantry Regiment (of Crete) 208
5th Infantry Regiment (of Crete) 209
6th Infantry Regiment (of Crete) 209
7th Infantry Regiment (of Crete) 209
8th Infantry Regiment (of Crete) 209
Regimental Depot Battalion of Chania 210
Regimental Depot Battalion of Rethymno 210
Regimental Depot Battalion of Herakleion 210
Royal Gendarmerie Training School 210
LIST OF OFFICERS AND CADETS KILLED IN ACTION IN THE
BATTLE OF CRETE (20-31 May 1941) 211
BASIC UNIT SYMBOLS 212
- The Island of Crete and the Disposition ofIts Defense Sectors and Zones of Attack on 20 May 1941 facing p. xvii
- Disposition of 5th New Zealand Brigadeand German Airdrops on 20 May 1941 p. 12-13
- The 22nd New Zealand Battalion and the German Air Assault,20 May 1941 56
- The Situation in the Zone of the 4th and 10th New ZealandBrigades in the Morning of 20 May 1941 44-45
- The Situation in the SudaΠChania Sectorin the morning of 20 May 1941 60-61
- Night of 20 to 21 May: The Situation in Maleme Area,after the Withdrawal of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion 80
- The Disposition of the Opposing Forces in the Sectorof the 2nd New Zealand Division, 21 May 1941 76-77
- The Counterattack to Recapture Maleme Airfield,in the Night of 22 May 1941 92-93
- Kastelli Area on 23 May 1941 97
- The Situation in Maleme Sector at 2000 of 22 May 1941 97
- Disposition of the 5th New Zealand Brigadeat 1000 of 23 May 1941 105
- Disposition of the New Zealand Divisionduring the Night of 23 to 24 May 1941 108-109
- Counterattack against Galatas on 25 May 1941 125
- The Situation in the New Zealand Division Sectorin the Morning of 26 May 1941 130
- The Situation West of Chania during the Night of 26 to 27 May 136
- The Situation in the Area Suda-Chania at about 0400 of 27 May 1941 139
- The Situation in ChaniaΠSudaΠSphakia Area after 0100 of 28 May 1941 140-141
- Disposition of Greek and Australian Forces in Rethymno Sector and Areas of German Airdrops, on 20 May 1941 156-157
- The Situation in the Area of Herakleion in the Evening of 20 May 1941 166
- The Commander in Chief of the Greco-British Forces in Crete, Major General Freyberg. 9
- Machine gun on an anti-aircraft mount. 9
- King George inspecting the troop mess in Crete. 10
- Lieutenant Colonel Kitsos Loukas, commander of the Military Academy in Crete. 10
- Transportation of British troops to Crete. 19
- The Maleme airfield. 19
- The MalemeΠChania coastal road. 20
- German parachutists ready for Crete. 20
- German troops waiting to embark for a naval landing in Crete, at a port of continental Greece. 91
- German mountain troops emplaning for Crete. 91
- Chania under bombardment. 92
- A destroyed German glider. 92
- Paratroop drops in the valley of Alikianos. 118
- Paratroop drops in the area of Suda. 118
- Street fighting scene at Galatas. 119
- Galatas, after it was captured by the enemy. 119
- Bombing of Herakleion. 162
- A street in Herakleion after a bombing. 162
- Sphakia, coastal evacuation point. 163
- Minister of the Army G. Demetrakes decorating General Freyberg at a camp in the Cairo area. 163
CHAPTER 1 – Crete During the Early Period of the War
The Islands Strategic Value
- Situated in the center of the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, Crete constitutes a natural part of the protecting line that extends from Gibraltar, through Malta and Cyprus, to Syria. During the Second World War, it was only under the cover of this line that transport could be effected from ports in the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the British bases in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Taking into account that the greatest part of the sources of resupply for these bases lay in India, Oceania and South Africa, it becomes evident how important it was to the British either to hold Crete themselves, or to least for it to remain in friendly hands.
- If occupied by the Allied forces, Crete would have presented a great obstacle to the enemy air force in launching attacks against bases in the Middle East and Africa, because it would be forced to operate from distant air bases in continental Europe. On the other hand, Crete could be used by the Allies as an advanced air and naval base and as a base for amphibious operations against the islands and coasts of the Aegean Sea and the Dodecanese, as it controlled the latterΥs sea and air communications with the rest of Europe. Furthermore, it would pose a serious threat to the Rumanian oil fields, which lay about 700 miles from the island. The island itself presented a disadvantage to the defender since its vital areas were all situated on the northern coast and were thus vulnerable to surprise attack from the air.
In addition to all the above, Crete was valuable national territory and the preservation of its freedom had enormous moral and political importance for Greece. Crete was by then the only non-occupied part of Greece which possessed Greek and British military strength. As such, it constituted the free Greek state in essence and in spirit, through the presence of the king, the government and the national armed forces.
- If captured by the Axis, the island of Crete would present its forces with the following strategic advantages: it would allow Axis air forces to directly threaten the lines of communication of its opponents which run through the Mediterranean. With Turkey in neutral status or in potential accession to the Axis pact, it rendered the Aegean Sea an Axis lake, a situation that would allow unhindered naval communication between the ports of the Black Sea and the Adriatic, through the Corinth canal. As such it would constitute an Axis base of operations against the countries of the Middle East, the Suez canal, Egypt, and North Africa in general, the distance from which would be shortened to only 250 miles.
Consequently, it would facilitate offensive operations against British bases in the Middle East and Africa, by bringing them within reach. Finally, it would allow the linking of the Axis Fortress EuropeΣ to its southeasternmost strongpoint, the Dodecanese.
- A natural result of CreteΥs strategic importance was that the British and French raised the point of its possession, as early as May 1940, when ItalyΥs entry into the war seemed imminent, in conferences dealing with the capital issue of securing their lines of communication from the Suez canal to Gibraltar. They:
. . . agreed they would aim at impeding its occupation by the Italians. To ensure this, the only positive solution was to send a small force to reinforce and assist the Greek garrison, an act, however, which would invalidate GreeceΥs neutrality and allow Mussolini to declare war. The only debatable concept was to prepare a small expedition ready to move to the island as soon as it became known that Italy had violated Greek territory, or was preparing to do it. It was accepted that this force would comprise French troops which would be transported from Syria on French warships. Their safe passage would be the responsibility of Admiral Cunningham. Aircraft in support and antiaircraft artillery would be provided by the British.1
Also, during the same month, the Greek government accepted that, in case of an attack by Italy, British troops were to disembark on the island.2
Meanwhile, however, the collapse of France intervened (22 June), with Italy joining in the attack just before the final act, and the plans for Crete were canceled.
July and August passed in arguments for and against occupation [of the island] by a British force. At first it was the arguments against that seemed stronger: the British did not wish to be the first to violate Greek neutrality and in any case did not have the troops available. . .3
From the beginning of October 1940 deliberations took place between the British and Greeks in search of a coordinated plan for the defense of Crete.
Only little progress was made, however, because the British were unable to make any promises for assistance, except for naval action. On the other hand the Greeks would not allow any British landings before Italy had actually declared war against them.4
- If the strategic value of the island had not escaped the attention of the French and British, neither had it escaped that of Hitler. In fact he was equally Πand diametricallyΠ concerned, long before Germany effectively materialized its intentions by attacking Greece.
Even before the Italian attack against Greece, HitlerΥs opinion was that the occupation of Crete would allow him to gain a rapid victory in the Eastern Mediterranean and that the attack should be made by air landings5
The reasons behind HitlerΥs wish to conquer the island are summarized in the following communiqu issued by the German High Command of 12 June 1941, which stated:6
. . . As a naval and air force stronghold, adjacent to our sea communications through the Aegean, and as an advanced base providing cover and security to the flanks of the North African front and to the British lines of communication between Alexandria and Malta, Crete was of great importance for the enemyΥs naval operations, both offensive and defensive. Conversely, the island had the same importance for the future operations of the German High Command in the Eastern Mediterranean. . .
Greek Plans for the Defense of the Island
- Before the war, Division V (independent) was based on the island, with its headquarters at Chania. This division comprised the 14th, 43rd and 44th Infantry Regiments, at Chania, Rethymno and Herakleion respectively, plus Artillery Regiment V at Suda. There was in addition the Military Hospital in Chania and other support installations and services. The buildup of the divisionΥs forces from a peacetime to a wartime establishment had been planned in advance, according to the mobilization plan of 1939.
The occupation of Albania by Italy on 7 April 1939 had brought the latter to the northwestern borders of Greece. Operation Plan Ib had been drawn up by the Hellenic Army General Staff, as a result of this new state of affairs.
The plan considered British and French assistance as a certainty in case of an Italian attack, even though the size of their commitment could not be estimated in advance. Nevertheless, British and French superiority at sea was a factor to be given special attention, as it would provide protection, albeit not complete, to our sea lanes.7 Due to this superiority, Italy would not be able to assume amphibious operations against Greece; at most it could attempt raids with speed boats, possibly coordinated with limited landings.
The large submarine and aerial fleet of Italy, as well as the raids by fast surface vessels would make sea transport less secure and would slow them down.8
Under these circumstances, the Army General Staff sent orders and instructions to the division to draw up plans for the islandΥs defense,9 in accordance with Operation Plan Ib.
Following these instructions Division V drew up: a) Operation Plan 1, aiming to cover the mobilization in case of an emerging threat to the island; b) Operation Plan 2, dealing with the repelling of a landing operation by the enemy, after the completion of mobilization and before the relocation of the division from Crete; c) Operation Plan 3, concerning the Military Command of Chania, which was in the process of being organized at that time by the division. The plan set up the mission and tasks of the command in the event of an attack on the island, after the departure of Division V. According to Plan 3, the Military Command of Chania would remain on Crete and comprise the 44th Infantry Regiment, with its organic Artillery Platoon, the depot battalions, three rifle companies composed of troops from the regimentΥs transport service, and a Pack Artillery battalion (until the departure of the later).
On 25 May 1940, the Army General Staff concluded the orders to the division with the instruction: Defend the island of Crete against anyone who would attempt to violate Greek sovereignty.Σ10
The same instruction was sent subsequently to other island garrisons.
This order, underlined once again the will of Greece to maintain its strict neutrality towards all directions, as well as its will to preserve its independence against anyone who would threaten it.
- By the end of May 1940 the division had deployed its coastal defense troops and the coastal air and sea surveillance network was in place and operational.11
The coastal defense troops totaled three infantry companies and a machine gun platoon.
For the operation of the coastal air and sea surveillance network the Chania Information Center (a joint center of the Hellenic Royal Navy and the Hellenic Army) was established, together with another similar center, the Herakleion Information Center. The former was linked to ten observation posts, and the latter to three.
General preliminary measures taken before the mobilization, generated by international events prompting a Greek response, as well as specific Italian diplomatic and military provocations, had prepared the ground for the divisionΥs mobilization even before the time had come for it to enter the contest for the survival of Greece.
- With regard to the coastal defenses against naval threat the island had been subordinated by Royal Decree of 20 February 1935 to the Higher Command of Local Defense (Greek acronym ADTA), and had been designated the 2nd Naval Defense Area, with its headquarters in Chania. In 1939 it was established that Crete would constitute, according to the plan, the Naval Command of Crete, with its headquarters in Chania, and would be subordinated to the 3rd Naval Command Area, which had its headquarters in Piraeus.12 There was no provision for protection by naval forces, laying of minefields or obstacle emplacing to block access to coves and ports.13
On one hand, the lack of means for the organization of coastal defenses (coastal guns, mines and other fortification equipment), and on the other, the expectation of British naval intervention in the Mediterranean and of British aid in general, led the government to take no special measures for Crete regarding naval defense.
Furthermore, it was anticipated that any possible small-scale naval raids were to be countered successfully by the land forces until the intervention of the British fleet.
In view of the above, by forsaking the islandΥs coastal defense the government was saving its limited available assets to safeguard the sea lanes of the interior and the vital Greek coastline towards the Adriatic.
The British Assume Responsibility for the Islands Defense
- In the early hours of 28 October 1940, upon receiving notification on GreeceΥs being at war with Italy and receiving its orders to implement the mobilization plan, Division V feverishly started the deployment and organization of its units and formations.
The call up of the reservists, through the posting of the mobilization roll-call, was received with enthusiasm by the civilians, who upon being called to the colors proceeded en masse to their units of induction.
- On the same day, upon receiving news of war being declared between Greece and Italy, the British Headquarters in the Middle East decided and ordered,14 as a first move towards the reinforcement of the island, to dispatch by air to Crete a joint group of officers (Operation ActionΣ). Their mission was to reconnoiter for the possibility of establishing there a refueling depot, and to provide for immediate dispatch by cruiser of a British battalion. As a second step (Operation AssumptionΣ), it decided to prepare for dispatch a brigade staff, antiaircraft artillery and support formations, as well as an additional battalion.
According to the plan of Operation Action, at around 1145 of 29 October 1940, a British flying boat arrived at Suda bay carrying the joint reconnaissance group. The officers on board went about their tasks. To that end they were assisted by the director of the divisionΥs 3rd Bureau (operations), who also provided them, on the orders of General Headquarters, with all requested information regarding the organization of the base and the construction of airfields.
A British convoy carrying support personnel and equipment arrived at Suda bay on 1 November.
On the same day arrived the 2nd Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, on board the cruiser Ajax. Disembarkation began in the early afternoon, concurrently with the emplacement of an antisubmarine net in Suda bay, which was completed by 3 November.15
Following the landing of these troops, work began to prepare an airfield on the coastal area west of the village of Maleme, immediately to the east of the Tauronites river.
- On 4 November, the Greek government informed the British government that it would be desirable to have Division V transported from Crete, on condition that the British would take over the islandΥs defense. This proposal was accepted and the responsibility for the islandΥs security was assigned to the British Joint Chiefs of Staff (of the Army, Navy and Air Force).16
Mobilization was complete by 6 November, divisional strength amounting to 568 officers, 21,790 enlisted men, 5,825 pack animals and 74 motor vehicles.17
A second British convoy arrived at Suda bay on the same day, in accordance with Operation Assumption. This one carried the headquarters of the 14th (British) Brigade, with its commander Brigadier O. H. Tidbury, the 156th Light Antiaircraft Battery, the command of 52nd Light Antiaircraft Regiment, the 151st Heavy Antiaircraft Battery, the 42nd Field Company Royal Engineers and the 189th Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
According to the orders issued to the brigade commander, he was appointed commanding officer of those units already on the island, constituting the 14th Brigade, as well as those still to come. His mission was to defend the naval resupply base at Suda bay and, in coordination with the Greek forces, to impede and repel any enemy invasion.18
On 7 November, after the British had assumed responsibility for the islandΥs defense, the Greek General Headquarters informed the Navy General Staff of its intention to transport Division V from Crete to Thessalonica. The Navy General Staff responded that it would be possible to commence the transportation on 17 November 1940. Meanwhile, the division continued the organization of its units and formations.
The British, on their part, continued their work on Maleme airfield and the fuel depot at Suda.
- According to the British brigade commander, work on the organization of coastal and antiaircraft defenses had been progressing at a satisfactory pace.
Special efforts were being made to fortify the port of Suda and the western part of the island in general.
Due to the lack of a road network and communication equipment, the British commander decided to deploy his forces only in the Suda area and to assign airfield defense to Greek units. In addition, a small number of antiaircraft guns were sent to Maleme airfield. However, additional special forces were required for Maleme airfield and concerted work was necessary to upgrade the defenses of the island, including its reinforcement with heavy guns.19
- On 11 November, the commanding officer of Division V informed his unit commanders that according to orders received from General Headquarters the division was to be transported to mainland Greece on the 16th of that month. Garrison duty would devolve to the depot units and the Gendarmerie.20
- In view of the redeployment of Division V from Crete, the British commander in Chief in the Middle East, General Wavell, visited the island on 13 November for an on-the-spot evaluation. After his return to Egypt, thoughts initially centered on the reinforcing of the island with ANZAC forces (Australian-New Zealand Corps). It was assessed that in case of occupation of mainland Greece by the enemy, Crete would be the immediate objective of the enemyΥs effort. In the end, however, despite these initial assessment, Middle East Headquarters, lacking troops, abandoned any plans for the serious reinforcement of the island, and decided finally to reinforce the forces in Crete by an additional battalion, which would form the second battalion of the 14th Brigade, plus commando forces. The latter would have an additional mission, to deliver probing attacks in the islands of the Dodecanese.21
In accordance with these decisions, the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment landed on the island on 19 November, followed by 400 officers and enlisted men of the 60th Commando on 26 November.
- Between 16 and the early hours of 17 November, nine requisitioned merchantmen arrived in Suda port. On these embarked the 14th (Greek) Infantry Regiment and Artillery Regiment V. The ships sailed from Suda at 0100 on 18 November 1940, escorted by eight Greek warships and for a brief period a British light cruiser.
The entire force of Division V, with a total strength of 566 officers, 18,662 enlisted men, 687 pack animals and 81 vehicles, was transported to mainland Greece, in another four convoys, which sailed on 20, 22, 23 and 25 November respectively. The whole operation, under the protection of Greek warships, was completed without any casualties or loss of equipment.
The presence of the British fleet in the Mediterranean and the Greek waters was also a decisive factor for the safety of Greek transport by sea.
For that fleet, and for the entire British Empire during that most dramatic and glorious period, Greece stood the only friend and ally in deed. Its islands and coastline and, above all, its morale-boosting Albanian front, where the Axis met its first-ever defeat, constituted a strong point in the Mediterranean of the highest value at that time and place, which provided cover for the preparations of Great Britain towards future offensives.
Crete Under British Responsibility
The Reinforcement of the IslandΥs Defenses by Greek Means
- Division V, transported to mainland Greece, was replaced by the Military Command of Chania, which was formed by the division in accordance to the mobilization plan. It was commanded by Lieutenant General Ioannes Alexakes, and was subordinated to the 1st Higher Military Command, which was based in Athens.1
The regimental depots of Chania, Herakleion and Rethymno remained subordinate to the Military Command of Chania. These were instructed by General Headquarters to organize three infantry battalions, each two-company strong, with a St.-ƒtienne machine gun platoon.2 These troops, together with the British forces on the island, would constitute the garrison of Crete, under the protection of the British Mediterranean fleet.
In January 1941, following the request of the Greek commander in chief, the British Middle East Headquarters agreed to allow these three battalions to be transported to the mainland as well.3 Thus, in Crete remained the cadres of the regimental depots, manned mainly with troops whose leave had expired and armed with a total of one thousand obsolete Gras rifles, a dozen St.-ƒtienne machine guns and forty Chaussat, Model 1915, submachine guns.4
- Since December 1940, by orders of General Headquarters, measures had been taken for the organization of militia units.5 The mission of these would be the security of installations and sensitive points in general against any possible actions of paratroops or amphibious forces.
In January 1941, the Chania Military Command, summing up the instructions given so far, issued orders6 by which the organization of the militia units would proceed in four districts as follows: a 1,200-man strong unit in Chania Prefecture, a 550-man strong unit in Rethymno Prefecture, a 900-man unit in Herakleion Prefecture and a 400-man unit in Lasithi Prefecture. The same order provided for the formation of this force by calling up the age classes of 1915Π1920. Cadres would be supplied by reserve officers of the Gendarmerie under the jurisdiction of the Undersecretariat of Security. The militiamen would wear blue sidecaps and armbands, which were already being manufactured.
The Militia units were under the command of the Gendarmerie, which would also be responsible for their training, although tactically they came under the authority of the Chania Military District. The militiamenΥs training and the preparation to assume their mission would take place at assembly points organized by the local Gendarmerie authorities. By a follow-up order, issued in February 19417 by the Army General Staff, the Militia was reduced to 1,500 men. Under this revised plan, in April 1941, there were four Militia battalions organized, one each in Chania, Rethymno, Herakleion and Lasithi Prefectures, as follows: 564 officers and men in Chania, 484 in Herakleion, 265 in Rethymno, and 243 in Lasithi.8
The British had promised right from the beginning that they would provide weapons for the Cretan Militia. This promise, however, did not materialize up until the day of the German air assault against the island.
- During March, the forces on Crete were reinforced by the Royal Gendarmerie School, which arrived by sea, numbering 15 officers and some 900 enlisted men. This force was moved to the area of Rethymno.
The prospect of the continuation of the war even outside mainland Greece, on the one hand, and the care to allow the newly-called up recruits of the age class of 1940Π41 to train undisturbed by events, prompted the Army General Staff to issue an order in 15 April 1941,9 by which all recruits in the training centers of the Peloponnese, including the age classes of 1940b and 1941, which were undergoing training at that time, as well as the personnel, would be ready to move out at short notice. These troops were to be staffed by the necessary number of officers; senior ones would be selected among those fit for field duty, junior ones from among those recently graduated from the training platoons, or, in case he number of the latter proved insufficient, by men selected from the more recent age classes. Non commissioned officers also would be selected from the recent age classes. With regard to equipment, the troops were ordered to carry their entire military-issue equipment, the existing weapons, one blanket for each man and all available ammunition. The same applied to the Military Academy of Cadets and the Reserve Officer Training Platoon, which was billeted at the Military Academy of Cadets.
A sea convoy carrying the greater part of the training centersΥ force arrived in Suda on 20 April 1941.10 There were 4,585 men with 80 officers from the Training Center of Nauplion and 240 men with 5 officers from the Training Center of Tripolis.
The Military Academy of Cadets arrived at Kolymbari, Crete, on 29 April 1941, having crossed the sea from the Peloponnese by motorboat, though not in response to orders issued (the reason for the failure to issue such being unknown), but at the spontaneous initiative of officers and cadets of the School.11
The Reserve Officer Training Platoon, billeted at the school, following subsequent orders was assigned elsewhere.12
In sum, in accordance to the order to transport the training centers to Crete, five training battalions arrived in the island during mid-April. Four came from the Training Center of Nauplion, and were designated Training Battalions I, V, VI and VII. One came from Tripolis, and was designated Training Battalion III. Another three battalions were transported from the Training Center of Kalamata, designated Training Battalions II, IV and VIII. The men of all the above units were newly recruited from the age classes of 1940b and 1941, and had been called up only in early April, having thus received only a few days of training and, due to the circumstances, a very poor one at that. The weapons of the above units was a mixed collection, with some five to twenty rounds per rifle. About one-third of the force lacked weapons.
The arrival of these forces in Crete, as well as the transferring of the gold reserves from the Bank of Greece to the vaults of the Herakleion branch for safekeeping, on 16 March, boosted the morale of the population. It became apparent to them that the island was not to be abandoned. The male population was persistently demanding to be armed, although this was not possible given the scarcity of weapons.
All privately-owned arms had been requisitioned throughout Greece, and in Crete as well, to cover the needs of the army at the front. The shortage of small arms was so serious at that time that even the weapons of the mule drivers of frontline transport units had been taken to provide the men of the infantry companies.13
In addition, some 16,000 Italian prisoners, including 576 officers, had been taken to Crete at various times. They were confined in three concentration camps, one each in the prefectures of Chania, Herakleion and Rethymno.14
The King and the Government of Greece Arrive in Crete
- When every hope of resistance on mainland Greece was lost, the king of Greece and the government decided to continue the fight wherever possible, in keeping with the general dictates of GreeceΥs honorable national policy. It was a policy which the country had followed with regard to its friends and allies and towards itself.
Thus, the king, together with Prince Peter, the prime minister and some members of the government arrived in Crete on 23 April, in a British Sunderland flying boat.15 The plane landed in Suda bay, which had just been bombed.
On the same day, the king issued a proclamation to the Greek people and to the world at large, by which he reiterated the nationΥs resolve to continue the struggle until final victory.16
The offices of the Royal House were accommodated in the building of the National Bank in Herakleion, and the Evans mansion of Knossos became the royal residence.
The king was accompanied by the British ambassador to Greece, Sir Michael Palairet.
Immediately upon their arrival, king and government set upon finding arms with which to equip the local population and the Hellenic Army in Crete. They also made efforts to strengthen the British forces there, especially with air forces.
On 24 April, at a meeting between the prime minister, the British ambassador, and Major General Weston, who had been dispatched from Middle East Headquarters since the beginning of April to evaluate the situation there, the former expressed the views of the king and the Greek government as to the weakness of the British forces on the island. He also informed them that there was a widespread impression that the British were preparing to withdraw, abandoning Crete. General Weston reassured him that the island would not be abandoned and that there was no intention to withdraw, but that even with the available means on Crete Πwhich by his own admission were not sufficientΠ the British government would do its utmost to keep the island.
- In every contact that the king and the prime minister had with the British, the need to reinforce the defenses of the island was stressed.
On 28 April, a meeting was convened in Chania, solicited by the Greek government and chaired by the prime minister. This was attended by Generals Wilson, Weston, Skoulas, Air Marshall DΥAlbiac, Rear Admiral Turle and Group Captain Beamish, as well as other Greek and British officers. In the ensuing discussions the Greeks reported to the British the situation regarding the Greek side. The Greek forces in Crete amounted to eleven ill-equipped infantry battalions, comprising about 1,000 reservists, 7,000 new recruits and 2,500 gendarmes. During the discussions the Greek prime minister requested also that a British general assume command of the Greek and British forces on the island, asked that the Greek forces be equipped with British weapons and that they be supplied by the British. He also expressed the view that the air force available was too weak.17 On the following day, 29 April, the Greek government presented the British ambassador with a memorandum, which reflected the efforts of the Greek government throughout this period and expresses in detail the views of the king and the government with regard to British aid:18
The Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs has had repeated talks with the British Army, Navy and Air Force authorities, with regard to the need to strengthen as much as possible the defenses of Crete against enemy attack, as much from the air, as from the sea, and turn this glorious island into an impregnable fortress. The impression of the Greek government is that the present defensive preparedness of the island is nowhere near satisfactory. If the situation develops as in Epirus, where our troops and the civilian population were subjected to incessant air attacks for days on end, without a single plane available for defense or counterattack, then the situation will become precarious for the morale and effective resistance of the inhabitants and the army. The results of such a situation could be fatal.
The island of Crete, on account of its geographical location, is an important and crucial point for the war in the Mediterranean as a whole. This is easily proven simply by opening a map of the Mediterranean, where one will see that Crete has a commanding position over Asia and Africa. The inhabitants of the island, without any exception, are prepared to make any sacrifice for the battle and only disillusionment would curb their enthusiasm. This said, it is obvious that our proposal does not represent the Greek point of view alone. The Royal Greek Government, in drawing attention on the above, wishes to reiterate that it is absolutely necessary to reinforce and organize the defenses of the island the soonest possible. It especially stresses the need to raise the number of aircraft and increase air force activity in general, in its defensive as well as its counterattacking mode. In addition, it is necessary to maintain naval patrols towards the eastern and western approaches of the island, so as to interdict any enemy amphibious attempts, either from the Peloponnese and Kythera, or from Dodecanese.
The Greek and British troops on the island must be reorganized and re-equipped with the required materiel as soon as possible and be placed under a unified British command.
Finally, the task of maintaining internal public order, which could be threatened by enemy machinations, should be assigned to the British and Greek police in close cooperation. By the same means also charge must be taken of the numerous prisoners of war in the islandΥs camps. These prisoners could become a threat under the difficult conditions of the impeding battle. The Greek government, in its effort to draw the attention of H.E. the ambassador of Great Britain on the above issues, wishes to stress that its considerations are rooted in its hope that our common struggle on this island may not be hindered and, above all, may not fail, an eventuality which will draw criticism from the public opinion in both our countries.
Generally speaking, the king and the government did not miss any opportunity when meeting the British to stress the need for defense preparations and reinforcements. They also declared their resolve to remain on the island for as long as possible.
The ambassador of Great Britain conveyed the views and decisions of the Greek king and government to the British government. Any reservations about whether the British ought to have stayed to defend the island or not were dispelled, and the only issue was of how to secure the means for its defense.19
British Efforts to Systematize Action
- Since the departure of Division V, the actions of Middle East Headquarters were characterized by a number of contradictory and ambivalent thoughts and decisions with regard to the island, despite the awareness that the fall of Greece was something to be taken into account, in which case Crete ought to be saved. General Wavell had in mind to prepare the island from the point of logistics, so that it could accommodate one division, supplemented by eight batteries of heavy and eight batteries of light antiaircraft artillery, as well as a battalion of coast defense guns. Two monthsΥ worth of reserve supplies were provided for these forces.
Against this, the only upgrading of the British forces stationed in Crete until mid April were the arrival of the 51st Commando (about mid-December) and the relief of 50th Commando by the 1st Battalion of the Welsh Regiment in March 1941. Artillery strength remained unchanged until April, despite the fact that both Middle East Headquarters and the Chiefs of Staff believed that the minimum requirement for the islandΥs defenses called for 32 heavy and 24 light antiaircraft guns and 72 searchlights.
After the evacuation of Greece, and despite the above minimum requirement, there were only 16 heavy and 30 light antiaircraft guns and 24 searchlights on Crete, while the Luftwaffe dominated all over the skies of Eastern Europe.
As for air forces, there was not even a single fighter unit permanently based on the island until mid-April. On 17 April 1941 there was only the 805th Fleet Air Arm Squadron, of reduced strength, which was employed for the protection of Suda.
On 18 April, the 30th Bomber Squadron (with Blenheims) arrived from mainland Greece, followed by the 33rd, 80th and 112th Fighter Squadrons until 24 April. These units were stationed in Crete, with a total strength of no more than twenty serviceable aircraft. From Egypt arrived the 203rd Bomber Squadron, which together with the 30th brought the bomber strength to 23 aircraft in total. The primary mission of these forces, however, was not the defense of the island, but the protection of the ship convoys evacuating forces from mainland Greece.
The runways of the airfields at Maleme, Rethymno and the valley of Mournies were not suitable for the landing of fighter aircrafts. Only the airfield of Herakleion could be used for such operations.
For air surveillance and collection of intelligence for the air force and antiaircraft artillery, the 252nd and 220th Radar Stations, designated at that time as AMES (Air Ministry Experimental Stations), were established at Maleme and Herakleion respectively. These stations, however, were rendered almost useless by the lack of personnel and communication means.20 On the other hand, these deficiencies were somewhat offset by the effective network of the Greek information centers of Crete and the Air and Sea Surveillance and Warning Service.
The organization of the islandΥs defenses was also affected by the frequent change of command of the forces based on the island.
The first commander of the British forces in Crete, Brigadier Tidbury, was relieved on 8 January 1941 by a new one, Major General Gambier-Parry, who was relieved on 19 February by yet another, Brigadier Galloway.
In total, until 29 April, six commanders in succession assumed the command of the British troops, often with vague missions, limited to protecting Suda as a naval refuel base, while the British forces on Crete comprised its garrison.21
On 19 March 1941, a new commander, Brigadier Chappel, arrived on the island, with such vague orders concerning his mission, that he was unsure whether Herakleion was included in his defense commitments.
- By 1 March 1941, the German attack on Greece was imminent. The German troops in Rumania had entered Bulgaria and were moving south. At the same time, the Bulgarian airfields were being taken over by German air units. This new threat led Middle East Headquarters to decide that Crete should not be considered merely as a base for refueling, but that it ought to be organized as a major naval and air base. The relevant decision was taken on 1 April.22
In keeping with this decision, the defenses of the island were to be reinforced by the antiaircraft artillery component and other formations of the MNBDO (Mobile Naval Base Defence Organization).23
On 29 March, the commander of the MNBDO, Major General E. C. Weston, was dispatched to Crete with the mission to inspect the overall defenses of the island. He filed a report on 15 April according to which Suda and Herakleion were considered areas of vital importance.
To secure these areas it was imperative to assign the defense of the Suda and Maleme area to a brigade. A detachment from the brigade group would cover Rethymno, while the Greek units should be assigned in eastern Crete and Rethymno. A headquarters should also be organized, to which would be subordinated the whole force of Greek and British forces, under a British commander. Headquarters of the 14th Brigade should be limited to its own brigade units.
It was proposed that the antiaircraft defenses of the island be reinforced by three batteries of antiaircraft artillery and to have the three fighter squadrons permanently based on the island.
The island also should be provided with food and ammunition supplies to last for two months. All the prisoners of war (16,000 Italians) would have to be transferred to Egypt.
Middle East Headquarters agreed to all of the above, but the situation in the Middle East did not allow for their implementation. A final decision was to be reached after the evacuation of mainland Greece had taken place. As for the reinforcements with artillery and food supplies, these would be implemented when feasible.
Thus, even though the fall of Greece had been envisaged and the attack on Crete was considered imminent, no final plans had been drawn up and preparations for the defense of the island against large scale enemy assault Πby then a certaintyΠ had not begun even in the end of April, despite the fact that Crete had been under British responsibility for six months.24
The island, despite the British prime ministerΥs aspirations, who wished to see Crete fortified as a second Scapa,Σ25 was nowhere near prepared and able to resist any strong enemy action.
- Since 17 April, when the evacuation of mainland Greece was planned (Operation DemonΣ), it was decided that, because of the shortage of shipping, a large proportion of the evacuated British force would have to be landed in Crete. This would allow the ships to make a shorter round trip.26
In a message to the Commander in Chief of the Fleet, Mediterranean, General Headquarters Middle East ordered27 that troops should take precedence over arms in embarkation. Many embarkation and naval officers, in implementing this order, demanded of the embarking troops to abandon even their small arms. A good number of the evacuees, however, both officers and enlisting men, declined to do so.
According to the evacuation plan, a special effort should be made to forward personnel of the technical services, especially artillerymen, directly to Egypt. It was only through the prevailing conditions and unforeseen events during the embarkation that a portion of them landed on Crete.
- On 25 April the first force of considerable size disembarked on Crete. It comprised the bulk of the 5th New Zealand Brigade. The strength of this unit, along with other troops that arrived on the same day, was about 5,000 men.
During the next few days, until 30 April inclusive, about 45,000 men were evacuated to Crete and Egypt, of which some 25,000 stayed in Crete. Most of these troops were unarmed, without their individual equipment and without any heavy weapons or vehicles, all of which had been abandoned in mainland Greece.
- While Greece was being evacuated by the British, second thoughts prevailed and new decisions concerning the island were made by Middle East Headquarters.
General Wilson, commander in chief of the expeditionary force to Greece, arrived in Crete on 27 April. On the following day, he received a message from the commander in chief, Middle East, ordering him to consult with the senior officers in Crete and report what forces he considered would be required for the defense of the island, which should not be captured by the enemy. He was also instructed to include in this force only those of the evacuated troops which he deemed combat effective. The rest would have to be transported to Egypt where there was great need of troops.
Following a pertinent conference, General Wilson reported to Middle East Headquarters that he considered possible a German landing from the sea, under the cover of their air force. This would render any British naval action costly, as German air power was immeasurably greater compared to the capabilities of the British air force. Under these circumstances, the holding of the island would be an onerous task, unless it became possible to maintain there sufficient ground, air and navy forces.
The ground forces required should be no less than three brigades, of four battalions each, as well as a motorized battalion, with the addition of the MNBDO for the protection of Suda bay. Apart from the existing artillery units and the MNBDO, one additional heavy and one light antiaircraft battery would also be required. With the above forces vital areas of the island, i.e. Herakleion and its airfield, Chania, Maleme airfield and Suda bay should be ensured.
The above proposed forces were considered by General Wilson as the absolute minimum required for the defense. According to him, any less would entail a catastrophe. An immediate response was required.
- On 28 April, the commander in chief Middle East received the following personal telegram from Churchill:
It seems clear from our information that a heavy airborne attack by German troops and bombers will soon be made on Crete. Let me know what forces you have in the island and what your plans are. It ought to be a fine opportunity for killing the parachute troops. The island must be stubbornly defended.28
He also recommended, through the chief of the Imperial General Staff, that Major General Freyberg from New Zealand,29 for whose courage he held the highest esteem, be appointed commander of the forces in Crete and of the islandΥs defense.30 Wavell agreed. In addition, on the same day, the War Cabinet Intelligence Sub-Committee in London sent Freyberg the information that the Germans had the capacity, by means of their air force then available in Eastern Mediterranean, to land in Crete 3,000 to 4,000 fully equipped ground troops or paratroopers in one wave, and that there might be two or three waves daily from mainland Greece and three or four from Rhodes.
Wavell responding to the Churchill telegram31 reported that in Crete, apart from the original forces, there were another 30,000 men evacuated from Greece; that the German attack plans could possibly have Syria and Cyprus as an objective; and that he would visit Crete and would report afterwards.
Preparations and Plans
of the Opposing Sides
- On 29 April, General Freyberg, commander of the New Zealand Division, arrived with his staff from mainland Greece on the British cruiser Ajax.
Freyberg planned to fly to Egypt to reorganize his division, after he had inspected the 5th New Zealand Brigade, which had stayed in Crete.
However, on the following morning, 30 April, he was notified not to leave the island. General Wavell, commander in chief Middle East, arrived on the same day on a double purpose, of appointing General Freyberg commander of the forces on Crete, and of evaluating by personal observation the situation in the island and consider its defense. He himself presided a meeting, held at 1130 at a village between Chania and Maleme. Also present among others were the British ambassador in Greece, and Major General Weston.
Before the meeting began, General Wavell called Freyberg aside and, after congratulating him on his divisionΥs performance in Greece, announced that he would entrust him with the command of the forces in Crete, also confiding to him that he believed the German offensive against the island would be launched within the next few days. In response to FreybergΥs objections on this subject, Wavell insisted that he must perform this task. Freyberg, having no other option, could do nothing but accept.
The main issue on the agenda of the meeting that followed was the announcement of the appointment of General Freyberg as commander of the British and Greek forces in Crete and the issue of the islandΥs defense, which had to be pursued at all costs.
It was expected that the attack would be launched by 5,000 to 6,000 airborne troops. A seaborne attack was also probable. The primary objectives of this attack were assessed to be Herakleion and Maleme airfields. The overall mission of the forces in Crete would be to deny the enemy the use of the island as an air and submarine base.1
After the meeting, General Wavell departed for Egypt.
- Major General Freyberg, upon taking over command of the British and Greek forces on the island on 30 April 1941, studied from the same day the situation and confirmed that there were enormous shortages in weapons, ammunition and all kinds of materiel. Regarding the estimate of the situation, he agreed with his predecessors on the value of the airfields and Suda bay.
When Freyberg took over the defense of Crete, the forces at his disposal held the following positions: the New Zealand forces were deployed in the area between Chania and Maleme (inclusive); the 14th Brigade was at Herakleion Πminus the 1st Welch Regiment, which had been assigned the defense of Akroteri Peninsula; the Australian forces were deployed in the area to the southeast of Suda bay.
The Greek battalionsΥ dispositions were as follows: in Chania, Rethymno and Herakleion were the regimental depot battalions; certain battalions of new recruits were in Aghya, Galatas, Mournies, Kastelli Kissamou, Rethymno area and Herakleion. The Gendarmerie School was established in Rethymno. The existing coastal and antiaircraft artillery was deployed to cover the harbor of Suda and a number of coast defense guns had been allocated in the area of Maleme airfield.
The air forces available numbered some sixty aircraft of different types, without any spare parts.
On the same day General Freyberg received the intelligence report of 29 April from the War Office in London.
According to this, the attack against the island should be considered imminent, by an enemy force of about 3,000 to 4,000 parachute and air-landing troops. This force would be supported by 315 bombers, 60 twin-engine fighters, 240 Stuka dive bombers and 270 single-engine fighters.
It was also estimated that the enemy possessed sufficient naval forces and seaborne craft to attempt a landing from the sea as well.
General Freyberg, upon receiving this information, reported immediately to the commander in chief Middle East that his forces were totally inadequate to face the expected attack, and that if there was no increase in the number of fighters and no protection from the sea, he could not hope to resist with a force that lacked artillery, was short in entrenching tools and had insufficient supply in ammunition and materiel. He suggested that if Crete were not provided with air and sea protection, the decision to hold it ought to be reconsidered. He also reported that he considered it his duty to notify the New Zealand government on the predicament which had befallen his division. He then proceeded to send a message to the prime minister of New Zealand, wherein he described the whole situation and concluded:
Would strongly represent to your Government grave situation in which bulk of New Zealand Division is placed and recommend you bring pressure to bear on highest plane in London either to supply us with sufficient means to defend island or to review decision Crete must be held.2
At the same time, however, by a special order of the day he addressed his troops in an effort to boost their morale in preparation of the new battle they were about to wage in Crete.
To General FreybergΥs report, the commander in chief Middle East responded that he thought the War OfficeΥs estimates on the enemy forces were exaggerated, but admitted that there was a possibility of a large-scale attack on Crete.
He also informed him that it would be difficult to provide any air support. The entire fleet of the Mediterranean, however, was ready to provide assistance if the Germans were to attack Crete. He went on explaining that he was making efforts to have the New Zealand troops relieved, and, finally, that the War Cabinet had given definite instructions that Crete must be held, but even if this decision were to be reconsidered, it would be highly improbable that the troops could be evacuated before the German attack.
- Apart from his briefings and requests for reinforcements from his superiors, the commander of the forces in Crete (Creforce) was also very energetic in making the best use of whatever forces and means were at hand. Given the inadequacy of the road and signals network, his main effort was aimed at enabling the four vital defensive areas of the island to act independently of one another.
By an order issued on 3 May he assigned the defense to four combat groups, allocated in the sectors of Herakleion, SudaΠChania, Maleme and Rethymno (Sketch-map 1).
His reserve consisted of one brigade and one infantry battalion deployed to the west and south of Chania.
Having a clear view from the initial deployment of his defending forces, and while waiting for the requested reinforcements in equipment, the commander of Creforce continued his efforts to utilize the means at his disposal in the best possible way and to construct and improve fieldworks.
This task was progressing with great difficulty due to the almost complete lack of entrenching tools. The troops had to resort to using their helmets as shovels, to dig trenches and foxholes. Ships that succeeded in passing through, unloaded sufficient quantities of barbed wire, allowing defensive positions to be strengthened.
- Despite the difficulties by the activity of the enemy air force, it became possible to disembark successfully on 10 May the 1st Light Troop Royal Artillery (with four 3.7-inch howitzers), which was then allocated to the 4th New Zealand Brigade.
By the same convoy were brought troops and units of the MNBDO including: the headquarters of the 2nd Heavy Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment Royal Marines; AΣ and CΣ Heavy Antiaircraft Batteries, with eight 3-inch guns each; XΣ and ZΣ Coast Defense Batteries Royal Marines, with two 4-inch guns each; one signals company, a survey section, a dock operations company and a transport company.
With the new arrivals Freyberg was able to reinforce continuously his units. He then issued directions regarding the tactics to be adopted in combat. These would consist of rapid counterattacks, encirclement of parachute units and rapid movement of troops to threatened points. Among other defensive measures he wanted the airfields mined, but his request was turned down by Middle East Headquarters, who held the view that these would be used in time by friendly air forces.
- On 13 May,3 the 10th New Zealand Brigade was established, under Colonel Kippenberger. Its mission was to cover the area of the village of Galatas from the west and defend the beaches from the north.4
This new brigade comprised a headquarters, stationed in the southeastern fringes of Galatas, and the following units:
Π The 6th Greek Infantry Regiment.
Π The 8th Greek Infantry Regiment.
Π A Composite New Zealand Battalion formed with surplus personnel from various arms and services.
Π A Detachment of the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry (fighting as infantry), also known as Russell Detachment from its commanderΥs name.
To this brigade was also subordinated the 20th New Zealand Infantry Battalion, with the provision that it would not be employed without previous authorization from the New Zealand Division.
On 15 May, another echelon of the MNBDO arrived, consisting of the 23rd Light Antiaircraft Battery Royal Marines, equipped with light machine guns and a searchlight battery, together with the staff of the 11th Searchlight Regiment. Additional equipment received during this period included 49 captured Italian and French artillery pieces of 75mm and 100mm caliber, with 300 to 400 rounds per gun. More than twice that number had been sent, but had been lost during transit at sea. Also, a small number of ambulances and other transport vehicles were salvaged from ships sunk in port.
On 16 May, the 2nd Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment disembarked in Crete and was allocated to the 14th Brigade in the Herakleion area.
During the same period, 10 light tanks and 6 medium IΣ (=infantry) Matilda II tanks were transported successfully. The light tanks were allocated to the 3rd Hussar Regiment; the I tanks were equally allocated to Maleme, Rethymno and Herakleion airfields.
Progress on the organization of positions was intensely pursued and great effort was made for the concealment and camouflage. As a result of this, the violent and incessant bombardment by the German air force caused insignificant casualties to the forces in Crete. The artillery equipment which had arrived was manned. This, along with those MNBDO units present since November 1940 and those recently arrived, were all allocated to various sectors.5
On 16 May, the commander of the forces in Crete reported that his defensive plan for Crete was complete and that he was very optimistic. His troops were in good order with excellent morale, and he hoped that with the assistance of the Royal Navy he would be able to hold the island.6
The Organization of the Greek Forces
- From 29 April the king had moved to Chania to maintain closer contact with the government and the British. King and government never ceased to remind the British of the seriousness of the situation and made every effort to take the equipment necessary for making the Greek forces fully combat effective and to reinforce them with a properly armed militia. The Greeks on their part made efforts to increase the number of cadres and enlisted men, to organize the Militia on a new basis and to train all forces, so that they could be effectively employed in combat.
The organic units available were the eight training battalions, numbered from I to VIII, the Gendarmerie School, the Military Academy of Cadets and the Depot Battalions of the Chania, Rethymno and Herakleion.
There was also a significant number of recalled reserve officers living in the island, and officers and enlisted men who had arrived there on their own initiative, in small groups or individually.
These units were poorly equipped. The majority of the men had scarcely received any training, apart from the few days at the training centers, when they had been drafted as new recruits in the beginning of April.
Those who had escaped from Greece independently were largely unarmed.
To increase the strength of the existing units, all enlisted men who had arrived after 25 March 1941 and were not belonging to organic formations, were to be attached to the nearby depots, except for the Cretans.
The Cretans of the age class of 1929 and older, were attached to the nearest battalions and were sent on one monthΥs leave, while the wounded were sent to the hospitals to recuperate. Similarly, the age class of 1930 and younger were attached to the battalions. Finally it was decided to follow the same procedures for any men which might arrive in the future.
On the other hand, on May 4 the Ministry of Security prohibited the departure of any individual to the occupied territories of mainland Greece, to avoid intelligence leaks and to deter any enlisted men from returning to Greece.
- On 4 May, by order of the Ministry of the Army,7 Crete was divided into four military districts as follows: District I based at Chania, District II at Rethymno, District III at Herakleion and District IV at Neapolis. The jurisdiction of each district commander was fixed as equivalent to that of a brigade commander. To the districts were subordinated for administrative, training and tactical purposes: the training battalions, the regimental depots, the garrison posts and the Militia troops. For administrative purposes only: the military infirmaries, except from the Military Hospital in Chania, which was directly under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Army. The Gendarmerie and the troops of the Air and Sea Surveillance Stations were subordinated to the districts only for tactical purposes. By another order8 the jurisdiction, duties and mission of the district commanders were set out in detail. According to the above, their mission objectives were: to survey unceasingly and rigorously those points along the coast that would be suitable for enemy landings; in case of such an attempt, to repel them at any cost and with any means available; to closely cooperate with the Gendarmerie and Militia authorities to distribute the troops for surveillance of the entire area, especially around the airfields, artillery emplacements and supply depots and to interdict and neutralize any attempts by or parachute or air-landing troops.
Finally, to proceed with the continuous and intensive training of those troops that needed it the most; to raise their morale and fighting spirit, so that the military forces in Crete could be utilized as soon as possible for the defense, inspired with the ideal of self-sacrifice for their country.
As Kastelli Kissamou was one of the beaches closest to the mainland and a good number of escapees arrived there, in order to avoid misconduct, it was ordered to assemble them care of the locally stationed Battalion I, and forward them to the Chania Garrison Post in order to be allocated elsewhere.
- Due to the severe lack of noncommissioned officers, the Ministry of the Army ordered all available staff sergeants, sergeants and corporals to move as soon as possible to the training battalions and depots.
The 1st and 2nd Military Commands were established on 9 May.9 The 1st Military Command comprised Military Districts I and II, the 2nd, Military Districts III and IV.
The commanders of the military commands (all general officers) were given jurisdiction of divisional commanders.
To these were subordinated all military units and authorities stationed within their area of responsibility, as well as the Gendarmerie authorities in each military command, for security and order purposes.
The mission of the military commands was to organize and command the military forces in their area and to promote the military training of the recruits.
Tactically, these units were subordinated to the British commanders in each sector. The same orders specified that the staff of each of the military commands would comprise one colonel as chief of staff and two junior officers. Provision was made for the eventual establishment of services.
The commander of Military District IV was ordered to establish a depot battalion in Neapolis. Subsequently by its own order the military district set out the officer posts in this battalion.
On 9 May 1941 a new law was issued On the Rehabilitation of Officers and Warrant Officers Dismissed from the Army for Political Reasons. It was an effort to achieve complete unity in the ranks of the officer corps and to allow for the proper staffing of the new units with required cadres.10 On 10 May it was decided to hold examinations at the Military Academy of Cadets within the shortest possible time. The results should be submitted by 20 May to the Ministry of the Army so that the cadets could be appointed to units.
- With the agreement of the British, it was decided to develop the training battalions into the same number of infantry regiments. This had become possible from the continuous arrivals of enlisted men who had escaped from the mainland, and from other troops who happened to be in Crete on leave or as patients before the collapse at the front.
The Ministry of the Army issued an order to this effect on 11 May 1941 decreeing that:11
All of the training battalions be redesignated infantry regiments, temporarily retaining their original numbers. By order of the local district commanders, to these regiments should be assigned, from the local regimental depots, the untrained recruits and the personnel that was not necessary for their operation. In each garrison there would be assigned an attached company. Each regiment would form gradually companies and battalions depending on the numbers of officers and men available. Each battalion of these regiments would comprise four infantry companies of 120 men each, plus a heavy weapons company (with mortars, machine guns etc.). The veteran enlisted men should form separate companies so as to allow for two distinct types of sections: front-line sections manned with veterans and training sections manned with training recruits.
- An order issued on 13 May designated Crete as frontline zone, as of 23 April 1941.12
On the same day, and after consultation with the Greeks, the British allocated liaison groups to the Greek battalions with the mission to provide any form of assistance in training and logistics that was possible. The Military Command of Crete was dissolved on 13 May. On 14 May, Lieutenant General Emmanuel Tzanakakes took over as Minister of the Army.13
On the same day the Greek prime minister sent a telegram to the Greek ambassador in London, to whom he expressed his concern and instructed him to present the situation to the foreign minister of Great Britain on behalf of the king and the government of Greece.14
- The great problem of arming the infantry and Militia units depended entirely on the British. They had promised to provide the Hellenic Army with captured weapons. Indeed, by 7 May, they had already unloaded some forty 100mm and 75mm artillery pieces, 400 tons of artillery rounds for these guns and additional small-arms ammunition for the infantry.
These guns, familiar to the Greeks, were completely foreign to the British. Moreover, there were at the time 35 officers and about 2,000 men of the Greek Artillery arm in Crete. The initial thought was to form with these troops the nucleus of a mobile artillery battalion of two batteries, which would grow to an artillery regiment of nine batteries (3 battalions) by calling up the artillerymen of the age classes of 1924 and 1925 and providing additional training to infantry troops.15 However, the guns were not allocated to the Greeks in the end, as the British also had a great surplus of artillerymen but a considerable shortage of artillery pieces.
To replenish infantry ammunition, the Ministry of the Army had already acted by sending samples of Mannlicher and Mauser cartridges to Egypt, since the first days of its arrival in Crete, intending to place an order there.16
At the same time, however, realizing that this solution would cause delays in the effort to supply the units, which was a matter of utmost urgency, it was decided after consultation with the British, to replace the Mannlicher and Mauser rifles with arms supplied by them. The relevant order was issued on 18 May.
The weapons provided would not be standardized in their entirety. Provision was made at least to supply individual units with rifles of the same type. The rifles sent would be English (.303-inch), Polish and Italian. Delivery to Greek units was to commence on 20 May. The weapons replaced would be used to arm the Militia.
On 16 May the regimental depot battalions were ordered to distribute any automatic weapons available, with their ammunition, to the infantry regiments deployed in their area; these, however, were not handed over entirely.17
- On 20 May, the day the German paratroop attack on the island began, the following Greek authorities and military units were present on Crete:18
The Ministry of the Army in Chania and, directly subordinated to it, the Military Academy of Cadets, in Kolymbari.
The Higher Military Command of Crete:
- a) 1st Military Command, in Chania.
Military District I, in Chania, with its administratively subordinated units: the Regimental Depot Battalion of Chania, the Garrison Post of Chania, the 1st, 2nd, 6th and 8th Infantry Regiments, the Military Hospital of Chania and the Chania Prisoner of War Camp.
Military District II, in Rethymno, with its administratively subordinated units: the Regimental Depot Battalion of Rethymno, the Royal Gendarmerie School, the Rethymno Prisoner of War Camp in the area of Rethymno, and the 4th and 5th Infantry Regiments .
- b) 2nd Military Command, in Herakleion:
Military District III, in Herakleion, with its administratively subordinated units: the Garrison Post of Herakleion, the Herakleion Prisoner of War Camp, the Regimental Depot Battalion of Herakleion, the 3rd and 7th Infantry Regiments, all in the area of Herakleion.
Military District IV, in Neapolis. Its subordinated unit, the regimental Depot Battalion of Lasithi was being organized in Neapolis.
The king, who until then had been residing at the Chania suburb of Pelekapina, moved during the night 19 to 20 May to Metochi Volane, south of the village of Perivolia, within the zone of responsibility of the 2nd Infantry Regiment.
- Except for the above units, at the time of the German attack there were numerous armed bands of civilians, which began to be formed as the battle progressed. Some of them were organized directly by the British, most by the Greek Gendarmerie authorities and a few on their own initiative, as armed peasants began to assemble where there was action or where they saw paratroops landing.
Such bands were organized:19 at Kastelli Kissamou by the local inhabitants, armed with their own weapons and under the command of local band leaders; in Kandanos, similarly as in Kastelli; in the Alikianos area, by the villagers of Lakkoi, Phournes, Skenes, Alikianos and Vatolakkos, under local leaders; in Galatas, by local villagers under the command of an officer of the reserve. This band was also armed with their own firearms and limited ammunition. Similar bands were organized in the villages of Perivolia, Mournies, Kephalies and Therisos. These bands, armed with anything at hand, operated in cooperation with 2nd Infantry Regiment.
In the Rethymno Prefecture, on the Nida plateau, a band of peasants, approximately 300-strong, was organized by a British officer.
Another band was assembled in the Latzimas area by locals, under their own leaders and a few gendarmes, when the German parachutists started descending on the area. One more band was formed in the village of Perivolia, to the east of Rethymno.
A number of bands were organized in the area of Estauromenos, from peasants of the nearby villages, under the leadership of the 60-year-old abbott of Arkadi Monastery. These fought alongside Greek regular units of that sector, to the end.
In the Herakleion area a band of locals, 300-strong, was organized under a British officer in the ancient ruins of Knossos.
Numerous armed bands of locals from the villages of Krousona, Agios Myronas, Sitarchos, Sarkos, Agios Syllas, Skalani, Archanes, Peza, among others, were organized by the archimandrite of the bishopric of Herakleion, Theodosakes and others.
From among the urban population of the cities of Chania, Herakleion and Rethymno there were also armed bands formed. They armed themselves with any firearms available, including weapons looted from British supply depots in Chania, Herakleion and elsewhere, where they were being kept unused.20
The bulk of all these bands comprised peasants and city residents who had been selected for the Militia units, which were never formed as envisaged. This was due to the failure of the British to provide the needed weapons as promised to the military authorities of Crete long before the German attack on Greece had even begun.
All these militiamen had been supplied with special documents and these documents were later used when the island capitulated to lessen somewhat the unequaled savagery, which the vengeful Germans displayed towards the inhabitants of Crete, to punish them for their brave resistance.
General Deployment and Missions of the Forces in Crete
- Up to 19 May, the eve of the German attack, a number of units had been redeployed within the sectors allocated by FreybergΥs initial order, while efforts were constantly being made to increase the unitsΥ firepower and establish new ones with each new delivery of materiel with the aim to strengthen the sectors. Based on his intelligence reports, General Freyberg was expecting the German attack from the air or the sea, on any day after 16 May. He had confidence in his forcesΥ military power as long as there would be support from the fleet and the air force. The general deployment of the British and Greek forces on the eve of the attack was as follows:
Creforce Headquarters at Agios Matthaios.
Creforce deployed in the sectors of Maleme, Suda, Rethymno and Herakleion, with the mission to defend the island and deny the enemy the use of its airfields and ports.
- The defense of the Maleme sector had been assigned to the 2nd New Zealand Division, under the command of Brigadier Puttick, who had set up his headquarters by the AlikianosΠChania road, near the road junction with the MalemeΠChania coastal road. To the north, the boundary of the sector was the coast, from the Tauronites stream in the west to the Kladisos river in the east. To the west, its boundary was the course of the Tauronites, and to the east, the course of the Kladisos.
There was no specific line to serve as southern boundary of the division. This would be delineated on an ad hoc basis, by the extension of the divisionΥs units towards this direction, as dictated by their capability and their defensive mission, i.e. to defend the coast before Maleme airfield, and the villages of Alikianos and Galatas. The division comprised the following units: a) the 4th New Zealand Brigade, with the 18th and 19th New Zealand Infantry Battalions; b) the 5th New Zealand Brigade, with the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 28th New Zealand Infantry Battalions and a detachment of New Zealand Engineers fighting as infantry; c) the 10th New Zealand Brigade, with the 6th and 8th Greek Infantry Regiments, a Composite New Zealand Battalion and the 20th New Zealand Battalion;21 d) the 1st Greek Infantry Regiment, directly subordinated to the division and deployed in the area of Kastelli Kissamou. Its mission was to defend its zone of responsibility and repel any sea- or airborne landings. In case of a withdrawal, the regiment was to move south towards the Kastelli heights and then turn east to link up with the 6th and 8th Greek Regiments.22
The artillery allocated to the divisionΥs sector consisted of the 1st Light Troop Royal Artillery, the 27th Battery, the 28th Battery, one troop and a section of the 156th Light Antiaircraft Battery Royal Artillery, one troop of the 7th Australian Light Antiaircraft Battery, and one section of CΣ Heavy Antiaircraft Battery Royal Marines. There was also, ZΣ Coast Defense Battery Royal Marines and one troop of the 23rd Light Antiaircraft Battery Royal Marines (equipped with light machine guns only).
The division had also received two medium (Matilda II) tanks, attached to the 5th New Zealand Brigade, and ten light tanks of the 3rd Hussar Regiment. These were stationed within the zone of the 4th New Zealand Brigade, but remained under divisional control.
- The forces of the ChaniaΠSuda sector, under the command of Major General Weston, who had set up his Headquarters in Chania, had as their mission the protection of the harbor of Suda and the city of Chania. To the north, the boundary line of the sector extended up to the coastal area, from the Kladisos river in the west to Drapanos Cape in the east (Sketch-map 1). The boundary to the west was delineated by the Kladisos and Perivolianos rivers. To the east and south the boundaries were flexible and depended on the strength of the troops deployed near Drapanos Cape and on the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment, which had its troops deployed in the area to the south of the villages Perivolia and Mournies.23
The infantry forces in the sector comprised the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment, the Regimental Depot Battalion of Chania, the 1st Welch Battalion, which formed part of the reserve of the commander of Creforce, the 1st Rangers Battalion, two composite battalions from the 17th and 16th Australian Infantry Brigades, and a number of troops of other arms fighting as infantry: from the 106th Royal Horse Artillery Battery, the 2/2nd and 2/3rd Australian Field Artillery Regiments, the 11th Searchlight Battery Royal Marines and the dismounted Northumberland Hussars.
The artillery of the sector consisted of the MΣ and SΣ Artillery Groups. Group MΣ comprised the 151st Heavy Antiaircraft Battery Royal Artillery, the 129th Light Antiaircraft Battery Royal Artillery, one section each of the 156th and 7th Light Antiaircraft Batteries, and a battery of the 23rd Light Antiaircraft Battery Royal Marines. Group SΣ comprised AΣ Heavy Antiaircraft Battery Royal Marines, one section of CΣ Heavy Antiaircraft Battery Royal Marines, the 234th Heavy Antiaircraft Battery Royal Artillery, one section of the 106th Royal Horse Artillery, the 15th Coast Regiment Royal Artillery (less one section) and the 304th Searchlight Battery.
The Engineers comprised pioneers and personnel from the docks operation, depot and mechanical apparatus operators.
There were also medical formations and troops of the Ordnance Corps, the Royal Army Service Corps alongside units of laborers and stevedores.
- The commander of the RethymnoΠGeorgioupolis sector was Brigadier G. A. Vasey, who had set up his headquarters immediately west of Georgioupolis (Sketch-map 1).
The sector was subdivided into the Georgioupolis Defense Group and the Rethymno Group, which included the airfield and was responsible for repelling any enemy air- or seaborne attacks. The Georgioupolis group comprised the headquarters of the 19th Australian Infantry Brigade, the 2/7th and 2/8th Australian Infantry Battalions, and a machine gun platoon and was supported by the XΣ Coast Defense Battery Royal Marines, and batteries of 75mm of the 2/3rd Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery.
The Rethymno Group comprised the Regimental Depot Battalion of Rethymno and the Royal Gendarmerie Battalion, both deployed within the defense zone of the city of Rethymno. The 4th and 5th Greek Infantry Regiments, together with the 2/1st and 2/11th Australian Infantry Battalions, two Australian machine gun platoons and ten guns of the 2/3rd Field Regiment of the Royal Australian Artillery, had been allocated to the defense of Pege airfield area.24
- The Herakleion sector included the Herakleion area and the Rousses airfield (Sketch-map 1).
The command of the forces in this sector was assigned to Brigadier B. H. Chappel, who was also commanding the 14th Brigade. His headquarters was established in Nea Alikarnassos (a suburb to the east of Herakleion).
Subordinated to this brigade were the Greek forces of Military District III, i.e. the Regimental Depot Battalion of Herakleion and the 3rd and 7th Greek Infantry Regiments. Their objective was to defend the city of Herakleion against any attack from land, air or sea.
The British forces, comprising the 2nd Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment, the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch, the 2nd Battalion of York and Lancaster, and the 2/4th Australian Infantry Battalion, were assigned primarily the protection of the airfield.
On the evening of 19 May, the 2nd Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arrived at Tympaki, together with three medium tanks, which were allocated by the commander of Creforce to the Herakleion sector.
In this sector there were already two medium and six light tanks.
The artillery available consisted of the 234th Medium Battery Royal Artillery with thirteen Italian and French 75mm and 100mm pieces, one section with two 4-inch guns of the 15th Coast Regiment Royal Artillery, six Bofors guns of the 7th Australian Light Antiaircraft Battery, one troop with four Bofors guns of the 156th Light Antiaircraft Battery Artillery, two sections with four more 3-inch guns of CΣ Heavy Antiaircraft Battery Royal Marines, and one troop of the 23rd Light Antiaircraft Battery Royal Marines. Subordinated also to this command were small units of engineers, medical formations and other services.25
- The total number of troops and ordnance deployed in Crete had as follows:
Greek forces (infantry regiments, regimental depot battalions, Military Academy of Cadets, Gendarmerie School):
29,977 enlisted men
151 artillery pieces, of which 62 antiaircraft and 4 antitank
16 light tanks
9 medium (infantry) tanks
There was practically no air force on the island. The few planes which had originally stayed on were gradually being subject to attrition. On 19 May, at the suggestion of the commander of Creforce, the few remaining aircraft departed for Egypt.
The troops listed above, when added up, appear impressive in number indeed. Their means of firepower, however, was well below any acceptable ratio to the number of men. This held true for all kinds of weaponry, from simple rifles to antiaircraft artillery.
Furthermore, these forces were totally exposed to an enemy who would use his mighty air power as his primary weapon of attack.
German Plans and Preparations
- Sixteen days after the beginning of the Italian attack against Greece, on 12 November 1940, Hitler issued an order entailing that: Once German troops occupy mainland Greece, they will release German airborne forces for employment against targets in the East Mediterranean . . .27
On 13 December 1940, top secret FŸhrer Directive No. 20 was issued, which specified in paragraph 3, section 4, that: The mission of our air force will be to support the army offensive in all its phases and, if possible, to occupy British strong points on the Greek islands by air drops . . .28 On 15 April 1941, General Alexander Lšhr, officer commanding IVth Air Fleet (IV. Luftflotte), and responsible for air operations in southeastern Europe, submitted to Reich Field Marshal Gšring, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe (the German air force), an operational plan for the capture of Crete, which had originally been drawn up by the commander of XIth Air Corps (XI. Fliegerkorps), General Kurt Student.
On the same day, the German Army Higher Command (OKH) submitted to Field Marshal Keitel, chief of staff of the German Armed Forces Higher Command (OKW), and to General Jodl, his chief of operations staff, an operational plan for the capture of Malta. Since there were insufficient forces available for both plans to be implemented, Hitler decided, at a meeting on 20 April, together with General Student, that the operation against Crete would take precedence.29
In accordance with StudentΥs plan, submitted by Lhr, and HitlerΥs decisions, Fhrer Directive No. 28 was issued on 25 April, for the operation, codenamed Operation MerkurΣ (Mercury) to occupy the island of Crete . . .in order to use the island as an air base against England in the Eastern Mediterranean . . .
By this order, the overall command of the operation for the conquest of Crete was assigned to Reich Field Marshal Gšring. Tactical preparations were assigned to General Lšhr, IVth Air Fleet commander. Command of the powerful forces of XIth Air Corps, which were to be used against Crete, was assigned to General Student. The VIIIth Air Corps (Fliegerkorps), under General Wolfram von Richthofen, would be assigned air support operations. Its task was first to soften up the defenses of the island on the eve of the attack, and then protect the air-landing troops and the forces operating on the ground. General Conrad was ordered to study and implement the logistics requirements of transporting personnel and supplies by aircraft and wind gliders. Rear Admiral Schuster, commander of the naval forces Southeast, was assigned the organization of the sea transportation for the operation with any available means.30
Regarding Operation Merkur, planned and launched exclusively by the German Air Force, General Halder wrote in his diary:
Check over of operations in Crete. Commander in chief of Air Force will have full responsibility. Ground forces will operate under his command, with OKH playing no role whatsoever (a dangerous affair . . .)31
Mussolini requested for Italian troops to be allowed to participate, operating from their bases in the Dodecanese. They would provide a reinforced infantry regiment which would land on the east coast of the island. This plan was only implemented on 28 May, when the islandΥs fate had already been sealed.
- For Operation Merkur General Lhr had at his disposal the following forces:
1) The Staff of IVth Air Fleet
2) The airborne forces of XIth Air Corps under General Student. These comprised the 7th Parachute Division, three paratroop regiments and other divisional units and formations.
The air transport elements of XIth Air Corps, under General Conrad.
The 5th Mountain Division, reinforced by units from the 6th Mountain Division, also under StudentΥs command.
3) The VIIIth Air Corps, under Richthofen.
4) The naval forces under Rear Admiral Schuster, Naval Commander Southeast.
The above totaled: 22,750 men
70 transport vessels to carry landing forces and supplies, supported by a small number of Italian destroyers and torpedo boats.
The air assault on the island would be launched by 750 troops flown in by glider, and 10,000 parachutists. After capturing the airfields and landing coasts, another 5,000 troops would be transported by aircraft and 7,000 would arrive by sea.
For the operation were assigned, in total, 60 reconnaissance airplanes, 280 bombers, 150 Stuka dive bombers, 180 fighters, of which 90 long-range, some 100 wind gliders and 600 transports.
- The staffs of the forces under Lšhr, met in his headquarters at Kephessia, Athens, and drew up the outlines of the operational plan:32
1) Achieve air superiority. 2) Use paratroop forces and glider troops to capture the airfields in Crete, with Maleme as the main effort. 3) With the airfields secured, landing of reinforcements consisting of mountain troops, to capture the rest of the island. 4) Reinforcement of the forces at Maleme by landing troops from the sea on the nearby coast, transported on small vessels. 5) Naval landings of a powerful force with artillery, tanks, motor vehicles and mules to support the ground forces.
The airborne troops were allocated into three assault groups (Sketch-map 1):
The western assault force (Gruppe West), codenamed KometΣ, which had the mission of capturing Maleme airfield. This group comprised the bulk of the Parachute Storm Regiment, minus half a battalion.
The central assault group (Gruppe Mitte), codenamed Mars,Σ divided into two echelons: one with the mission of capturing Chania and Suda, the other with the mission of capturing Rethymno and its airfield. This group comprised the 2nd and 3rd Regiments of the 7th Parachute Division, reinforced by units of support weapons.
The eastern assault group (Gruppe Ost), codenamed OrionΣ, with the mission of capturing Herakleion. This group comprised the 1st Regiment of the 7th Parachute Division reinforced by units of support weapons.
Regarding the timing of the assault, the three groups would attack Crete in two waves.
The first wave would land in the morning hours of Day D, at hour H against Maleme airfield (attack group KometΣ) and Chania area (first echelon of attack group MarsΣ).
The second wave, i.e. the second echelon of group MarsΣ and group Orion,Σ would launch its assault at hour H+8 on the same day against the cities and airfields of Herakleion and Rethymno. The reason for this delay was that the forces of the VIIIth Air Corps lacked the capacity for simultaneous bombing preparation and aerial support over all four landing zones (Maleme, Chania, Rethymno and Herakleion). Moreover, the transport air force was incapable of carrying at the same time all the units over their drop zones, due to shortage of suitable aircraft.
The Rethymno echelon, after capturing the airfield and the city would establish a link-up to Suda with the troops of the Chania echelon.
The OrionΣ group, after capturing Herakleion and the airfield, would seek to establish a link-up with the troops of the Rethymno echelon to the west, and dispatch patrols to the east and south.
Thus, for the first day was planned the capture of the airfields and ports of Chania, Rethymno and Herakleion. On the second, would come the capture of Suda. On the same (second) day, units of the 5th Mountain Division, transported by sea, would disembark in the area of Maleme and other suitable coasts to reinforce the paratroopers. They would assume offensive operations to complete the capture of the island. Heavy equipment and supplies would be transported similarly by sea, and would be unloaded in the port of Suda as soon as this would have been captured.
- The VIIIth Air Corps was spread all over the airfields of southern and central Greece and also on the airfields of the islands of Melos and Karpathos.
Thus, for the transport air force of General Conrad there were only auxiliary airfields available, as well as the airport of Palaion Phaleron (Hellenikon) and the airfield in Corinth. Of these, the Megara, Topolia, Dadi and Tanagra airfields were made available for the transportation of troops, Hellenikon airport for the transportation of staffs and Corinth airfield for the transportation of supplies.
A typical disadvantage of most of these airfields was the lack of sealed runways, with concrete or metal surfaces. As a result, every take off and landing raised huge dust clouds. This was damaging for the engines and worked against the speed and lifting capacity of the aircraft, limiting visibility along the runways. In preparation for the attack, efforts were made to alleviate the problem by collecting fire trucks and other means to dampen down the dust. None of these measures, however, had definite results.
It was calculated that a period of two weeks would be required to assemble personnel and equipment. The transport units were not even in Greece at the time. The 7th Parachute Division, minus one regiment, was in Germany in training camps. The poor road and rail networks in the Balkans were being fully used by the Twelfth Army of General Wilhelm von List.
Despite all this, the equipment and personnel were assembled by rail, by air, by sea and by motor vehicle from Germany, Bulgaria and Rumania in their respective airfields. The designation of bivouac and assembly areas and airfields for each unit was complete between 10 and 12 May, and units had assembled in these areas by 16 May.
On 18 May, the transport aircraft formations landed on the airfields. On the following day was completed the distribution to the airfields of the necessary quantity of fuel, which amounted to 2,500,000 gallons (some 3,535 tons). As a consequence the 18th of May was designated as D-Day, instead of the originally fixed 15th May. Finally the 20th of May was fixed as the day of the assault, when all preparations had been completed.
The German Airborne Attack
The Preliminary Bombardment and Its Results
- From 16 April 1941 already, VIIIth Air Corps had been assigned the main mission to interdict any movement of naval craft in the Eastern Mediterranean by destroying it. Given the frequency of attacks on the ports of Herakleion and Suda, this already constituted a prelude to the attack against Crete.
In accordance with the operational plans, a systematic preparation bombing of the island began on 14 May. The main targets of these bombings were Maleme airfield, Suda harbor, antiaircraft gun emplacements, the airfields at Pege and Rouses as well as the cities of Chania, Rethymno and Herakleion.
The strikes against Suda, especially, were extremely violent. At the same time, continuous air patrolling by enemy aircraft on a weekly basis prevented ships from approaching the Cretan coast, as they would come under attack immediately on sight. From 14 to 18 May, a total of 36,152 tons of merchant ships had been sunk on the way to Crete. The Greek destroyer Leon and the corvette H.M.S. Salvia had also been sunk. Six of these ships were sunk in the Kythera strait. Ships unloading in the Suda harbor were bombed until they would be sunk. On one particular day, eight separate air attacks were launched against the port. As a result, arrivals and delivery of supplies by ship were halted during the daylight hours.
Ships approached Crete only at night, arriving in Suda around midnight to unload their cargo and casting off post haste at around three in the morning. These tactics, allowing them to operate at night, unload and be out of enemy range by early morning, required ships capable of high speed. Such ships were only destroyers or cruisers. Their loading capacity, however, being small (since these ships were not destined for transportation), together with the limited time, only allowed some 100 tons of supplies to be delivered daily against the required minimum of 600. In an effort to lessen the destructive effect of the bombings at Suda, and allow for some unloading to take place in daylight, the British command decided to modify the plan of its antiaircraft harbor defenses. The new plan, which created a protective umbrella of interlaced trajectories above the limited unloading area, was put into effect on 19 May. It did provide efficient cover, but by that date it was too late. A large part of the supplies intended for the defenders had been lost.
Thus, by 20 May, the German air force had managed to virtually isolate the island by sea during the better part of the day. The tiny British air presence still on the island was dwindling day by day, with some aircraft destroyed on the ground, some in the air. The commander of Creforce, eventually decided to request their withdrawal from the island, deeming their sacrifice pointless. This was granted and the surviving few Blenheims, three Hurricanes and three Gladiators returned safely to Egypt.
From 20 May, the Luftwaffe was reigning supreme over the air space and sea approaches to the island during daylight hours.
Until its withdrawal, the RAF had twenty-three confirmed enemy aircraft shot down, probably another nine, and damage inflicted on many others. The antiaircraft artillery had suffered only minor damage from the enemy attacks, due to its excellent camouflage and the fact that it was used sparingly in an effort to preserve it for the main German attack. Of the 24 searchlights, however, only 3 remained until 20 May. Casualties inflicted on ground troops were equally insignificant.
This was mostly the result of their positions being carefully camouflaged and protected, but also due to the GermansΥ inadequate intelligence as to their disposition.
Civilian casualties and damage on Chania, Rethymno and Herakleion, however, were very extensive, forcing a great part of the population to abandon their homes and flee to the countryside.
A consequence of the enemy air force action was that it became impossible to deliver valuable supplies to the island because of the blockade. A great part of those supplies that were sent were lost, together with the ships that carried them. Until 20 May 1941, fifteen ships had unloaded 15,000 tons of materiel. Enemy air attacks had accounted for eight ships sunk or damaged while in port.1
Out of a total of 27,000 tons2 of vitally important ammunition dispatched to Crete, during the first three weeks of May, fewer than 3,000 were actually delivered. Out of one hundred captured Italian or French 100mm and 75mm artillery pieces sent, only 49 were fit for action. The rest of that number, or their spare parts, were sunk onboard the ships carrying them.
After the capitulation of the island, the Germans managed to salvage from Suda harbor enough materiel to assemble 25 motor vehicles. This is a good indicator of the effectiveness of the enemy air attacks in preparing for the assault.
In total, less than half of the materiel destined for the island reached it. As a result of this effective preparatory bombing by the Luftwaffe, the airborne and airmobile forces attacking the island encountered defensive forces that were ill-equipped and inadequately supplied.
The German Air Assault of 20 May 1941
- On 20 May, at 0630, the air surveillance stations reported enemy aircraft approaching.
A few minutes later, squadrons of bomber and fighter aircraft of VIIIth Air Corps filled the sky above the New Zealand Division and the SudaΠChania area. These squadrons began to bomb and strafe relentlessly, mainly around Maleme airfield, focusing on the positions of artillery and defense troops. Chania also came under heavy attack. Many houses were destroyed or burned and there were many civilian casualties. The bombardment continued unabated from 0700 and, with new bomber formations arriving over the area, developed into a real fire maelstrom. The enemy bombers would unload their bombs on defensive positions, artillery emplacements, ships and warehouses, while low-flying fighters strafed any moving target, on the roads, or in the fields, human or non human, including cattle and sheep. It was obvious that this aerial attack by the Germans, exceeding in intensity and duration any other attack up to that moment, signaled the preamble of an imminent air assault and aimed at paving the way for its success.
General Freyberg, dispatched a message to all units at 0730, calling them to immediate action. The continued bombardment reached its climax, when five bombers dropped a string of 1,000 kg bombs on the Tauronites and Platanias area.
As the eruptions of the last bombs were subsiding, and the bombers and fighters departed temporarily, the sky above the New Zealand Division was once again filled with long lines of aircraft, this time Junkers 52 troop carriers, pulling gliders in twos or threes.
Almost immediately, multicolored parachutes began to blossom behind the troop carriersΥ tails, spreading out as they descended. Moments before the first parachutists had landed, the gliders were released from their tethers and started to glide silently downward seeking for ground to land. Most landed to the west, within the zone of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion, others at Akroteri peninsula, and others to the south and west of Chania.
Only ten minutes had passed from the moment the parachutists began their drop, when the horizon cleared, as they started to land. Among the parachutists were dropped specially-colored parachutes with metallic cylinders carrying small arms, ammunition, medical supplies, etc. Other, multiple parachutes, contained artillery pieces, mortars, motorcycles, etc.
The troop carrier planes turned back as soon as they emptied their cargoes, to be replaced by others, under the continuous cover of a great number of fighter planes.
- The British and Greek troops, after overcoming their initial shock from the enemy airborne assault, a spectacular sight to which they had been witness for the first time, implemented their defensive plans. They opened fire almost immediately, the antiaircraft guns firing against the oncoming transports and gliders, while the infantry units targeted the descending paratroopers nearby, or those still in the air. Strong patrols of the defending troops moved out to surround and eliminate pockets of enemy firepower that had already established and to prevent the formation of others, by eliminating or capturing the dispersed paratroopers.
Following the initial drop and glider landings, the whole area became the scene of small-scale, isolated, uncoordinated actions, and with heavy casualties on both sides.
These local assemblies and clashes gradually began to coalesce into tactical actions as both sides began to locate and acquire their opponents and launched attacks or responded in defense accordingly.
Thus, Operation Merkur against Crete was in full swing, on the ground and in the skies above the island.
- The commander of Creforce, observing the airborne assault from his headquarters at Agios Matthaios, assessed that strong parachute forces had landed in the Maleme area and the Aghya Rural Prison valley. Also and small raiding parties had landed by gliders at Akroteri peninsula and south of Chania. For the time being, fighting was observed in the sector of the New Zealand Division and especially in the subsectors of the 5th and 10th New Zealand Brigades. Small-scale, localized clashes had erupted near the 7th New Zealand Military Hospital at Akroteri and the area of 4th New Zealand Brigade.
Any communication lines between the headquarters of the New Zealand Division and its units that had not been interrupted by the preliminary bombardment, were cut by the parachutists on the ground. Communications had also been cut between Creforce Headquarters and its subordinated commands. Until 1100, liaison had not been re-established. As a result, accurate situation reports at Creforce and 2nd New Zealand Division headquarters were completely lacking.
Engagements in the Sector of the 5th New Zealand Brigade
- The 5th New Zealand brigade, under Brigadier Hargest, was deployed along the coast, from the eastern bank of the Tauronites river up to Platanias village. Its mission was:3
- a) To defend the line extending from east to west between Platanias village and the Tauronites river, with its main mission being to defend Maleme airfield.
- b) To counterattack immediately and destroy the enemy, in case of an airborne or seaborne attack on any part of the area.
- c) The main concept of operation of the brigade was spirited defense.Σ4
With these objectives in view, the brigade had been deployed as follows: the 28th New Zealand Battalion (of Maoris) in the area of Platanias, with the mission to repel any air- or seaborne attack at or near its zone, and also to be ready to repel any enemy advance towards Chania or the heights south of Platanias and to counterattack.
The New Zealand Engineer Detachment, deployed along the coast to the north by Modi village, had as its mission to hold its positions, to guard the coastline and the roads leading to its positions and to repel any enemy attacks against it.
The 23rd New Zealand Battalion, deployed in the area of Daskaliana, was to hold its positions and be ready to support of 22nd Battalion if requested.5
The 21st New Zealand Battalion occupied positions in the area of Kontomari and its mission was to defend them, being always ready to move towards Tauronites in the event of an enemy attack. Alternatively, in the event the 23rd New Zealand Battalion launching a counterattack to support the 22nd New Zealand Battalion, the 21st would occupy the positions left by the 23rd.
The 22nd New Zealand Battalion was deployed in the area of Maleme airfield and Hill 107. Its western limit was the eastern bank of the Tauronites; to the east, its limit was formed by the western bank of the Sphakoryako stream. Its mission was: a) to secure Maleme airfield from any enemy attack from air or sea; b) to deny its use to the enemy air force. To accomplish this mission, the battalion had been reinforced by two Infantry tanks and a machine gun platoon of the 27th New Zealand Machine Gun Company.6
Antiaircraft artillery support consisted of six mobile antiaircraft Bofors 40mm guns of the 156th Light Antiaircraft Battery Royal Artillery and four more in emplacements of the 7th Light Antiaircraft Battery Royal Australian Artillery. Also two 3-inch guns of the CΣ Heavy Antiaircraft Artillery Battery Royal Marines. In addition, there was also a section of 4-inch guns from ZΣ Coast Defense Battery Royal Marines. There was no artillery to provide for direct ground fire support for the battalion.
- According to the German operation plan, Maleme airfield was attacked by the western air-assault group, that is the Parachute Storm Regiment of General Meindl, minus one battalion, and an antiaircraft machine gun company of the Machine Gun Battalion.7 Their missions were: a) As soon as the gliders touched the ground, the glider troops were to capture the antiaircraft batteries that had been previously spotted and the bridge to the southwest of the airfield. b) To capture and secure possession of Maleme airfield. c) To link up with Colonel HeidrichΥs attack echelon to the southwest of Chania, so that the 7th Parachute DivisionΥs command would be able to control both combat groups. d) The drop of the paratroops would be supported throughout the operation by air attacks from VIIIth Air Corps (Sketch-map 2).
- To accomplish this mission, the orders were distributed to the troops of the group in the following manner: 1) The Braun Detachment, comprising command elements of the Storm Regiment and the 9th Company, landing in gliders south of the Tauronites bridge, would capture the bridge and secure it. 2) Major KochΥs Detachment, comprising the 3rd and 4th Companies, plus command elements of Battalion I, was distributed into three echelons, each with the following mission: a) One echelon (3rd Company) would land in the estuary of the Tauronites to destroy the antiaircraft positions there and thus safeguard from that side the landing of friendly aircraft at Maleme. b) The other two echelons, landing on the slopes northeast and south of Hill 107, would attack and capture the hill. c) The 16th Company, landing in the area of Tauronites, west of the village of Polemarchoi, would conduct a reconnaissance in force towards the village of Voukolies. d) Battalion II of the Parachute Storm Regiment would deploy in the Rapaniana area, in reserve. e) Battalion I of the Parachute Storm Regiment, minus 16th Company, would deploy immediately to the east of Battalion II, in reserve. In the same area also would land the command post of the Storm Regiment. f) Battalion III of the Parachute Storm Regiment would land to a zone east of the airfield to isolate the airfield from that side, cutting off any British units active in the area, and block their reinforcement with forces approaching from that direction. It was also to link up with the central assault group in the direction of Chania. g) The 6th Company, of Battalion II, reinforced by machine guns and mortars, would deploy at Koukouli to cover the landing forces from the southwestern and northwestern approaches.
- The bombing and strafing against the positions of the 5th New Zealand Brigade by the German air force was particularly intense in the area of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion. The explosions had created a huge cloud of dust, visible from miles away, which covered the whole area of the airfield, making observation impossible. The airfield perimeter was intensely bombed and shelled. At the same time the runway was covered by dense machine gun fire, while the bombing and shelling was less intense. It was becoming obvious that the Germans were trying to limit the damage to the runway, so as to be able to use it later to land their own airborne reinforcements and supplies, which they eventually did. Despite the intensity of the bombardment, negligible casualties were caused due to the excellent camouflage of the positions and the lack of intelligence on the attackersΥ side.
- The Storm Regiment, minus half a battalion, attacked the defenses of the 5th Brigade at around 0815, employing parachutists and over fifty gliders. Most of the gliders landed in the stony river bed of the Tauronites. This position was very advantageous in that it was concealed from British antiaircraft and field artillery fire. Moreover, to the extent that their gliding path followed a course from south to north, along the axis of the dry river bed, the gliders encountered minimal opposition from the British antiaircraft guns, as the artillery was generally sighted in a way to cover the airfield and the coast from a seaborne attack.
To make matters worse, the dust cloud had blinded British artillery observation posts almost completely, at least during the first landings.
- The gliders and parachutists started to land at 0815 of 20 May 1941. By 0915, when the air drop was complete, the entire Storm Regiment had set foot on Cretan soil in the following order, starting from east to west (Sketch-map 1):
Battalion II, in the area of Rapaniana. Its 6th Company, reinforced by machine guns and support equipment moved west to provide flank cover for the regiment by reconnoitering in force. The command and command post of the regiment, together with Battalion IV (minus the 16th Company), dropped between Battalion II and the western bank of the Tauronites, close to the bridge. Other troops were moving in the direction of Kolymbari and to its south. The 3rd Company, as part of the Koch Detachment, landed in gliders by the mouth of the Tauronites river, almost directly in contact with C Company of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion. The Braun Detachment landed in the Tauronites bed just to the south of the bridge, next to D Company of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion. The 16th Company and part of 11th Company landed in the area between the villages of Syrili and Moulete, by the Tauronites. A detachment of 4th Company, divided into two echelons, under Major Koch landed, the one on the foothills south of Agios Nikolaos, and the other between A and B Companies and Headquarters Company of the 23rd New Zealand Battalion. Part of the 9th Company landed either on top or south of the positions of B Company, 23rd New Zealand Battalion. The 11th Company dropped between the 21st, 22nd and 23rd New Zealand Battalions, except for a small part, which landed on top and east of the positions of the 21st New Zealand Battalion. The 12th Company landed on top of the 21st and 23rd New Zealand Battalions. Finally, the 10th Company dropped on the positions of the New Zealand Engineer Detachment.
Major General Meindl landed at around 0930 in the area of his Headquarters Company, west of the Tauronites river.
From the beginning, the air force assumed the mission of close support of the troops on the ground, while the artillery of the defenders had opened fire against the attackers in the air and on the ground.
Delivered in this way, the airborne assault of the Germans prevented the British command from taking the initiative from the very beginning. On one hand, the British troops found themselves engaged immediately, on the other, there was always the possibility of other parachute drops against units which were uncommitted and these had to remain in their defensive positions for such an eventuality. Moreover, the enemy had a powerful reserve (one and one half battalions) already on the ground, which could be used wherever its command deemed necessary. Similarly, the destruction of the flimsy wire-communications network between the British units prevented the commands of the various forces and of the brigade from acquiring information in time to coordinate their efforts.
- As soon as the gliders carrying the Braun Detachment landed in the river bed of the Tauronites, they came under heavy fire from D Company, 22nd New Zealand Battalion. The Germans, dashing out of their gliders charged immediately the positions of the company and especially the bridge platoon. During this assault, the German commanding officer was killed. After a brief and bloody struggle, the bridge was captured and the defending New Zealand platoon fell back fighting to prepared positions, 500 meters to the east. The German troops of the detachment crossed the bridge and established a bridgehead on its eastern side at around 0900. From this position, the detachment poured fire into the flanks of C and D Companies and began to concentrate on its main effort, Hill 107.
The easternmost echelon of the Koch Detachment, having suffered heavy losses from the resistance of A and B Companies, lost its momentum and failed to accomplish its mission, which was to capture Hill 107. It did, however, manage to establish a base of fire, from which it harassed the interior of the defendersΥ perimeter and isolated the 22nd BattalionΥs Headquarters Company from the battalion command.
The southern echelon of the Koch Detachment, hit hard by sustained fire from B Company, was trying to escape towards the Tauronites river bed and link up with the forces there.
The section of the 3rd Company which had landed in gliders north of the Tauronites bridge was not seriously engaged during its landing and immediately assaulted the airfield company, intensifying its efforts to dislodge the defenders.
Troops of Battalion III which landed in the area around the village of Maleme, among the positions of the 21st and 23rd New Zealand Battalions and the New Zealand Engineer Detachment, were suffering heavy attrition from the defendersΥ fire and aggressive engagements by patrols before the parachutists had had time to open their weapon canisters and assemble in organic units. The parachutists who landed inside the village of Maleme, were attacked by the Headquarters Company of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion and by villagers, men and women of all age using the most primitive arms at hand, and were decimated.
The troops that had landed west of the Tauronites river, i.e. Battalion II (minus 6th Company), the regimental headquarters, and Battalion IV (minus 16th Company) of the Storm Regiment, suffered no casualties.
- From the very beginning of the attack, the commander of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion lost contact with his companies, as the telephone lines had been cut, partially from the enemy bombardment and then by the German troops on the ground. Communication with the companies relied on runners, who found their task extremely difficult due to the enemy fire inside the area and relentless action of the enemy air force. Contact with the Headquarters Company could not be established even by messenger, which meant the battalion knew nothing of the companyΥs predicament.
Similarly, at around 1000, radio contact with the brigade was also lost when the set failed.
All contact with his troops having been lost, the battalion commander was unable to receive reports of the ongoing battle on time and had no overall picture of the tactical situation within his battalion. He was also in the dark about the situation in the neighboring units of the brigade.
In the defense zones of the 21st and 23rd New Zealand Battalions, strong patrols, moving aggressively, effectively mopped up the parachutists that had landed there.
The same fate awaited the troops that dropped inside the zone of the New Zealand Engineer Detachment.
The 28th (Maori) Battalion reported no activity as no enemy troops had dropped within its zone.
From his headquarters near Platanias river, the commanding officer of the 5th Brigade, Brigadier Hargest, until 1000 could only take note of the situation through direct observation, due to lack of any means of communication. He perceived that developments were favorable in the areas of the 21st and 23rd Battalions and the New Zealand Engineer Detachment. He had no idea, however, of events in the 22nd BattalionΥs area, which was the most vital of his brigade. Thus, he took no action to rectify the situation in that direction.
- At 0930, when the commander of the Parachute Storm Regiment landed west of the Tauronites, he realized that: a) a German wedge had been driven in between the enemy defenses by the capture of the bridge by the Braun Detachment; b) the Koch Detachment was unable to capture Hill 107; c) Battalion III was disintegrated as a unit; d) the British forces were committed everywhere.
Based on the above observations, he decided to leave his troops already engaged, to take advantage of the small bridgehead and, by reinforcing it, to attack and capture Hill 107. His attack would be supported by an outflanking move from the south against the positions on the hill.
Putting his plan into effect, he ordered a) the 8th, 13th, 14th and 15th Companies of the Storm Regiment, under Captain Gericke, to attack eastwards astride the Tauronites bridge, to extend the Braun bridgehead and capture Hill 107; b) the 5th and 7th Companies, under Major Stenzler, to move and cross the Tauronites south of the positions of the 22nd Battalion and then, turning north, to capture the low hills southeast of Hill 107, so as to assist the attack by presenting a threat to the defenders from the south.
- Around 1000, with the battle still raging, the antiaircraft guns in the 22nd BattalionΥs zone ran out of ammunition and ceased fire. Meanwhile, in the zone of the New Zealand company at the airfield, groups of parachutists had infiltrated and cut off contact between the platoons, which, however, continued to fight.
After 1000, the battalion commander managed to establish communications by wireless with brigade headquarters and requested artillery fire support against the German landing zone west of the Tauronites. He also reported that he had lost contact with his Headquarters Company, and requested the brigade to inform the said company of the situation and send them reinforcements.
The fire support mission was executed at 1030, but by then the bulk of the German troops had moved out of the area to implement their attack missions. The regimental commander, Major General Meindl, was wounded, but he continued to command and direct his unitΥs combat.
By approximately 1100, the Germans succeeded in expanding their bridgehead towards Hill 107 and had advanced some 1,000 meters to the northwest of it. As a result, C and D Companies of the 22nd Battalion came under heavier fire from the bridgehead, but the platoons and the sections of these companies continued to resist. A and B Companies were still unscathed and in direct contact with battalion headquarters.
From 1200, the 22nd Battalion began to feel the pressure from StentzlerΥs Detachment joining the battle. The battalion positions were under constant artillery and mortar fire coming from positions west of the Tauronites. D Company was increasingly pressed along its whole front. At 1400, the Stentzler Detachment captured the village of Vlacheronitissa, about a kilometer south of Hill 107 and continued to advance northeast harassing A and B Companies from that direction.
- From 0815 on, the 21st and the 23rd New Zealand Battalions, together with the New Zealand Engineer Detachment, employing strong patrols, were mopping up any parachute troops of Battalion III that had landed in their the areas, keeping the situation there under control.
As a result, Battalion III of the Storm Regiment had lost two thirds of its strength by noon. In fact the New Zealand Engineers alone accounted for 112 parachutists killed. The remnants of the battalion attempted to escape towards the Tauronites river.
At around 1200, a troop-carrier plane towing a glider attempted to land or drop their fighters near the 28th New Zealand Battalion, but both were shot down into the shallow water of the coast and their crews captured.
- In the zone of the 22nd Battalion, D Company withdrew further to the east around 1500, in order to continue its defense from more advantageous positions but mainly in order to avoid flanking fires from the bridgehead and heavy weapon fires that was directed against it. At 1550 the battalion commander reported to the brigade that the situation was worsening and that he had lost ground on its right (to the west). However, he still believed he could control the situation and requested once again from the brigade to establish contact with his Headquarters Company and order it to come to his aid.
By 1600, the command post of the 22nd Battalion came under mortar fire from the bridgehead and the commander was forced to relocate his post to B CompanyΥs positions, reporting this to the brigade. At the same time, still without having contact with his Headquarters Company, he again requested that the brigade restore contact with it, and for reinforcements to be sent. Realizing that the pressure from the Tauronites continued to mount and a new enemy threat was appearing from the south, he requested at 1700 the intervention of the brigade, which, as foreseen by the operational plan, would launch a counterattack with the 23rd Battalion.
The brigade replied that 23rd Battalion was already committed against parachutists on its zone. The commander of the 22nd Battalion then informed the brigade that he would launch a counterattack with an infantry platoon and the two tanks in support. In order to launch the counterattack, he ordered D Company to allocate its left platoon and the tanks for that purpose. At 1715, the two tanks moved out followed by the left platoon of C Company.
During the approach, one of the tanks returned claiming that it did not have suitable ammunition and that its turret would not rotate properly. The platoon pressed on with the other tank. This small force, exchanging fire with the enemy, rushed south of the bridge, inside the Tauronites river bed, crossed under the bridgeΥs arcs and advanced about 200 meters to the north of the bridge. There, due to the rough terrain of the river bed, the tank rolled on its back and, its turret went out of action. Its crew abandoned it and joined the infantry. The platoon, without any support and under fire from all directions, was decimated and retreated with only nine survivors, all wounded. Not only had the counterattack failed, but one platoon was out of action and two tanks were lost.
- The battalion commander informed the brigade at 1800 of this failure and again requested a counterattack by the 23rd Battalion. The brigade replied that one company each from 23rd and 28th Battalions would be sent to their aid. After a while, the battalion commander reported he would be pulling back towards the positions of B Company. The brigade did not forbid this, leaving it to his discretion.
Following this, between 1800 and 1900, the commander of the 22nd Battalion ordered his companies by runners to withdraw. A and B Companies received the order, but the order never reached C and D Companies and the Headquarters Company. In compliance with orders, A Company fell back towards B Company, leaving thus the most vital ground of the battalion zone, Hill 107, undefended.
Meanwhile, elements of C Company continued to fight on the southern and eastern fringes of the airfield.
D Company had also suffered severe losses throughout the day, with each of its platoons numbering no more than a dozen men, but continued to fight.
- On the German side, the situation had developed as follows:
The 2nd Company of the Storm Regiment had moved in small patrols and had deployed in various positions inside the airfield area, establishing bases of fire up to its eastern fringes. It was, however, very weak from losses and fatigue through continuous fighting. Troops belonging to the 5th and 7th Companies of the Storm Regiment had established themselves on the southern slopes of Hill 107 and small groups had infiltrated between its top and the positions of D Company. Other small groups had similarly advanced from the bridgehead on the northern slopes of Hill 107 and to the east. All these German troops, however, lacked any offensive momentum, being unable to coordinate their efforts due to lack of means of communication, but mainly due to losses sustained and battle fatigue from the continuous fighting.
Major General Meindl, even though he had committed all his forces, still had not completed the seizure of Hill 107 and the airfield.
The British on the other hand made no effort to react energetically in that area at brigade level, except for sending the two companies as reinforcements to the hard-pressed 22nd Battalion.
- At around 2200, one of those companies, namely A Company of the 23rd New Zealand Battalion arrived at the positions of the B Company of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion. As soon as the company arrived, it was ordered to occupy Hill 107. The Germans, noticing the enemy movement on the hill opened fire immediately causing many casualties. The company, however, was able to deploy successfully.
The commander of the 22nd Battalion had by then summed the situation as follows:
C and D Companies had been destroyed and their positions overrun by the enemy (this was not true at that point). The machine guns, artillery pieces and tanks had all been either destroyed or lost or ceased to fire.
Another company was expected as reinforcement, which ought to have arrived by that time. Liaison with the brigade did not exist. The positions of A and B Companies and the Headquarters Company were below Hill 107, which, in case of an enemy attack could not be held. Furthermore, their exposed positions would receive heavy fire in the morning by the German air force, without the companies being able to move out.
Based on the above assumptions, he decided to abandon completely Hill 107 and the entire zone of responsibility of his battalion and withdraw in the direction of Xammoudochori, to the positions between 21st and 23rd Battalions. This withdrawal would be covered by the newly arrived company of the 23rd Battalion, on Hill 107, which was to pull back last. Orders to that effect were dispatched, but reached only A and B Companies and the company of the 23rd.
The withdrawal began at around midnight and after about two hours the battalion commander arrived with the last troops at Xammoudochori and informed A Company of the 23rd Battalion that it could also withdraw from Hill 107. This was done, and the company withdrew to its battalion positions.
In the meantime the other reinforcement company arrived at Xammoudochori after many detours, which had caused the delay. There its commander met the commander of the 22nd Battalion. Both continued to move, together with their troops, towards the positions of the 23rd Battalion.
- The elements of C and D Companies had been left in their positions, intermixed with groups of German parachutists. Their commanding officers were expecting to take part at any moment in a general counterattack to recapture the position, which they believed was certain to follow.
The commander of D Company decided to withdraw from his positions when, after dispatching runners, he realized that the battalion had abandoned the area. He gave the order to his company at around 0200, on 21 May 1941.8
Similarly, the commander of C Company, when his runners failed to find the battalion in its expected positions, ordered his troops to withdraw at 0420.
The commander of the Headquarters Company came to the same conclusions and acted similarly, when his runner found that Hill 107 had been abandoned together with the battalion command.
The troops of these three companies linked up close to the positions of the 21st Battalion in the morning hours of 21 May 1941.9 All artillery pieces within the sector of the 22nd Battalion and the equipment of the two machine gun platoons were abandoned. The vehicles of the air force that serviced the personnel of the airport were also left behind in working condition.
The total strength of the force which withdrew from the battalionΥs zone amounted to 550 officers and enlisted men. Many among them were RAF personnel from Maleme airfield and artillerymen or tank crews from the elements deployed in the battalionΥs zone.
Thus, Hill 107 and Maleme airfield, in other words the vital ground of the whole New Zealand Division and the most important and vital points of the Allied forces on Crete, were abandoned to the enemy.
The German forces at the Tauronites bridgehead, under Captain Gericke, advanced in small patrols up to the eastern edge of the airfield, and the maneuver detachment of Major Stenzler, moving from the south, occupied positions between Hill 107 and the height to its southeast.
There the Germans reorganized and deployed expecting a counterattack,10 while the last troops of the advanced companies and the Headquarters Company of the 22nd Battalion slipped through (Sketch-map 3).
- From its command post just south of the Platanias river, the staff of 5th New Zealand Brigade witnessed the parachute and glider assault on Maleme airfield and reported back to the New Zealand Division. Shortly after 0900, the commander of the 5th Brigade was informed by the commander of 23rd Battalion that paratroops were landing between the 23rd and 22nd Battalions and that the situation was under control. At 1000, the brigade reported to the division that the air drop was of a large scale, that the antiaircraft guns were still in action, that the 23rd Battalion and the Engineer Detachment were engaged and that the situation was well in handΣ by the brigade. At 0920, the commander of the brigade considered that the situation in the sector of his brigade was developing favorably. This, however, was a false impression, because communications by telephone existed only to the 23rd Battalion. Communications with the other units had been severed. Between 1015 and 1030, when wireless contact between the brigade and the 22nd Battalion was re-established, the commander of the 5th Brigade received the message of the commander of the 22nd Battalion, requesting artillery support against the mortars and artillery pieces, which were shelling his battalionΥs area. The brigadier ordered the 27th Battery (seven 75mm and 100mm guns and two 3.7-inch howitzers) to commence firing on the designated and observed enemy positions. He also ordered ZΣ Coast Defense Battery Royal Marines, to participate in support with its 4-inch guns, but the latter was unable to do so as its firing positions would not allow. At 1025, the brigadier reported to the division that the enemy main effort in his area was directed against the 22nd Battalion. A message by the commander of the 22nd Battalion, received at 1055, informed the brigadier that the enemy attacks were in progress and that the battalion had lost contact with its companies. Hoping that his Headquarters Company could be sent as reinforcements, but unable to communicate himself, the battalion commander was requesting that the brigade do so instead. At 1140 the brigadier received another report by the 23rd Battalion that the situation in its area was completely under the control of the battalion. After 1200, the brigadier was informed through by a message of the 22nd Battalion that the enemy was firing with a 75mm gun and heavy machine guns from positions west of the Tauronites and appeared to be operating to the right of D Company.
At 1345, the commander of 5th Brigade was informed that 23rd Battalion had cleared its area of paratroopers and that it had dispatched reconnaissance patrols to the south, where other paratroops had been reported. At the same time the 21st Battalion reported that the situation was developing favorably.
At 1400, maps recovered from dead paratroopers revealed their plan to attack in an eastward direction.
At 1140, the 23rd Battalion sent a message to the brigade reporting that the battalion was always ready to launch a counterattack towards the 22nd Battalion in accordance with its mission objectives.
The brigadier replied to that at 1425 as follows:
Glad of your message of 1140 hrs. Will NOT call on you for counterattacking unless position very serious. So far everything is in hand and reports from other units satisfactory.11
At 1455, the brigade received a message from the 22nd Battalion reporting that the enemy had penetrated towards the positions of the battalion command post.
The commander of the 5th Brigade was finally informed by a wireless report of the commander of the 22nd Battalion at 1550 that the situation was deteriorating in the battalion sector, that the battalionΥs left had withdrawn and that the battalion needed to be reinforced by its Headquarters Company. However, he considered that the situation was still under his control. At 1700, the 5th Brigade received another message of the 22nd Battalion, by which its commander requested that a counterattack be launched by the 23rd Battalion. The brigadier replied that the 23rd was engaged fighting parachutists in its own sector. Then, the 22nd Battalion informed the brigade that it would launch a counterattack by the means available to it and received the brigadierΥs authorizing reply. At 1715, the brigade reported to the division that it would send two companies to the 22nd as reinforcements and later, informed the 22nd Battalion as well.
At 1800, the brigade commander was informed by the commander of the 22nd Battalion that his counterattack had failed and that the battalion would have to withdraw as no reinforcements from the 23rd had arrived.
Brigadier HargestΥs reply was: if you must, you must,Σ and he informed the 22nd that he would be sending two companies from the 23rd and 28th Battalions as reinforcements.
- At 2130, by another radio communication brought about again by the initiative of the commander of the 22nd Battalion, the brigadier was informed once again of the decision to withdraw the battalion to the positions of B Company, in other words essentially of the abandonment of the airfield and of Hill 107. This area was the most vital defensive area not only of the battalion, but of the brigade, the division and even Creforce itself. While the brigade was informed of this through the battalionΥs report, the division and Creforce had no idea, having had no report from the brigade, as the latter had taken no appropriate action to this effect.
At 2145, the brigade reported to the division that the 23rd Battalion and the 7th New Zealand Field Company were fatigued, but still in good fighting order, that there were hundreds of Germans killed in its area and that its units would be watching the coast very carefully during the night. The casualties of the 23rd Battalion numbered seven killed and twenty wounded, while the 22nd had suffered heavily. It was also reported that two companies had been dispatched to the 22nd Battalion, and were expected to arrive at approximately 2045 (A Company of the 23rd Battalion), and 2100 (B Company of the 28th); that communication with the 22nd Battalion had been cut since 2030 and that the situation was completely satisfactory.12
Engagements of the 1st Greek Infantry Regiment
and of the Military Academy of Cadets
- On 20 May, the 1st Greek Infantry Regiment, comprising two battalions and a machine gun company, had deployed as follows (Sketch-map 1):
Its command post was established in a monastery on a height south of Kastelli.
Battalion I/1, with a machine gun platoon, held the eastern entrance to the valley of Kastelli. It covered the town and its area from that direction with two companies. A third company of the battalion was in reserve on the southern fringes of Kastelli. Battalion II/1 held the western entrance to the Kastelli valley and the Mesogeia valley, with two companies and three machine guns. The regimentΥs mission was to provide cover for the forces in Maleme sector from that direction, by repelling any enemy landings from the air or the sea. These landings were considered a very serious possibility.
At approximately 0800, a 70-strong force of parachutists, reinforced by heavy weapons, was dropped in an area about three kilometers to the east of the troops of the 1st Greek Infantry Regiment that were covering the eastern fringes of Kastelli. These paratroopers belonged to Battalion II of the Parachute Storm Regiment, and were commanded by Lieutenant MŸrbe. They rapidly assembled and opened sustained fire on the defensive positions of the battalion deployed to the east, which, however, repulsed them successfully, supported by a group of about 200 armed peasants. Meanwhile, the reserve company of the battalion moved up to reinforce the front-line, towards that part of the disposition where the attack was launched. This was done to increase the defendersΥ firepower, enabling them to respond to some measure to the power of the enemy fire, given that the Germans were firing with light artillery, submachine guns and mortars, against which the Greek regiment could not array but a handful of St-ƒtienne machine guns.
Another company moved to the east using tracks running south of the positions occupied by the Germans. Having outflanked them, it turned north and attacked their rear. The German force, finding itself in a crossfire, was annihilated. Its casualties were 48 killed and 28 prisoners.13
Valuable equipment was captured by the Greeks. It included:
One 57mm artillery piece, two large-caliber mortars and four small ones, Thirty-two sub-machine guns, one motorcycle, four antiaircraft guns, a radio set and a considerable quantity of ammunition, a large part of which was taken by the armed peasants who had rushed to assist.
The prisoners were taken to the Gendarmerie Station at Kastelli. No further incursions were made in this area during the rest of the day. The Greek casualties were 57 killed and 62 wounded; one New Zealander instructor was wounded.
- The cadets of the Military Academy were deployed defensively southwest of the Gonia Monastery on the heights of the Rodopos peninsula, where they were attacked by strong patrols of the Storm Regiment. After a battle that lasted many hours, during which the Germans sustained heavy casualties, in the afternoon the cadets withdrew fighting to the heights northwest of the monastery. They also had sustained significant casualties.
With ammunition running low (10 to 15 rounds per rifle) the cadets ran the danger of being exterminated or captured if they had to stay on the narrow peninsula. Therefore, the command of the Academy decided to retreat under the cover of darkness to the south, breaking out of the German encirclement.
At approximately 2000, guided by a force of the Kolymbari Gendarmerie and local inhabitants, the cadets, bypassing the German positions and moving through tracks and gullies, arrived at the village of Deliana at around 0600 on 21 May 1941, where they spent the day organizing defense positions.
Engagements of the 10th New Zealand Brigade
- The 10th New Zealand Brigade was deployed in the AlikianosΠ AghyaΠGalatas area including the coast north of Galatas. Its mission was to cover the area of ChaniaΠSuda from the west and south, to repel any seaborne or airborne invasion in its area and to hold its positions. This brigade was established on 16 May by the 6th and 8th Greek Infantry Regiments, the Composite New Zealand Battalion (of artillerymen and enlisted men from various services), and a detachment of the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, fighting on foot (Sketch-map 1).
In addition, the 20th New Zealand Infantry Battalion of the 4th New Zealand Brigade had also been attached, but could not be used without authorization by the New Zealand Division.
The brigade units were allocated into two groups:
The first, comprised the Composite Battalion, the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment and the brigade headquarters, and was deployed with the village of Galatas as their vital point. The second, comprised the 8th Greek Infantry Regiment occupying the Alikianos area. Bands of armed civilians had also been formed at Alikianos and the surrounding villages and were in close cooperation with the regiment.
The 8th Greek Infantry Regiment was totally isolated from the brigade.
The New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Detachment had deployed near the village of Kyrtomados with orders to withdraw, if it came under pressure, towards the positions of the Composite Battalion.
The valley between the two groups of Aghya and Alikianos was devoid of any troops.
- The first echelon of attack group against Chania and Suda consisted of the 3rd Parachute Regiment as well as other divisional units and formations of the 7th Parachute Division. The commander and the staff of the 7th Parachute Division would also land with these troops.
The mission of this group, after dropping in the Aghya and Alikianos valley, was as follows:14
- a) To tie down strong enemy forces in order to assist the fighting for the capture of Maleme airfield by blocking the movement of any reinforcements towards it.
- b) To attempt to capture Chania by a coup de main (Handstreich).
- c) To try and link up the two combat groups (western and central) as soon as possible.
The fighters and bombers of the VIIIth Air Corps were to provide the units with air support throughout the operation, both during the landings and the operations on the ground.
For the accomplishment of this mission the following orders were issued:
Parachute Battalions I/3 and II/3 and the Heavy Weapons Company would land by parachute on the road southwest of the Aghya Rural Prison complex and then move to attack in the direction of Akroteri peninsula and link up with the Altmann Detachment.
Battalion III/3 would drop north and northeast of Galatas and capture the Transit Center, the villages of Galatas and Daratsos and then attack to capture Chania.
The divisional Parachute Engineer Battalion would land north of Alikianos to cover the rear of the 3rd Parachute Regiment, capture the hydroelectric plant at Aghya and dispatch reconnaissance patrols towards Skenes (in Fournes area), to free the Italian prisoners held there in the prisoner of war camps.
The VIIIth Air Corps was ordered to launch preparatory bombardment and then to provide air support to the landing troops during their ground operations.
The attack was set for 0815 of D-Day.
- Following the preliminary bombardment, the German units began to land in gliders or parachutes, while the fighters and bombers flying above were ready to provide support to their actions on the ground. These landings and air drops went ahead as follows:
The Parachute Engineer Battalion was dropped west of the 8th Greek Infantry Regiment, with the bulk of its forces landing around Episkope.
Parachute Battalion I/3, between the 6th and 8th Greek Infantry Regiments, from the Aghya prison to the 8th Infantry Regiment positions.
Parachute Battalion II/3 (minus the 7th Company), parallelly and immediately to the north of I/3.
The gliders carrying the staff of 7th Parachute Division landed south and in contact with Parachute Battalion III/3. One of the gliders was lost during the travel to Crete. It crashed near the island of Aegina, when its wings sheared off, and it was carrying the commander of 7th Parachute Division, Major General SŸssman. Everybody on board was killed and the command of the division, until a replacement would arrive, temporarily devolved to the commander of the 3rd Parachute Regiment, Colonel Heidrich, who commanded with the assistance of the rest of the staff of the division that had landed with gliders.
The 7th Company was dropped just south of Dampia Hill.
The 9th Company and the staff of Parachute Battalion III/3 landed to the right of the defensive line of the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment.
The 4th Antiaircraft Machine gun Parachute Company dropped southeast of Daratsos and on the positions of the 19th New Zealand Battalion, by the village of Galaria. It established itself firmly on the heights and the houses of the village and provided fire support within the range of its weapons for the troops of Parachute Battalion III/3.
The 12th Parachute Company landed on the western heights of Perivolia, and to the east of the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment, except for a small section of it, which dropped north of Galatas, moved against the town and was annihilated by the local inhabitants and troops of the support services of the 10th New Zealand Brigade.
The 10th Parachute Company and a number of dispersed parachutists assembled in the drop zone of this company as soon as they had landed, and attacked the 6th Field Ambulance and the 7th General Hospital (Sketch-map 4).
Heavy casualties were inflicted on the parachutists, weakening their fighting strength as they dropped in groups on top of the English positions and were being already killed by the dozens in the air . . . 15
The Battle Unfolds
- On 20 May, the 8th Greek Infantry Regiment with its command post in the church of Aghya, was deployed along the AghyaΠAlikianos road, with one company in Aghya and another at the Alikianos bridge. A third company was deployed on Hill 145 and a fourth one on the heights immediately to the southeast of Agios Georgios.
Bands of armed peasants held positions on the northern edge of the village of Alikianos, in contact with the company of the regiment that occupied the bridge. Other bands were deployed in dominating positions on the heights around the villages of Vryses, Kouphos and Patelari, with their front towards the AlikianosΠAghya valley.
The Engineer Battalion of the 7th Parachute Division, reinforced by a machine gun company and an antitank platoon, landed in front of the Greek regiment. The signals platoon of the battalion landed in the village of Patelari, and immediately was fired upon by the armed inhabitants of the village. The rest of the battalion landed west of the AghyaΠAlikianos road in front of the regiment, which had already occupied its fight positions during the preliminary bombardment.
- As the paratroopers began their drop, they came under fire. All who landed near our lines were killed. The men, despite being practically without training, never panicked and fought bravely . . .Σ16 In addition, many of the regimentΥs unarmed men as well as local inhabitants were armed by collecting the weapons off the dead parachutists.17
At 1200, the 2nd Parachute Engineer Company attacked Alikianos, but encountered determined resistance by the armed peasants and the company of the regiment which held positions there, and as a result it was pinned down about one kilometer from the Alikianos bridge. The 4th Parachute Engineer Company tried to capture the hydroelectric plant at Aghya as soon as it landed, but was repulsed with heavy losses. At 1230, it was ordered to reinforce the 2nd Parachute Engineer Company by attacking the heights south of Episkope and Agios Georgios. It moved against these positions but was repulsed by the Greek troops deployed there.
At 1400, seven transport planes dropped weapons and ammunition intended for the units of the 3rd Parachute Regiment. These however landed in the positions of the 8th Greek Infantry Regiment. This allowed even more of its unarmed men to be equipped.
During all this fighting the regimentΥs positions were under constant strafing attacks by the enemy air force. The regiment sustained many losses due to its inadequate fieldworks, a result of the shortage of proper entrenching tools and of the stony ground.
After dark, the troops of the regiment that were closely to Aghya realized that the Parachute Engineer Battalion was retreating towards Aghya prison. This followed an order by Heidrich to the battalion, to dispatch at least one complete company as reinforcement. However, the German major decided to move to Aghya with the his entire battalion.
Thus, the Parachute Engineer Battalion, despite its efforts of 20 May to capture the AlikianosΠAghya area, was unable to complete its mission, leaving behind many casualties. It was successfully repulsed by the recruits of the 8th Greek Infantry Regiment and the armed peasants.
The regiment was assisted in its battle by its very capable and brave New Zealand instructor squad, under Major Wilson, who, however, was killed the following day.
- Parachute Battalion I/3 attacked and captured the unguarded prison complex at Aghya, as soon as it had landed. From there it moved against the positions of the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment on the heights east of Aghya. On the way, it linked up with the 11th Company and thus reinforced continued the attack towards Perivolia.
Upon landing, Battalion II/3 deployed in reserve in the Aghya prison area. The command post of the 3rd Regiment was established inside the prison. The regimental commander, together with the staff of the 7th Division, was assigned, as mentioned, the temporary command of the whole division. A part of the prison was organized as a field hospital.18
The 13th and 14th (Heavy Weapons) Companies landed together with Battalion II/3. These forces opened fire on the observed positions of 10th New Zealand Brigade, in support of the attacking parachute units of the regiment.
- The 6th Greek Infantry Regiment held the line from the southeastern approaches of Dampia19 ΠGalatas cemeteryΠPotisteriaΠAnnibali Tower,20 deployed as follows:
The command post of the regiment was in the cemetery of the village of Galatas. The 4th (Machine gun) Company on the southeastern approaches of Dampia. To its east the 2nd Company was deployed. East of the 2nd Company was the 5th Company anchoring its left on the western slopes of the cemetery hill. On the cemetery hill itself there were no forces except an antiaircraft machine gun of the 10th New Zealand Brigade.
The 6th Company had anchored its right (western) flank on the southeastern approaches to the cemetery hill, while its left (eastern) flank occupied positions 300 meters northwest of the Aghya prisonΠChania road.
The 1st Company was deployed in a ravine immediately to the southeast of the AghyaΠChania road. To its east, the 3rd Company occupied a position extending from Annibali Tower to Potisteria village, inclusive. These two companies were thus isolated from the regiment and had no contact between them.
The only means of communication between the regiment and its companies, and between the regiment and the brigade, was by messengers.
The regiment also had a fairly large New Zealand instructor group attached under a captain. This group, together with some thirty recruits of the 6th Infantry Regiment occupied positions next to the cemetery.
During noon of 19 May, the regiment had received ammunition, but this had not been fully distributed yet.
- The 6th Greek Infantry Regiment, took the brunt of the German attack, as the 3rd Parachute Battalion was dropped by accident on and around its positions. It was attacked on all sides.
The 4th and 2nd Companies were attacked by the 9th Parachute Company and the command elements of Battalion III, from the rear and from within their positions. At the same time, the 7th Parachute Company engaged them to their front, and Parachute Battalion I/3 attacked them from its drop zone. The 4th (Machine Gun) Company resisted for a short while and then, its commander, Lieutenant Demetrios Xerogiannes, being killed, it was silenced and disintegrated.
The 2nd Company was crushed and dispersed. The command post of the regiment and the 5th and 6th Companies, along with the instructor group, were attacked by troops of the 9th Parachute Company from the northeast and of the 12th Company from the southwest. They also received fire from the Parachute Antiaircraft Machine Gun Company.
Among the first killed were the regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel (of the Reserve) Michael Gregoriou and his second in command, Captain Ioannes Psemoules. The Cemetery Hill fell into the hands of the Germans, at the time when the 6th Greek Company was counterattacking troops of the 12th Parachute Company and was recapturing their positions east of the cemetery. Almost the entire personnel of the 1st Company, with its commanding officer, were taken prisoner by the 11th Parachute Company and troops of the Parachute Battalion I, except for one platoon, which escaped in the direction of the 3rd Company.
The 6th Company, under Lieutenant (of the Reserve) Eumorphopoulos, after having recaptured their positions, continued their attack towards the drop zone of the 12th Parachute Company, where they killed many parachutists still in the landing pattern and forwarded two platoons some 400 meters to the south of its defensive positions. At 1100 the company withdrew to its original positions, because it came under intense enemy fire from the Aghya prison and its western flank. There, however, it came under a withering crossfire from all directions and after a gallant resistance, having lost all of its platoon leaders and with its commanding officer gravely wounded, the company was dispersed and its enlisted men, all of them recruits, retreated towards Galatas.
The 3rd Company was attacked by the 11th Parachute Company and troops of Parachute Battalion I/3. It resisted until 1130 when it had to pull back towards Annibali Tower. There it came under friendly mortar fire from the British positions at Galatas, and, still under pressure from the enemy troops, continued its retreat and by 1400 had slipped through to the heights south of Mournies, where it reorganized and was placed under the command of the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment.
Annibali Tower was captured by the Germans.
From the noon hours of 20 May 1941, the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment had ceased to exist as a unit. From elements of its dispersed companies, which were assembled by the commander of the 2nd Company, by the British liaison officer and by a staff officer of the 10th New Zealand Brigade, new forces were reconstituted. A force of over two hundred men, under a British captain was reconstituted in Galatas, and another one, over five hundred-strong in the positions of 19th Battalion. A third was being reorganized to the north of Dampia.
Although the 6th Regiment was not mentioned as a unit any more, the newly reconstituted forces played a crucial role in the Galatas area with an efficiency far greater than warranted by their weaponry.
- The Composite New Zealand Battalion had been formed from artillery men and logistics and transport personnel, all fighting as infantrymen.
These men constituted five groups, each one manning the following strongpoints (Sketch-map 1): A coastal strongpoint, situated between the coast and the northern slopes of Agios Ioannes Hill;21 a strongpoint between Agios Ioannes Hill and Ruin Hill; other strongpoints on Wheat Hill, Ruin Hill, and Dampia (or Pink Hill).
As the parachutists were landing, the Dampia strongpoint opened fire on troops of Battalion II/3 and other parachutists dropping scattered around its position. Then it was attacked by the 7th and 9th Parachute Companies, which were at the same time attacking the right of the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment, and it fell back towards the positions of Wheat Hill strongpoint.
As a result of this, the headquarters of the 10th Brigade was also forced to pull back towards Ruin Ridge, north of Galatas, next to the command post of the Composite Battalion. At 1045, the commander of the brigade reported to the division that communications had been cut, there was an enemy breakthrough in the right of the 6th Greek Infantry RegimentΥs disposition, and that he was attempting to reorganize it. Finally, he reported that he had no news of the Divisional Cavalry Detachment or the 8th Greek Infantry Regiment. He also informed the 4th New Zealand Brigade that groups of parachutists were already in Galatas and requested the employment of combat patrols (from the 19th Battalion) to eliminate them.
- Following the withdrawal of the New Zealand force from Dampia and the capture by the Germans of the positions south of Galatas, occupied till then by the 6th Greek Regiment, the 19th Battalion was cut off from the Composite New Zealand Battalion.
Meanwhile, a force of 200 men from the dispersed 6th Greek Infantry Regiment had been formed in Galatas and another one was being formed north of Dampia.
Shortly after noon, without any direct orders from the brigade, the reconstituted Greek force in Galatas suddenly rushed out of the village, charged with the bayonet and wild cries at the German positions in Dampia and then on the Galatas cemetery, carried both and only stopped at the Aghya prisonΠChania road, reoccupying the original positions of the 6th Regiment. At the same time, the New Zealand company which had withdrawn earlier from Dampia, charged the hill from the northwest. Thus a link-up between the 19th Battalion and the Composite Battalion was re-established. A thin line of defense was formed in the direction of Aghya prison, reinforced by the other Greek force, which had been reconstituted to the north of Dampia. However, the enemy fire was so effective on Cemetery Hill that the defenders pulled back to the height north of it and the Germans recaptured the hill.
At 1415, with telephone communication restored, the commander of the 10th New Zealand Brigade reported to the division that the brigade units held their positions, except for the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment which was weak and had no ammunition. He also suggested that a strong counterattack would clear the Aghya prison area.
A fresh German attack was launched on the new positions of the Greeks and on Dampia at around 1430 by the 5th Parachute Company and other smaller forces. The attack was repulsed and the fighting petered out.
After this failure, the commander of the 3rd Parachute Regiment ordered a new attack by the 6th Parachute Company and the headquarters troops of Parachute Battalion III/3. As a result of this, the troops holding Dampia defended the hill until evening, but were forced to pull back intending to reorganize and to counterattack in the dawn of 21 May.
During this last German attack, the commander of the 10th Brigade realized that the GermansΥ main assembly area was the Aghya prison and that he was unable by his own means to do something to clear the situation outright. He thus sent a new message to the division requesting that additional infantry units be assigned to him in order to attack. The response was that . . . something would be done.Σ22
The Greek forces holding the line east of Dampia, as far as the AlikianosΠChania road, continued to hold out. At dark, this force was reinforced by the Divisional Cavalry (Russell) Detachment, which meanwhile had fallen back to the Galatas area from its original position at Kyrtomados.
A while later, the commander of the 10th Brigade was informed by the 19th Battalion that the Germans appeared to be preparing a landing strip by the rural prison. The information was passed on to the division. However, there was no reply due to the communications being cut once again, so that the brigadier could not know the division commanderΥs views on this new intelligence.
- At 1900 the commander of 10th Brigade dispatched an officer to the New Zealand Division with the following report, in which he presented his view of the situation.23
Div(isional) Cav(alry) Det(achment) arrived without loss and is at GALATOS. No word of 8th Greeks. 6th Greeks have disappeared. Landing at 1700 hrs mainly stores but prisoner says many more t(roo)ps will arrive tonight.
Blackburn reports position intact but small parties in rear not disposed of.
Pressure on my left has been increasing. Left Co(mpan)y has retired 200 y(ar)ds causing next Co(mpan)y to come back. Casualties ab(ou)t 60 incl(uding) 4 off(icers) and are continuing steadily. Rations and ammo allright; water short. Loss all on left.
Can carry wounded to MALEME R(oa)d if trucks can be sent up.
If no counterattack can be mounted to clear prison area where enemy are clearing landing field suggest that after dark I should withdraw to shorter line N(orth)ΠS(outh) astride MALEME (Coast) road retaining contact with Blackburn.
Wire to you has been down for two hours and enemy are at present within short range of exchange.
Please advise position and instruct. DonΥt think this line would hold against any serious attack tomorrow.
Have had to thin out beach defense.
This report had been submitted by the commander of the 10th Brigade without previous knowledge of the actions of the division commander, following his earlier message by telephone, at 1415 (see paragraph 83).
The commander of the New Zealand Division, upon receiving the telephone report of the 10th Brigade informing him of the GermansΥ efforts to clear a runway west of the Aghya prison, decided to launch a counterattack against the prison area. He was aiming, on one hand, to stop the Germans from completing the construction of the runway, on the other, to bolster the morale of the 10th Brigade.
With this in mind, at 1820 he sent his orders by telephone to the 4th Brigade informing them that:
10 B(riga)de reports construction of landing ground in PRISON area 0553. 4 Inf(antry) B(riga)de will counterattack with one b(attalio)n L(igh)t tanks and carriers to clear prison area of enemy. When attack completed 19 B(attalio)n will come under com(man)d 10 B(riga)de to hold pos(itio)n on left of 1 COMP(osite) on line previously held by 6 G(ree)k B(attalio)n down to incl(uding) r(oa)d CANEAΠALYKIANOU. 20 B(attalio)n comes under com(man)d of 4 Inf(antry) B(riga)de fortwith (…)
Engagements of the 4th New Zealand Brigade
- The 4th New Zealand Brigade, under Brigadier Inglis, with his headquarters at Euthymi village, comprised the 18th, 19th and 20th New Zealand Battalions and the 1st Welch Battalion, deployed inside the defensive perimeter of ChaniaΠSuda area. The brigade was the reserve of Creforce with orders to be ready to move its three battalions at short notice to counterattack in any direction, while the 1st Welch . . . was to come under command whenever Creforce saw fit.Σ24 The 20th New Zealand Battalion was tactically subordinated to the 10th New Zealand Brigade under the proviso that the battalion should be ready to move under direct orders from the New Zealand Division.
The brigade battalions formed a triangle, deployed around the villages of Euthymi (the 18th), Aptera (the 20th) and Daratsos (the 19th) (Sketch-map 2). This deployment allowed rapid reaction against any direction, while at the same time it secured the area against any incursion from the sea or the air. The bulk of the 19th Battalion was deployed to the south and southeast of Daratsos. Inside the battalion area was deployed F Troop of the 28th Battery (with two Italian 75mm guns), which was allocated as the fire support element of 10th Brigade. The 1st Light Troop Royal Artillery, with four 3,7-inch howitzers, was deployed immediately to the south of the battalion and east of the AlikianosΠChania road.
The headquarters of the New Zealand Division was established just south of 20th Battalion and along the ChaniaΠSuda road.
The 7th General Hospital was deployed northwest of the 20th Battalion and the 6th Field Ambulance, to the west of Euthymi.
- According to the German attack plan, after the preliminary bombardment, Parachute Battalion III/3, landing in the Daratsos area, would operate in conjunction with the other battalions of the 3rd Parachute Regiment that were to be dropped in the Aghya prison valley, with the following missions: first to pin down as many enemy forces as possible in the area, in order to assist the Storm Regiment fighting at Maleme airfield, and second, to attack and capture Chania.
As mentioned above, in the account of the battle of the 10th New Zealand Brigade, Parachute Battalion III/3 was not dropped according to schedule, but landed far to the south of its intended landing zone and much dispersed. Thus, in the area of the 4th Brigade landed only the 10th Company, on the positions of the 6th Field Ambulance and south of the 7th General Hospital. The Antiaircraft Parachute Machine Gun Company landed near the positions of the 19th Battalion and to its south, and the 9th Parachute Company with the staff of Battalion III/3 to the west of the 19th and with the great part of its forces mainly on the positions of the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment.
The parachutists that landed near the 19th Battalion were rapidly mopped up by battalion patrols, while those landing more to the south fought against the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment and the Composite Battalion of the 10th Brigade. By 1600 about 100 to 150 paratroopers had been put out of action by the 19th Battalion.
The 1st Light Troop was captured by the parachutists, and most of its personnel was killed. One of the batteryΥs guns was used by the Germans against the 28th Battery. The other three guns had been disabled by their crews, before the battery fell into German hands.
Apart from this, the observation post of the 28th Battery, situated on Cemetery Hill, was lost when the Germans captured the hill. Therefore, it was impossible for the artillery to use indirect fire in support of 10th Brigade and could only fire through open sights in its area. It seems there was no provision for alternate observation posts, or more possibly, there was not enough equipment to allow a new observation post to be set up.
The 10th Parachute Company attacked and captured the 6th Field Ambulance and then the 7th General Hospital. The paratroopers, isolated among enemy forces, retreated to the south, around noon, to link up with the bulk of their forces, taking with them their walking sick and wounded.
The 4th Brigade ordered the 18th New Zealand Battalion to employ some of its companies in order to intercept the Germans. In the clash that followed, the 10th Parachute Company was dispersed. Only a few survivors succeeded in escaping and linking up with the 11th Company, further south, which had also sustained casualties from the patrols of the 19th Battalion. During the clashes with elements of this battalion, the sick and wounded prisoners were released and twelve parachutists were taken prisoner instead.
The commander of the 4th Brigade was informed of the capture of the positions of the 1st Light Troop at 1600. He decided to recapture the batteryΥs positions and ordered the 18th Battalion to attack with a detachment formed by one of its companies, reinforced by one Bren Carrier, a mortar and three light tanks (C Squadron of the 3rd Hussars). But the orders did not reach the tanks in time, and at 1700 the attack was launched without their support. The detachment met strong resistance and under withering fire from machine guns and mortars was pinned down. Finally, after dark, it withdrew to its original position. The Germans held on to the positions of the captured battery.
- At 1820, the commander of the 4th Brigade received an order by the New Zealand Division to launch a counterattack. The brigade commander decided to employ the 19th Battalion, as it was better oriented and closer to the area against which the attack would be launched. The following order to the commander of the 19th Battalion, was issued at 1830:
- Enemy are preparing what appears to be a landing ground 1000x to the west of the Prison 0553.
- 19 B(attalio)n will counterattack this area fortwith with
(One) B(attalio)n if situation permits.
(Two) Co(mpanie)s if B(attalio)n Com(man)d considers that one co(mpan)y should be left in the present pos(itio)n.
- One t(roo)p of 3 Hussars will come under com(man)d 19 B(attalio)n for the operation.
- After clearing the landing ground 19 B(attalio)n with under com(man)d one t(roo)p 3 Hussars will take up a defensive pos(itio)n covering the landing ground but with bulk of forces North of r(oa)d KhaniaΠAghya 0352.
The commander of the 19th Battalion received the order on 1830. Taking into account the weakness of the Greek troops in the front before him, decided to launch the attack with two companies. At 1915, these troops moved out, while the three light tanks were still moving south through Galatas. As the companies advanced, they lost contact between them due to darkness and rough terrain.
One of the companies, moving towards Dampia, clashed with strong pockets of resistance of parachutists who held on to the hill. During these clashes, a number of heavy weapons were captured and twenty Germans were killed, but the company also suffered heavy casualties.
The company on the right contacted German groups near Ruin Hill, while one of its platoons advanced up to a point where Greek and German troops were fighting.
During the night, the companies linked up about one kilometer north of the Aghya prison. There, the company commanders jointly decided to stay in place and continue the attack on the following dawn from that point.
- Meanwhile, the commander of the 10th Brigade was informed at around 2000 by the officers of the tanks, which had moved forward to Galatas, of the counterattack, and that the 19th Battalion had been assigned to his brigade, which was probably a misunderstanding on their part of the divisionΥs order.
The brigade commander sped to the 19th Battalion and ordered the attack to be called off and the companies to fall back, believing that the forces and time available were inadequate for such a task. Patrols were sent out to find the companies, a mission which they accomplished only at 0700 of 21 May, and they conveyed the orders to fall back to the battalionΥs positions.
This sums up the activity of 20 May in the area of the 4th Brigade, where, apart from small, isolated paratrooper groups trying to retreat southwards, there was no organized enemy presence inside the area, with the exception of the captured battery position.
Casualties were heavy on both sides. A characteristic example is that of the 19th Battalion, which alone accounted for 150 parachutists killed, while, on the other hand, out of 87 officers and enlisted men of the 1st Light Battery, only four were alive.
- The commander of the New Zealand Division at the beginning of the attack had at his disposal the 5th and 10th New Zealand Brigades and the 20th Battalion of the 4th New Zealand Brigade. From 1100 of 20 May, Creforce also made available to him the 18th and 19th New Zealand Battalions from the reserve force.
Reports from the 5th Brigade on 20 May 1941 were satisfactory throughout the day.
No alarming information were received by the divisional commander from this subsector of his division. Only at 0400, on 21 May 1941, was he informed of the dangerous situation developing in the sector of the 5th Brigade. At 1100 of 20 May, the commander of the New Zealand Division was informed, through a message sent at 1030 by the 10th Brigade, of the critical situation in its area, and received the first request by the brigade commander for a counterattack, the first of many, as presented above.
Being concerned by the possibility of a seaborne landing, however, he was reluctant to move any forces, and only when he received information that the Germans were preparing a landing strip at Aghya prison, did he issue the order to the 4th Brigade to launch a counterattack to clear the situation in the Aghya prison area. The commander of the 10th Brigade was never informed of the impending counterattack, because communications had broken down at the time.
The night found the commander of the New Zealand Division optimistic for the Maleme subsector, concerned about the possibility of seaborne landings and awaiting the results of the counterattack on Aghya prison, which, however, never took place.
Fighting in the SudaΠChania Sector
- The forces under General Weston in the SudaΠChania area comprised the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment, the MNBDO units and the Regimental Depot Battalion of Chania, as well as smaller composite Australian and British forces. The 1st Welch Battalion was also in the area, forming the reserve of the Creforce commander. These units were deployed as follows (Sketch-map 5):
The Regimental Depot Battalion of Chania was distributed into various strongpoints in and around the city.
The 1st Welch Battalion was entrenched in the southern and eastern outskirts of the city.
The 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment manned the outer perimeter of the whole disposition, with its front towards the Aghya prison valley and occupying the area PerivoliaΠMournies and the height to its south. A force of Nortumberland Hussars, fighting as infantry, was deployed in the heights between the villages of Kounoupidiana and Agios Matthaios, in the Akroteri peninsula, with their main mission to protect Creforce headquarters.
The Suda harbor defenses were the responsibility of the MNBDO forces, to which had been attached artillery troops used as infantry.
Australian units, composite in their majority, were distributed along the coast of Suda bay as infantry protection forces for artillery and as coastal defense.
The antiaircraft artillery and the coast defense artillery of MNBDO was also deployed in this area, except for a few pieces with their crews which had been attached to the 5th New Zealand Brigade sector.
- Against this area the Germans allocated half a battalion, comprising the 1st and 2nd Parachute Companies of Battalion I of the Parachute Storm Regiment. These companies, reinforced by machine guns from the Storm Regiment, formed two glider detachments, under Captain Altmann and Lieutenant Gentz with the following missions:
The Altmann Detachment was to land in the area of Kounoupidiana and eliminate the Akroteri antiaircraft defenses and command posts. The Gentz Detachment would neutralize the antiaircraft defenses south of Chania and capture the Chania wireless station. Then, it was to link up with the forces of the 3rd Parachute Regiment, which meanwhile would arrive from the direction of Aghya, and make a combined attack on Chania.
The main mission of these units, in other words, was to conduct probing attacks in order to facilitate the mission of the attacking units.
At 0800, of 20 May 1941, the gliders of the Altmann Detachment approached Crete, along with the rest of the Storm Regiment, and headed towards Akroteri. However, on receiving heavy antiaircraft fire in the Suda area, the gliders were released too soon and ended up widely dispersed on the Akroteri peninsula, while a number of them crashed. The gliders that landed safely were so dispersed that they proved easy prey for the patrols of the Northumberland Hussars and the Regimental Depot Battalion of Chania which attacked them immediately. Most of the detachmentΥs men were killed outright, including their commander, and their mission was never accomplished. The remnants found refuge in isolated positions, which were gradually reduced and they were taken prisoner or killed.
Total losses of the detachment amounted to 48 killed and 36 wounded.
Of the Gentz Detachment, one glider crashed in the approach flight. The rest of the force upon landing attacked the 234th Heavy Antiaircraft Artillery Battery, northeast of Mournies. The unitΥs personnel was killed except for eight men who were taken prisoner.
The detachment held its positions until the early afternoon, coming under repeated attack by forces of the Regimental Depot Battalion of Chania and surrounding British units. Pushed back, it tried to slip through towards Aghya and succeeded on the following day in linking up with troops of the 11th Parachute Company at Perivolia. Of the initial force of over 50 men of this company, only 24 were still alive including their commander.
The area of SudaΠChania was not threatened by any other incursion by ground troops on 20 May 1941.
The bombardment and strafing of Chania and Suda continued unabated and caused much human loss and damage.
Parachute Battalion I/3, together with the 11th Parachute Company, continued to move east after the withdrawal of the 3rd Greek Company to Annibali Tower, and advanced to Perivolia, and from there to Mournies. During that movement, they were aggressively counterattacked by troops of the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment and had to fall back to Perivolia.
There, during the evening hours, they were ordered by the commander of the 3rd Parachute Regiment to move and reinforce the defensive group of Aghya. Thus, in effect, by the evening of 20 May, Suda was free of any organized enemy force.
According to the estimate by the commander of the central attack group the situation at the end of the day could be described as follows:
The occupation of Chania, according to the provisions of the plan, had not been accomplished.
The assault troops in gliders, which had attacked the SudaΠChania area, had disintegrated without achieving their objectives. Battalion III/3 had lost two thirds of its strength without having captured the area of Galatas. Battalion I/3 had advanced east and had been forced to stop at Perivolia. The Parachute Engineer Battalion had limited success in the Aghya area having captured the pumping station. The planned link up of the western attack group (1st Parachute Regiment) with the central attack group (3rd Parachute Regiment) had not been achieved. Finally, he was expecting a counterattack by his opponents, which he considered impossible to repel easily with his Aghya forces only.
As a result, and because he considered an Allied attack imminent, he ordered all advance elements to assemble and reorganize in the Aghya prison area.26 All troops withdrew, including those in Dampia Hill, and began to organize in the area. The organization of the ground had been started by Parachute Battalion II/3, and were mistook by the British for work on an air strip, which caused them much concern.
- Early on the morning of 20 May, a strong parachute force landed near the estate house where Prime Minister Emmanouel Tsouderos was staying and to which had lodged the king, after his residence at Pelekapina had been heavily bombed. The prime ministerΥs residence, situated two kilometers to the south, provided better protection against an air attack, while it was close to the road of retirement leading to the south of Crete.
The landing of parachutists in the area convinced everyone that it constituted an operation to capture the King of the Hellenes, who was at the time considered as the number two enemy of the Axis.Σ The prime minister and his accompanying British military attach, Colonel J. S. Blunt, realizing the direct threat succeeded in convincing the king of the need to leave immediately towards the south of the island, from where, in case of unfavorable development of the battle, it would possible to evacuate to Egypt and continue the national struggle from there.
At 0930, the king and his escort, including Prince Peter, the grand chamberlain Colonel Levides, Prime Minister Tsouderos, the governor of the Bank of Greece Nikolaos Varvaressos and two aides, moved out through the mountain passes to the south. The security of the royal entourage was assigned to a force of the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment, until its southern boundary, a New Zealand platoon and a party of Greek gendarmes.
Shortly after they departed, a group of paratroopers landed near the escort and was dispersed by the fire of the security detachment. After five hours of marching through rough and mountainous terrain, during which they were repeatedly attacked and strafed from the air, the royal procession stopped to rest.
In the evening it reached the village of Therisos, which was almost devoid of men, because everybody who could bear arms had descended into the valley to fight. An elder of the village received them in his humble home.
The next day, they continued to climb until a height of 2500 meters and during the night of 21 to 22 May the king and his escort bivouacked out into the open amid snow. They continued on their way south on the 22nd, but the descent through the rocky and steep passes of the White Mountains proved harder than the climb.
During the whole of the exhausting trek, the king never once lost his smile. With great ease and irrepressible courage he sustained all the hardships, dangers and privations. He slept only little on the ground and shared the frugal meals offered by the local peasants with his escort. With torn boots and bloodied feet the party arrived at noon on 22 May at the village of Samaria (Osia Maria), ten kilometers from the south coast of the island. There, the royal party joined another team, containing the British ambassador to Greece, Sir Michael Palairet, his wife, the British naval attach, Admiral C. E. Turle, the deputy chief of the British Military Mission, Major General T. G. G. Heywood, and their escort. They had arrived from Chania on the previous day, by motor launch. On the night of 22 to 23 May, the king, with Prince Peter and the prime minister, along with their Greek and British company, embarked, from the bay of Agia Roumele, on the British destroyer H.M.S. Decoy, which sailed immediately to Alexandria.27
Decisions and Actions of the Opposing Forces
- The situation as estimated by the commander of Creforce, until 2200 of 20 May 1941, was presented by him in the following report to Headquarters Middle East.28
To-day has been a hard one. We have been hard pressed. So far, I believe, we hold aerodromes at Retimo, Herakleion, and Maleme, and the two harbours. Margin by which we hold them is a bare one, and it would be wrong of me to paint optimistic picture. Fighting has been heavy and we have killed large numbers of Germans. Communications are most difficult. Scale of air attacks upon Canea has been severe. Everybody here realises vital issue and we will fight it out.
In other words, until 2200 Freyberg considered that his forces controlled the airports and ports, but that their capabilities were limited.
As far as he could tell the situation appeared to be critical in the sector of the 10th New Zealand Brigade, and he did not hesitate to make the 18th and 19th Battalions available to the commander of the New Zealand Division, from 1100, so that he could use them in his threatened area. The commander of Creforce retained only the 1st Welch Battalion in reserve and moved the 2/8th Battalion from Rethymno to the SudaΠChania area in order to counter any eventuality. This battalion arrived during the night of 20 to 21 May and deployed almost without interference in the area of Mournies, for the troops of Colonel Heidrich had been concentrating back towards the Aghya prison, as mentioned, to counter the expected counterattack.
On the other hand, from captured documents Freyberg was able to read the operational plans of the 3rd Parachute Regiment and was in full knowledge of the GermansΥ intentions and of the fact that none of their objectives had been met, since according to their plan all three airfields and the three urban centers, Chania, Rethymno and Herakleion, ought to have been captured already by the parachutists.
He was, however, completely ignorant of the developing crisis at Maleme airfield, failing thus to intervene in time and effectively to restore the situation in that area.
- The commander of XIth Air Corps, at the end of the first day, 20 May, had collected information and based on these had reached the following conclusions:29
None of the objectives had been attained, because none of the vital points had been captured. The forces that had landed, due to immense losses and dispersion were in no condition to continue fighting alone. Maleme airfield was the only point where some success had been noted, with the penetration from the west achieved by the troops of the Storm Regiment and the bridgehead east of the Tauronites bridge.
Student did not know that in fact Maleme had been abandoned by the infantry troops of the 5th New Zealand Brigade and that it was only under mortar and artillery fire.
During the Nuremberg Trials, after the war, Student recited the following concerning the night of 20 to 21 May:
That night was crucial for me. If the enemy had made one general effort during the night of 20 to 21 May, or in the morning of the 21st, the tired remnants of the Regiment might have been overrun.
Based on this estimate, the commander of the XIth Air Corps decided to commit his entire reserve of parachutists in the Maleme area, to complete the capture of the airfield. This would be followed by the air landing of the 5th Mountain Division, allowing thus the assumption of offensive operations, with the aim to link up with the central attack group and move towards Chania. This would be followed by the capture of Suda bay. The VIIIth Air Corps would provide air support for these operations.
For implementing this decision, the following orders were issued:
The XIth Air Corps would reinforce the Storm Regiment with the remaining parachute forces that had not been dropped until then, to capture and secure Maleme airfield. After the capture of the airfield, the landing of the 5th Mountain Division would commence immediately. The first unit to disembark would be Mountain Battalion II/100, together with the divisionΥs headquarters, at that time both waiting in Tanagra airfield (in Attica).
The parachute forces still fighting in various sectors other than Maleme would have to continue fighting without reinforcements in personnel, but with air support, to pin down the defending British and Greek forces where they stood. Once the total force of the 5th Mountain Division would be on the ground, it would attack towards Chania, where it would link up with the central attack group and capture Suda.
The forces of the VIIIth Air Corps were ordered to eliminate the defending enemy forces and support the friendly troops on the ground.
Thus, while the commander of Creforce, ignorant of the real situation, was unable to make the right decisions to continue the battle, the German command estimated the situation accurately, made its decisions and issued the relevant orders for further action.
This delay of the Creforce command, which could be attributed to failure to receive timely information, allowed the enemy command to readjust its operation plan, despite the fact that up to that moment it had suffered defeat strategically and tactically. Strategically, because the strategic surprise had not been achieved, tactically because none of the specific objectives were attained.
The Fighting Around Maleme Airfield
(21 May 1941)
The New Zealand Division Sector
- At around 0020, on 21 May 1941, the commander of the 5th New Zealand Brigade was informed by telephone that the 22nd Battalion had abandoned its zone of defense. The commander of this battalion was proceeding to Platanias to the headquarters of the 5th Brigade, to explain the situation in person (Sketch-map 6).
Following this, the brigadier requested the other battalion commanders (21st and 23rd) and the commander of the 27th Battery to confer and report back with their views. After consultation, the three commanders decided that the battalions ought to hold their positions, relying on the 27th BatteryΥs interdiction fire to prevent the Germans from using the airfield. The 22nd Battalion would be reorganized in two reinforced companies.
These decisions were conveyed by telephone to the brigadier who approved.
On this decision the official New Zealand History comments the following:1
This decision, however, was too fateful to pass without comment. For now was the last chance to counterattack to regain the lost positions before the enemy could reorganise and reinforce. The enemy in 23 Battalion area did not exist as an organised force, 21 Battalion had come under no serious pressure, and only 22 Battalion was very much the worse for the previous dayΥs fighting.
No doubt the severity of the last twenty-four hourΥs experience would make Andrew [commander of 22nd Battalion] dubious of the prospects for the success of a counterattack. But it might have been expected that Leckie himself [commander of 21st Battalion] and Allen [commander of 23rd Battalion] would have seen at once the danger of the airfield now open to the enemy and the fact that if the counterattack was to take place it must take place at once. There was still time to get the two relatively fresh battalions organised for attack at daylight, if not before. Together they would have been strong enough to go forward and give the enemy a hard knock at worst, and at best regain Point 107. And 22 Battalion could have taken over the rear.
Here, again, it is to be regretted that Hargest [commander of 5th New Zealand Brigade] had not made 23 Battalion his advanced headquarters the previous day or earlier. As it was, the vital decision had to be taken by his juniors.
At around 0400, the brigadier informed the division that the 22nd Battalion had withdrawn and that his brigade could only bring the airfield under mortar and artillery fire. He also proposed a counterattack by the 28th Battalion and a second battalion, not of his brigade, because the 22nd had suffered greatly, the 21st was understrength and the 23rd held the entire front of the brigade towards Maleme. He also requested a company from the division to secure the positions of the 28th.
The division commander agreed with the brigadierΥs decisions and decided to launch a counterattack in the early hours of 22 May to restore the situation at Maleme. After 1130, he reported to Creforce on the situation which had developed up to that moment and proposed a counterattack to be launched during the following night.
- From 0600 of 21 May, the German air and ground forces began their operations for the complete seizure of Maleme airfield and the surrounding area, according to the decisions taken on the 20th. The time of the air drop of the parachutist reserves was brought forward, however, to 0800 instead of 1600 as originally provided. At around 0600, a German transport plane landed on Maleme airfield and unloaded ammunition under fire from the New Zealand mortars and artillery. The plane was destroyed, but only after having completed its mission.
A second plane landed at approximately the same time west of the Tauronites and evacuated the wounded General Meindl.
Meanwhile, the VIIIth Air Corps had begun the preparation of the new attack by bombing and strafing with a simultaneous effort to silence the British artillery.
At 0800, troop-carrier plane squadrons dropped a parachute company and one-and-a half company of the Antitank Battalion of the 7th Parachute Regiment, to the west of the Tauronites river. These were accompanied by Colonel Ramcke, the successor of Meindl, who took under his command the whole Maleme battle group.
Colonel Ramcke fixed the first objectives2 of the new attack, i.e. the complete capture of Hill 107 and the elimination of the artillery pieces firing on the airfield. To achieve these, he ordered the arriving reinforcements and the troops of the Storm Regiment to move towards Hill 107, and the villages of Maleme and Pyrgos, mopping-up any pockets of resistance. The troops moved out cautiously and with circumspection towards their objectives, which were seized during the morning hours, except for the village of Maleme, in which the defending Cretan villagers and a few remaining New Zealanders, supported by the 27th Battery and the fire by the westernmost sections of the 23rd Battalion, held out until 1600.
Since daybreak the 23rd Battalion was under fire by the Germans who, apart from their own means, were also using two captured Bofors guns from those abandoned at the airfield. The positions of C Troop of the 27th Battery also came under the German fire. By contrast, neither this troop nor the other two of the battery could fire in retaliation on the German guns, to provide some relief to the 23rd Battalion. As a result, the battalion withdrew its troops that were deployed west of the Sphakoryako stream to better covered and dominating positions immediately to the east.
By the middle of the afternoon, the advanced troops of the battalion came under intense strafing for an hour by the enemy air force. The commander, realizing that this was the preamble to a German attack, as in fact it was, ordered his reserve company to be ready to support the front line companies.
The attack did eventually come, but meeting a barrage of heavy automatic and rifle fire from the battalion, was smashed, with the Germans suffering heavy casualties.
Simultaneously with the air drops of 0800 west of Maleme, two more companies (the 5th and 6th of Parachute Battalion II/2) were dropped near the positions of the 28th (Maori) New Zealand Battalion. The German command made this mistake because . . . the landing zones ought to be close to the sea coast, due to the morphology of the ground.Σ3 The two companies found themselves confined between the sea and the positions of the 28th Battalion and the New Zealand Engineer Detachment, while a great number of them drowned, after being dropped into the sea.
Suffering extreme attrition and under constant attack by strong patrols of the New Zealand units, the two companies retreated towards Pyrgos along the coastal road, arriving there at nightfall. There, the survivors joined other troops that had seized Pyrgos and organized defensively. From these two companies only eighty men had survived, with the 5th Company losing all of its officers.
Thus, even this action, aiming to complete the capture and secure the airfield and the surrounding area, failed with heavy casualties for the German side. The airfield remained under constant artillery and mortar fire, and the New Zealanders held on to the positions they held in the morning.
The German 5th Mountain Division Begins to Land
- At approximately 0930, worried by the vague picture from incoming reports, Captain Kleye, a staff officer of General Student, flew to Maleme to form an impression by first hand on the situation and coordinate ground operations himself.
Captain Kleye landed on the coast to the west of Maleme airfield and, convinced that there was nothing one could do with the available troops, proposed that the landing of the 5th Mountain Division take place right away. This, he believed would break the dangerous stalemate into which the German forces on the ground had fallen, and which would result in victory for that side which would make the first move to resolve it.
As a result, General Student decided to put into effect the second part of his operational plan for that day, i.e. the air landing of the 5th Mountain Division to Maleme, despite the fact that the airfield was still not completely free, being under constant artillery and mortar fire.
He thus ordered the troop-carrier planes at Tanagra airfield, into which the staff of the 100th Mountain Regiment and the troops of Mountain Battalion II/100 of the 5th Mountain Division were waiting, to take off at 1315 and land at Maleme.
From 1600, the transport formations of General Conrad began to land in the area of Maleme airfield. The single landing strip, only 800 meters long and 150 meters wide, without any metalled surfaces, was designed to handle a few aircraft. Yet it had to receive waves upon waves of transports.4
A huge stinking pillar of smoke and dust, stirred up by the explosions of enemy shells and machine gun rounds tearing into the white metal skin of the aircraft, and from the explosions of bombs and strafing by the friendly air forces in support of our landing formations; Junkers planes burning and yet coming in to land amidst explosions of enemy aircraft bombs; a hellfire of enormous proportions; this was our reception at Maleme airfield.
Aircraft ranged in disorder next to others in ruins, wrecks, craters limited the available landing space even more than the small landing strip itself. On the ground, the air landing troops exited the planes even while these were still moving. The Junkers were landing in every space, wherever a small flat surface of a few square meters could be found, on the sandy elongated beach, on the other side of the airfield, even at sea. Destroyed friendly and enemy aircraft lay in heaps everywhere.
Despite all this, as if by a miracle, the landings take place, even if at great cost in men and materiel. As soon as the planes would land, they would taxi for immediate take off to make room for the ones behind.5
Thus, the mountain troops arrived in a chain-like sequence and they all had to go through this withering fire.
The landing was a great achievement of the pilots and the crews of the airplanes, the equal of which no one has yet shown.
By 1700, the landing of Mountain Battalion II/100 had been complete. The unit was commanded by the senior company commanding officer, because the battalion commander was wounded.
It was at about the same time that the last German efforts by the Storm Regiment troops, or by the morning reinforcements were petering out.
With the last troops of II/100 arrived the commander of the 100th Mountain Regiment, Colonel Utz, with the command formations and units of the regiment. The commander of the regiment immediately deployed Battalion II/100 with its front to the east, perceiving that the greatest threat was from this direction, as he could feel by the sound of battle.
Then, at approximately 2100, Colonel Utz contacted Colonel Ramcke and they decided that the forces of the Storm Regiment would reorganize and maintain their positions, reinforced by one company of Mountain Battalion II/100. The battalion itself would cover the airfield from the south and west. On the following day, with the arrival of additional units, they would attempt an outflanking maneuver from the south, towards Monodendri Hill,6 to the south of Agia Marina.
- In the afternoon of 21 May, the commander of the British forces in Crete realized that the situation was becoming critical due to the enemyΥs ability to land troop-carriers at Maleme airfield. Furthermore, there was always the threat of a decisive offensive action by the German forces at Aghya towards the north, to cut off the 5th Brigade. Finally, the threat of a seaborne landing was always a possibility. Based on the above three facts, he decided to launch a counterattack to recapture the airfield to interrupt the arrival of fresh troops to the island. The counterattack would be conducted by the 20th and 28th Battalions. To maintain the strength of the front to the coast and the potentiality to intervene towards the south, to the positions of the 20th Battalion, the 2/7th Australian Battalion was ordered to advance from Georgioupolis together with the 2/1st Australian Machine Gun Company. The Australian Engineer Company of Georgioupolis would move in its entirety and deploy between Stauros and Agia Marina, along with the Australian Field Ambulance.
The counterattack force would be reinforced by a troop of the 3rd Hussars (three light tanks) and would be supported by the artillery deployed in the divisional sector, reinforced by the 2/3rd Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery, and the section of the 106th Royal Horse Artillery (two 2-pounder antitank guns), which would be transported from Rethymno.
It was also requested from Middle East Headquarters to provide air support for the operation by bombing Maleme airfield between midnight and 0200 of 22 May 1941, while the Royal Navy would operate in the sea north of Crete, guarding against any German seaborne landing.
After the decision was taken to launch a counterattack, the concerns of the commander of Creforce over the possibility of a seaborne landing were exacerbated by a message from Middle East Headquarters, received before 2000, which specifically noted that the enemy was preparing a seaborne landing for the coming night and that the fleet had been duly notified.7
Following this, the commander of Creforce alerted his deputy commanders of the New Zealand Division and the Suda defense area.
- In accordance with the decisions of Creforce and the New Zealand Division orders, the 5th Brigade ordered a counterattack for the capture of the airfield by its 20th and 28th Battalions, reinforced by three light tanks of the 3rd Hussars, which would move before the first echelon of the attack. The jump-off was set at 0400 of 22 May 1941 along the axis MalemeΠChania. The 20th Battalion would attack to the right of the road and the 28th to the left.
The first objective was the village of Pyrgos, where, after a 30-minute rest and reform, the troops would resume their attack to their final objectives. The 20th Battalion would seize the airfield up to the Tauronites river, and the 28th, the line from the Tauronites bridge to Hill 107 inclusive. After the capture of the airfield, the 20th Battalion would redeploy to the heights northwest of Maleme village and extend its positions to Hill 107. There it would relieve the 28th and move troops forward to control the airfield. The 28th, after having been relieved at Hill 107, would withdraw to its original positions at Platanias. The 21st Battalion operating from the southeast, would capture a line extending from Hill 107 (where it was to link up with the 20th Battalion) to Xammoudochori. The brigadeΥs center of reference would be the village of Platanias.
- After dispatching the orders and instructions, Brigadier Hargest watched the preparations for the attack at Platanias, always in close contact with the commander of the 28th Battalion, who deployed his troops at their line of departure awaiting the arrival of the 20th Battalion.
This was due to arrive at approximately 0100 of the 22nd May, provided that the 2/7th Australian Battalion, which was scheduled to relieve it, arrived on time in Chania. The Australian battalion, however, although it departed on time from Georgioupolis, had been under constant bombardment by the Luftwaffe all along its route, with the result that its two advanced companies became separated from the three companies following, which were pinned down. On arriving at Chania the two companies were further delayed due to mistakes in the choice of routes, and therefore reached the New Zealand battalionΥs positions at around 0245. Two of the 20th BattalionΥs companies were relieved immediately and were moved forward, accompanied by the battalion commander to the line of departure. Since the other companies had not shown up and since the attack would fail with the coming of daylight (daybreak would come at 0512), it was decided to launch the counterattack with the available forces at hand.
Meanwhile, two German convoys of about 60 small steamers and motor ships, accompanied by two Italian torpedo boats, sailed from Chalkis and Piraeus respectively on the morning of 21 May, for Crete. They were carrying Mountain Battalions III/100 and II/85, and many heavy weapons.
The British air force spotted the convoy from Piraeus as it sailed south of the island of Melos and radioed its position to the fleet squadron patrolling the northern coast off Crete. At 2330, the British squadron, consisting of the warships Dido, Orion, Ajax, Janus, Kimberley, Hasty and Hereward, intercepted the convoy, 18 miles north of Chania and attacked it. Twelve motor ships, two steamers and a torpedo boat were sunk, the remainder escaping to Melos, where the other convoy from Chalkis had also found refuge. Thus, the attempt by the Germans to conduct a seaborne landing failed.
Many men of Mountain Battalion III/100 drowned and a great part of their heavy weapons was lost at sea.
Engagements of the 10th New Zealand Brigade
- The morning of 21 May found the 10th New Zealand Brigade occupying the same positions as the day before, except for the Dampia hilltop, which was empty of troops. Its northern approaches though were occupied by the Composite New Zealand Battalion, while Cemetery Hill and the Annibali Tower were occupied by the troops of Parachute Battalion I/III, reinforced by many heavy weapons (Sketch-map 7).
Of the remaining parachutist elements that had escaped from the north (the areas of 7th General Hospital and Daratsos village), those that had not succeeded in reaching Aghya prison and remained inside the perimeter of the brigade, harassing its rear areas and the village of Galatas, were mopped up during the night by Greek armed civilian bands, troops of the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment and New Zealander patrols.
The two companies of the 19th Battalion that had advanced to attack during the night to almost one kilometer south of Dampia, returned to their battalion without any interference from the Germans. The troop of three light tanks was in Galatas.8
The German forces holding Cemetery Hill were effectively harassing with mortar and machine gun fire the left of the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Detachment as well as the right of the 19th Battalion. The commander of the detachment was thus compelled to ask for reinforcements. A company of the 19th Battalion was ordered then to move to the right (west) of the detachment.
- The brigade commander then decided to attack the Germans in the Galatas cemetery to recapture Cemetery Hill and restore the defensive area of the brigade at that point.
The attack was launched at around noon, by one company of the 19th Battalion supported by machine gun fire from the light tanks, the closest artillery unit (F Troop of the 28th Battery) and the battalion mortars. After a fierce struggle, the hill was taken at bayonet point.
The captured positions were immediately fired upon by German mortars and machine guns. Against the effective enemy fire the men could find no cover as the hill was barren and they had no entrenching tools with which to organize even a makeshift defense on the ground.
As a result, the troops had to pull back from the hill, although the Germans were also unable to seize it again. The hill remained a sort of a no-manΥs-land between the two opponents. Every attempt by the Germans to recapture it failed. The attacking New Zealanders suffered significant casualties as did the Germans. Also five German mortars were destroyed and ten light machine guns captured.8
- The troops of the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment continued their reorganization in Galatas. Their main force was held back in the village, in reserve. A Greek platoon was deployed between the Divisional Cavalry and the 19th Battalion, and the Greek forces that had been attached to the 19th Battalion the previous day remained with it. Another Greek force was organized within the area of the Composite Battalion. All these Greek troops were under Greek officers.
In the early dawn of 21 May, the commander of the 8th Greek Infantry Regiment pulled his forces back from the barren and rocky ground they held, to the Choirospelio heights, east of Alikianos, attempting to avoid the certain bombardment and strafing of his forces by the Luftwaffe, which had already reconnoitered their positions. At the same position were teams of armed civilians belonging to the Galanes Band.
In the morning, the regiment dispatched strong patrols in the direction of Aghya, but they failed to contact any Germans. They only discovered a dressing station, with a number of German wounded, which was left unharmed. Armed civilian bands held the area of Kerites bridge, in front of Alikianos village, throughout the day. Other bands clashed repeatedly during the day with German patrols to the north of Alikianos and in front of the 8th RegimentΥs positions.
These Greek actions, apart from inflicting casualties to the Germans, gave the commander of central attack group, Colonel Heidrich, the impression that he was surrounded on all sides and that a British counterattack was always imminent, and this induced him to avoid taking the offensive.
However, even by his purely defensive stance, the German commander was successfully tying down in his area valuable forces, which if used further to the west, would have greatly facilitated the defendersΥ efforts on the island. The presence of German forces in the GalatasΠAlikianos area, made Freyberg hesitate to use the forces in Galatas to their best advantage elsewhere.
- In the area of the 4th Brigade there was no activity worth mentioning.
In general, the action of the 4th Brigade was limited to patrolling and mopping up operations against isolated parachutists remaining in their area, and the dispatching of one company of the 18th Battalion to Galaria, to cover the gap created there, threatening the rear of the 19th Battalion from the southeast.
In the ChaniaΠSuda sector, both the 1st Welch Battalion and the Nortumberland Hussars continued their mopping up operations against the remnants of the Gentz and Altmann detachments.
The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, was very active over this sector and bombed and strafed incessantly, disorganizing and hindering communications between the commands and their units. The coordination of the artillery of the antiaircraft defense proved impossible because of these attacks. The already poor communications between the Radar station, the Antiaircraft Artillery Command and the antiaircraft batteries was put out of action. As a result, the antiaircraft guns fired independently and at any target of opportunity.
Even then, the enemy air forces were so numerous that on a number of occasions, . . . they already had so much to do that overwork was proving too much for some and barrels were becoming useless.Σ9
German Decisions for 22 May
- Intelligence gathered by the command of the IVth Air Fleet, directing operations over Crete, gave the impression that there was cause of concern for reaction from the Kastelli area (where the 1st Greek Infantry Regiment was stationed) and from Palaiochora (due to mistaken air force reports), where troop concentrations were observed. The commandΥs task was made all the more difficult due to the lack of heavy weapons on the ground, especially antitank guns, as well as the failure to reconnoiter the heavy weapons positions of the British, so as to neutralize them from the air.
Also the deceptive use of captured German signals and air-ground communication codes by the Greek and British forces had disrupted the LuftwaffeΥs close support, resupply and reconnaissance missions for the German troops on the ground.
Another issue troubling the German high command was the presence of the British fleet in the Cretan Sea, which demanded the attention of more German air assets to the detriment of the ground support operations.
All of the above concerns were secondary to the consolidation of their positions at Maleme and the securing of its airfield for safe and unencumbered use. Bearing these in mind, the commander of the IVth Air Fleet, General Lšhr, ordered the following:
1) The XIth Air Corps to continue to land troops of the 5th Mountain Division to Maleme; to consolidate its hold, to prepare an attack against Chania and Suda and to accelerate the delivery of arms, munitions and supplies.
2) The VIIIth Air Corps to attack the British fleet off Crete in the morning and to provide patrols between Crete and the North African coast. Also, to support XIth Air Corps over the areas of Chania, Maleme and Alikianos, by bombing machine gun nests, tanks and strongpoints. To keep the whole island under surveillance and interdict aggressively any movement by the defenders. To prevent the use of the airfields of Crete by the RAF. To examine the possibility of using Maleme airfield for fighter and dive-bomber operations.
3) Naval Commander Southeast to attempt to reinforce Melos with antiaircraft artillery, for it to be used as a supply base, to examine the possibility of doing the same at Kythera and to prepare for the ferrying of tanks to Maleme.
4) As for the Rethymno and Herakleion areas, the forces there were to hold their positions, to repulse any counterattack by fire and to prevent the enemy from using the airfields.
5) Landings of the 5th Mountain Division at Herakleion, as provided by the original plan, would not take place.
6) To the 3rd Parachute Regiment: a) To hold its positions. b) To assist the attack of Group West.
7) Italian forces taking part in the battle after a request by the Dodecanese Forces Command, would be assigned the mission of seizing the eastern part of the island.
The Third Day of Battle
(22 May 1941)
The British Counterattack to Recapture Maleme
- Before the counterattack to recapture Maleme airfield, the 5th New Zealand Brigade had the following disposition (Sketch-map 8):
The 21st, 22nd, and 23rd Battalions and the New Zealand Engineer Detachment in the positions occupied since 21 May. From 0030, the troops of the 20th and 23rd Battalions designated for the counterattack had occupied positions in the line of departure. The two companies of the 20th Battalion that had arrived, occupied positions along this line from the coast up to the road leading to Maleme. Three light tanks were on the road in single file, covered by a platoon of the 28th Battalion.
The 28th Battalion had occupied by two of its companies the line of departure, with its right flank on the south side of the road. The remaining companies of the battalion comprised its second echelon. Troops A, B and C of the 27th Battery were deployed in their original positions occupied since 20 May.
The artillery assigned to support the counterattack, belonging to the 2/3rd Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery, and the platoon from the Australian Machine Gun Company had not arrived.
It was decided to use the troops that were deployed already on the line of departure to counterattack. These troops advanced at 0330 of 22 May westwards as follows: the 20th Battalion (two companies) north of the MalemeΠ Chania coastal road. The 28th Battalion, except for a company of the second echelon (which moved prematurely towards the positions of the 23rd Battalion), advanced south of the road. The three tanks moved on the road, abreast with the first echelon companies, protected by a platoon of infantry from one of the companies of the 28th Battalion. After an hour from the jump off, the other two companies of the 20th Battalion arrived and followed in a second echelon within the zone of operation of their battalion.
During their advance, the two battalions met small enemy pockets of resistance, which they either by-passed or mopped up with light casualties. As they approached Pyrgos village these pockets became stronger and the casualties heavier.
It was daylight already when the tanks and the first attacking troops arrived at the junction of the MalemeΠChania road with the road leading to Daskaliana (the junction is situated north of Daskaliana). The enemy air force had again resumed operation. The leading tank took hits from two antitank guns and began burning. For this reason it was forced to withdraw. Low-flying aircraft fired upon the other two tanks. The tanks suffered heavy damage from the bombs and ceased supporting the infantry. A force of the 20th Battalion entered Pyrgos, engaged the enemy and remained there fighting. Another company managed to reach the airfield, but was forced to withdraw because of heavy casualties. The remaining troops of the battalion were pinned down by the Luftwaffe, and the battalion was not able to accomplish its mission. Its commander ordered the companies to withdraw inside the positions of the 23rd Battalion, southwest of Daskaliana.
The 28th New Zealand Battalion was pinned down in front of Pyrgos, unable to advance despite the brave and determined efforts of its commander and troops. The commander requested reinforcements by the 23rd, which were not given. He then withdrew to positions between the 21st and 23rd Battalions.1
This was the end of the counterattack launched to recapture Maleme. Meanwhile, the Germans continued to be reinforced and consolidated themselves on this vital area, preparing for decisive actions.
- The instructions for the 21st Battalion designated that, following the capture of Hill 107 by the 28th Battalion, the 21st would maintain a line from that hill up to Xammoudochori. The instructions did not specify whether the operations aiming at occupying this line would take place before, during, or after the capture of Hill 107 by the 28th Battalion. For this reason the battalion commander, based on these instructions, decided to prepare to seize this line through a series of offensive actions. On the morning he moved his troops westwards to reach Vlacheronitissa. Later on he was informed that the attack to recapture the airfield had failed and for this reason he withdrew the troops to their original positions. In the meantime, troops of the 28th Battalion had deployed to the right of the 21st.
The 23rd Battalion, having as its mission to assist the attacking battalions with mopping up operations, participated with the troops of its right flank, and those troops of the 22nd Battalion that were under its command, in the fighting of the 28th Battalion towards Pyrgos. The troops of its left flank kept their positions and only dispatched local mopping-up patrols.
The battery of the 2/3rd Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery (four guns), which had been allocated for the attack, did not participate as at 0730 it had not gone beyond Platanias.
The troops of 27th Battery had no forward observers and no liaison with the attacking battalions. Their ammunition stock was at a minimum, and was not replaced when depleted. With the available ammunition it continued to fire on the airfield and not to support the counterattack directly. The staff of the 27th Battery had been neutralized by the enemy air force. At around twilight the casualties of C Troop amounted to half of its strength. The other troops had fewer casualties, but as the time went by, the lack of ammunition made their operation impossible.2
- Throughout the day, the commander of the 5th Brigade was either able to communicate very slowly or not at all with his units, because of the distance separating his headquarters at Platanias from the units. An additional reason was the lack of communication means.
Vague information gathered from irresponsible sources and forwarded to Brigadier Hargest created such a false image of the situation that at 1042 the brigadier reported to the division: Steady flow of enemy planes landing and taking off. May be trying to take troops off. Investigating.Σ
Freyberg in his report mentions:
At a particular point an unbelievable story circulated according to which the enemy was leaving Maleme, boarding these troop carriers. The real story was that the reinforcement in men and materiel reached great proportions and that the enemy was quickly assembling a great force.
The dearth of accurate information led the brigadier at 1100 to report the following to the division:
From general quietness and because eleven fires have been lit on drome it appears as though enemy might be preparing evacuation. Am having further investigations made. Do any other reports from other sources show further evidence of this?
The division answered: No other indications as you suggest but it is possible.Σ At 1150 the brigadier reported: Reliable reports state aerodrome occupied by own troops line now held east side of drome.Σ3
At about 1500, the brigade commander was informed that the 20th and 21st Battalions had withdrawn and that the 28th Battalion was advancing. At the same time he was informed that enemy troops were seen infiltrating from the south towards the heights of Agia Marina. Therefore, he requested of the division that the 10th Brigade conduct reconnaissance operations to the west.
Around 1325, he decided to dispatch a major from his staff to the troops fighting in order to collect reliable information. According to his report to the division, he did so because the last reports he had received presented a confused situation. Besides, the troops on the left of his disposition had not moved as much as he believed they had, and his subordinate commanders were under the impression that the enemy was preparing to attack. He himself, however, had formed a quite different picture of the situation.
German Actions and Plans during the Third Day of Battle
- As the British counterattack to recapture Maleme petered out, the initiative in this area again went to the Germans. Two companies of the Storm Regiment reinforced Pyrgos, the most advanced point to the east held by the Germans. Troops of the 5th Mountain Division arrived at a rate of twelve landings per hour disembarking at the airfield, which continued to be fired upon by sporadic British artillery fire. Thus, fifty-nine aircraft landed during the afternoon.
The airfield was constantly being cleared by the Germans to enable landing. The Germans even utilized the captured tanks4 to pull destroyed aircraft off the airfield.
- At 1600 of 22 May in his headquarters in Attica, Major General Ringel, commander of the 5th Mountain Division was ordered to take command of the forces on Crete and to move as quickly as possible to the area of Maleme.
Before he departed to Crete he was assigned the following missions by the commander of IVth Air Fleet:
Π To secure possession of the Maleme airfield.
Π To clear out Suda bay.
Π To relieve the parachutists at Rethymno, link up with the troops at Herakleion and, finally, to complete the conquest of the island.
At around 2000, Major General Ringel and his staff landed on the beach west of the Tauronites river.
The German forces assembled at Maleme up to this time comprised troops of the Storm Regiment and parachutists that had landed on 21 May, of a total strength of two battalions. There were also one-and-a half antitank companies, Mountain Battalions I/100, II/100, I/85, a light battery with six guns, the 95th Mountain Engineer Battalion, and troops of the 55th Motorcycle Battalion.
Ringel taking stock of the situation ascertained that Battalion I/85, followed by Battalion I/100 had been advancing since 1600 from Hill 197 (six kilometers south of Hill 107) towards Psathogiannos. It was estimated that it would arrive there at about 2200. The final objective of the battalion was Monodendri Hill. Mountain Battalion II/100 was deployed in the area of Kamisiana. But as Ringel himself reports:
I was not informed of estimations about enemy forces except on the basis of hypotheses. Similarly I did not know and continued to be ignorant of the strength and depth of the enemy disposition and what means had been made available for the defense. No aerial reconnaissance was able to penetrate this mountainous terrain which was impenetrable to observation. Under the protective cover of the vineyards and the olive groves, troops could be deployed in depth, necessary reinforcements could be moved up and attacks prepared. A concerted [British] counterattack by superior forces could come about at any time. Everything was vague, but decisions had to be taken.
Thus the plan came about to ensure and broaden the airhead through constant forwarding of reinforcements, to maintain the closed encirclement to the east, and a strong enveloping group to take Suda bay, which was the most important British naval foothold. Following the attainment of this first objective, an operation was to be mounted to capture the entire island . . .
In order to do this Ringel organized his forces into three groups. One group was organized from the 95th Mountain Engineer Battalion under Major Schaette. Its mission was to relieve Battalion II/100 and secure possession of the airfield from the west and south by mopping up the areas of Kastelli and Palaiochora (Sketch-map 9).
The second group was organized from the parachutists of the Storm Regiment and the reinforcements that landed on the morning of 21 May under the command of Colonel Ramcke, with a total strength of about two battalions with an antiaircraft battery. The mission of this group was the protection of the airfield from an easterly direction and its cooperation with the third group for the attack against Chania (Sketch-map 10).
The third group comprised Mountain Battalions I/100, II/100, and I/85 under Colonel Utz. Its mission was to continue the maneuver toward Monodendri Hill, in order to silence the New Zealand artillery firing against the airfield, to restore liaison with the central group, as well as to cut off the coastal road at Agia Marina.
The Decision to Withdraw the 5th New Zealand Brigade
- From the final information collected by the commander of Creforce by noon of 22 May, he was convinced that the counterattack to recapture the airfield of Maleme had failed. Understanding that possession of the area of the airfield by the enemy created a critical situation, he decided on a new counterattack to recapture it. At about 1700 he conferred with the brigadier commanding the New Zealand Division about a plan for a night attack, which would be conducted by 4th and 5th Brigades. The main effort was to be borne by the 18th New Zealand Battalion and the 2/7th Australian Battalion.
After taking this decision, the commander of the New Zealand Division returned to his headquarters at Euthymi in order to issue his orders for the counterattack. There the commander of the 5th Brigade informed him over the phone that German troops from the Aghya prison were advancing westward with the obvious aim of cutting off the troops of the 5th Brigade from the east. He was also informed that the stretch of the road PlataniasΠChania between the 4th and 5th Brigades was under artillery fire from the south. He was also personally informed by the commander of the 5th Brigade that the brigadeΥs troops had sustained fierce attacks and that as a result of this, and great fatigue, they were in no position to act offensively.
This information and the fact that already there were also significant enemy forces at Maleme provoked the division commander into thinking that under such conditions a counterattack had little chance of success. The danger of the 5th Brigade being cut off by the Germans at Aghya had become apparent. Instead of a counterattack the division commander believed that the 5th Brigade should withdraw eastward to avoid being cut off. He related his thoughts to Major General Freyberg by telephone.
Freyberg, briefed on the developing situation, understood that his position was weakening because of the danger of enemy infiltration between the 4th and 5th Brigades and decided to withdraw the 5th Brigade from its advanced positions without providing for its relief by other forces, because . . . the only available brigade, the 4th, was equally exhausted, having took part in the battle for three days. [He took this decision] even though he was aware that by this action Maleme airfield should be considered lost forever, and it could be used by enemy bomber and troop-carrier planes.Σ6
Freyberg dispatched his chief of staff, Brigadier Steward, to the division commander in order to study the situation and regulate the withdrawal. They met at 2100.
- At 2200 the preliminary order was sent to 5th Brigade:
Prepare withdraw tonight 22/23 May. 28 Battalion to old pos(itio)n, remainder [of the brigade] in rear of 28 Battalion; details later. 32 vehicles being forwarded [under Lt. Col.] Strutt as r(oa)d clear. Sending you all spare trucks and at least 10 lorries. Salvage all possible.7
This order was followed by the order of execution of the withdrawal, which was drafted at 0015 of 23 May and was dispatched by messenger to the brigades. The order also informed them that the enemy had at his disposal five battalions with heavy mortars and a few motorcycle troops in the area around the airfield. It also mentioned that the brigade was to withdraw to an area along the shore between the original positions of 28th Battalion and a line about 1500 meters east of Agia Marina.
After the movements would have taken place, the new front of the brigade would be a line west of Platanias, held by the 28th Battalion, with the other battalions deployed to its east. The 23rd Battalion would be positioned toward the coast and the 21st Battalion to its south.
Through this new withdrawal the front would be strengthened, as it would be shortened, and liaison and communication between units would be secured. On the other hand, the enemy could organize and resupply undisturbed in the Maleme area and prepare as he wished in order to continue his efforts.
The airfield at Maleme would be six kilometers away from the British forward defensive positions. From that point on, only the air force would be able to attack the airfield. For this reason, Freyberg reporting on the critical situation to Wavell requested strong fighter and bomber forces, which alone would be able to thwart German efforts.
The Fighting in the Areas of Galatas, Aghya, and Alikianos
- During 22 May, the troops of the German Central Group held Annibali Tower to the east and the village of Aghya and the Aghya prison at the center, with advanced troops south of Cemetery Hill and Dampia Hill. Other troops had advanced north of Alikianos up to the bridge, while to the west, advanced troops were in the village of Kyrtomados (Sketch-map 7).
The commander of the Central Group, Colonel Heidrich had been ordered to hold his positions during 22 May harassing the Greek and British troops in the area of Galatas. In order to accomplish his mission, aside from the successful defense conducted by his troops, he ordered an offensive action to capture Dampia, and harassing machine gun and mortar fire along the front, and especially against the front of the New Zealand Composite Battalion. Desiring to assist as much as possible the western attack group in its efforts to capture the Maleme area and in an attempt to link up with this group, he decided to move northward. For this reason he organized a detachment comprising troops of Parachute Battalion III/3 and the Parachute Engineer Battalion, under Major Heilmann.
The mission of the detachment was to cut off the coastal road and link up with the German troops operating in Maleme by moving from the valley of the Aghya Prison towards Stalos and to the north.
The detachment moved northward forwarding strong patrols west of the positions of 10th Brigade. Before 1700, the patrols appeared south of and around the heights of Agia Marina, north of Stalos. The 5th Brigade observed these movements by 1500 and reported them to the New Zealand Division.
- Following orders from the division to ascertain whether the enemy had any intentions of evacuation, the commander of the 10th Brigade dispatched five strong combat patrols south and west of the brigadeΥs front. The patrols brought back no positive information. Only at the village of Agios Ioannes, northwest of Galatas, one of the patrols clashed with about forty Germans, who were expelled from the village, taking a few prisoners, among which was an officer (Sketch-map 7).
The commander of the 10th Brigade, aiming at recapturing the positions occupied by the 6th Greek Regiment on 20 May, in order to restore his area, decided to attack the German troops deployed at Annibali Tower with troops of the 19th Battalion. In order to reinforce this attack, he requested that his division commander issue an order for the attack of the 19th Battalion to be combined with an attack by the 2/8th Australian Battalion against the same objective. The division commander limited himself to an order to the 18th Battalion to send a platoon against Galaria village to tie down the Germans there, given that the 2/8th Australian Battalion was assigned to the SudaΠChania sector.
The attack was launched at 1500 along a 700-meter front with two companies of the 19th Battalion, supported by three guns of F Troop, 28th Battery, and two mortars. Shortly after the jump off, these companies came under machine gun and mortar fire from the German positions, and attacked by the German air force, which provided them with air support. Thus they were pinned down. At about 1900, after a fight that lasted four hours, the companies withdrew to their initial positions collecting a mortar and three machine guns on their way back. Annibali Tower remained in German hands.
While the attack of the 10th Brigade to the southeast failed, at the same time, to its right (southwest), about 400 Germans with close air support by the Luftwaffe attacked the New Zealand troops who occupied the approaches to Dampia.
The New Zealand troops abandoned their positions and withdrew north of Dampia. The Germans seized Dampia and deployed there. The brigade commander, realizing full well the importance of their position, rapidly prepared a counterattack with the few troops he was able to muster with great difficulty, in order to drive the Germans out of Dampia.
While preparations for the counterattack were still under way, a force of about 100 men of the reorganized troops of the 6th Greek Regiment, along with armed civilians (women and children among them), led by Captain Michael Gerogiannes and the British liaison officer Captain Michael Forrester, stormed forth from the south neighborhood of Galatas, and assaulting the Germans with war cries dislodged and put them to flight, recapturing Dampia.8 Thus, the gap formed at that point was eliminated. Troops of the New Zealand Composite Battalion relieved the Greeks in the captured positions, while the Greeks withdrew to their positions at Galatas.
At the same time as the Germans were attacking Dampia, other German troops were attacking the right (west) flank of the Russell Detachment. The Greek troops positioned to the right of the detachment immediately counterattacked and drove off the Germans at bayonet point.9
By this action the positions of the right flank of the 10th Brigade were restored and the morale of the Composite Battalion was bolstered. After the restoration of the right flank of his brigade, Kippenberger subordinated to Russell all troops between Dampia and the Russell Detachment. The 19th Battalion maintained its positions on the left (southeastern) part of the front.
The 8th Greek Infantry Regiment along with its forward troops at Alikianos continued to hold its positions at Choirospelio without food or ammunition. Armed civilians continued to maintain their positions at Alikianos and Kouphos. The Germans had seized the village of Kouphos but the Greeks recaptured it and killed seven Germans during the clash. The regimental commander dispatched a captain, acting as liaison, with a few troops towards Chania, in order to link up with Creforce headquarters, receive orders, and request foodstuffs, and ammunition. The officer, however, returned empty-handed.10
In the zone of the 4th New Zealand Brigade, the 2/7th Australian Battalion had relieved the 20th Battalion, which had been assigned for the counterattack. The only action in the brigadeΥs sector was the unsuccessful attack by a platoon of the 18th Battalion against the German-held village of Galaria in conjunction with the failed attack by the 19th Battalion against Annibali Tower.
- From 1800 of 22 May, in the SudaΠChania sector the commander of Creforce assigned Brigadier Vasey, at this time without troops,11 to command a group comprising the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment and the Australian 2/8th and 2/7th Battalions. The 2/7th Battalion would be assigned to his command when it returned from the positions where it had relieved the 20th Battalion.
Freyberg was considering to subordinate this group, designated the 19th Australian Brigade, to the New Zealand Division, and to assign the area it had occupied in the SudaΠChania sector to the zone of responsibility of the same division. With this in mind, the commander of the SudaΠChania sector redeployed the forces in his sector in order to reinforce the defense of Chania from the south and west. Therefore, he moved the 2/2nd Australian Battalion from Megala Choraphia, a Ranger company from the height of Agios Loukas, and the Suda Battalion (formed from the personnel of the searchlight batteries, which had been destroyed by the bombing), northwest of Chania.
Throughout the day, the positions of the 1st Greek Infantry Regiment and the town of Kastelli Kissamou were subjected to constant bombardment and strafing. The enemy sought to isolate and pin down this unit in order to forestall any counterattack against the airfield from those quarters.
During the morning hours, the cadets of the Military Academy arrived at Semprona by way of Doliana and Kakopetros, where it took up defensive positions. After dark it moved towards Choste, attempting to link up with the bulk of the Allied forces in the direction of Chania.
The Final Abandonment of
The Withdrawal of the 5th New Zealand Brigade.
- The orders from the New Zealand Division concerning the withdrawal were received by the 5th New Zealand Brigade at 0100 of 23 May. By 0200 of 23 May, the brigade had issued its orders and dispatched them through staff officers to the New Zealand Engineer Detachment and the 23rd Battalion, which was tasked with relaying these to the commanders of the other units. The brigadeΥs orders stated that the battalions would leave their positions at 0530 of 23 May and follow routes skirting the heights south of coastal road MalemeΠChania. Each battalion was to take its own safety measures. At about 1000, the battalions had to be at their new positions (Sketch-map 8).
From 0400 the brigade organized a weak bridgehead at the bridge west of Platanias, from troops of D Company and the Headquarters Company of the 20th Battalion to receive the troops converging there. For this purpose the division had forwarded four light tanks of the Hussar squadron with orders to withdraw as soon as the last troops of the 28th Battalion passed over the bridge.
The first section to move to the new defensive positions was the New Zealand Engineer Detachment. Its troops, withdrawing under cover of darkness, occupied positions in the area of Agia Marina.
At 0630, i.e. an hour later than the brigade had detailed, the New Zealand 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 28th Battalions began withdrawing, each battalion moving independently. During this movement the battalions were attacked by the German air force and as a result suffered casualties. At about 0800 the 23rd Battalion deployed on the heights east of Platanias. After 0830, the 22nd Battalion arrived in the area of Agia Marina in order to complete the organization of its forces which comprised only two companies. At 0830 the troops of the 21st Battalion occupied positions south of the 23rd Battalion. The 28th Battalion organized rearguard forces from troops of all companies under a major. Shortly after 0600, the main body moved over mountain tracks through the area south of the coastal road and at about 0830 arrived and deployed at its old positions, all around the village of Platanias. After the main body had moved out, the rearguard, having moved later, received the first attack of the day from troops of II/100th Battalion. At about 1400 it reached the new defensive area after conducting a delaying action.
The 20th Battalion, minus two companies, which had withdrawn to the line of departure west of Platanias since the day before, started moving between 0600 and 0630, complying with the order of withdrawal. Its mission was to return to its positions west of Kladisos in the area of the 4th Brigade, to which it was originally subordinated.1
It was impossible to move the brigade artillery (27th Battery), because the order for withdrawal reached the commander at 0400 on 23 May. At that point it was dawning and the battery commander didnΥt have time to organize the withdrawal of his guns. Troop A abandoned its guns after disabling them. The same happened for the three guns of Troop B. Of the four guns of Troop C, two were salvaged and were redeployed near Agia Marina. The gunners of the entire battery, now without guns, constituted an infantry group assigned to the zone of the 28th Battalion.
The artillery available in the subsector of the 5th Brigade comprised the two salvaged 75mm guns of the 2/3rd Field Regiment, two Bofors of the 156th Light Antiaircraft Battery and two 2-pound antitank guns of the 106th Royal Horse Artillery.
At 1000 of 23 May, the 5th Brigade had completed its withdrawal and had established a new defensive disposition (Sketch-map 11). The 28th New Zealand Battalion was defensively deployed around the village of Platanias with the weak bridgehead in front. To its east and in contact with it was the 23rd Battalion. To the south of the 23rd, the 21st Battalion had occupied defensive positions. The artillery was positioned immediately south and to the west of Agia Marina. To its east the New Zealand Engineer Detachment and the 22nd Battalion, under reorganization, had deployed. A gap of 1500 meters separated the 5th Brigade from the right flank of the 10th Brigade.
- On the one hand, the withdrawal of the 5th Brigade saved it from the immediate danger of being cut off. On the other hand, German forces had all the ground as far as Platanias at their disposal. At first light of 23 May, German troops of the Ramcke Group began moving towards Platanias by way of the road and the coastal zone. At about 1100, utilizing vehicles abandoned by the airfield personnel and reinforced by mortars and artillery, these troops arrived before the bridge of Platanias. There they were forced to halt by the weak bridgehead forces and the 28th Battalion.
Fierce clashes ensued with the participation of the existing artillery from both sides. The New Zealand guns fired with great success, silencing the German guns, and a considerable number of mortars and machine guns. At about 1420, the enemy constantly increasing in strength crossed the bridge and was organizing artillery positions 500 meters west of it.
Regarding the other German forces, Mountain Battalion I/100 had seized the heights west of Modi since the morning. Mountain Battalion II/100 advanced and by the noon hours was two kilometers southwest of Platanias. Mountain Battalion I/85 had seized Patelari by 1000. By 0600 the Heilmann Detachment dispatched by orders of Colonel Heidrich had captured Stalos. The presence of German troops in the area of Stalos, and especially the three mountain battalions conducting a pincer movement from the south, made the commander of the 5th New Zealand Brigade apprehensive. He felt that the withdrawal that had taken place did not secure the brigade as it could at any time be subjected to a strong German attack from the south or the west. After four days of combat, the strength of the brigade had diminished to 600 men2 from the original 2,810 officers and other ranks, which it had at its disposal on 20 May. Thus, the 21st Battalion, out of an original strength of 376 men, had only 170 left; the 22nd, out of 644 men, had only 200; the 23rd, out of 571 officers and men, had only 250 left. The 28th (Maori) Battalion also was heavily depleted.
Of the heavy weapons, two tanks had been lost and almost all of the artillery operating in support of the brigade. The artillery that remained comprised ten guns, of which two were antitank guns from the SudaΠChania area, two Bofors antiaircraft guns, and four 75mm and 100mm guns belonging to the 2/3rd Field RegimentAustralian Artillery from the Georgioupolis group. The equipment of two machine gun platoons originally assigned to 22nd Battalion had also been lost.
Under the circumstances it was obvious to the brigadier that in the event of an attack from the south and west by the unscathed mountain battalions and the Ramcke Group, the brigade would be unable to defend itself. For this reason at 1500 he requested of the division reinforcements.3
- Throughout 23 May, aerial bombardment and strafing continued against the Greek and British positions in the sector of the 10th Brigade. At the same time they were fired upon by mortars and machine guns, the mortar fire gaining in intensity.
The Russell Detachment was frequently harassed by German patrols. The artillery in the sector of the brigade harassed the Germans, mainly by firing against their positions at Aghya Prison and against the advanced troops in front of the Composite Battalion.
The 8th Greek Regiment, even though completely isolated since 20 May, continued to block the eastward and southward passage of German troops. In this way it protected the whole defensive disposition of the SudaΠChania sector from the danger of a German turning movement east of Suda. Along with the armed civilians it constituted a serious threat for the Germans. Greek troops continued to hold Alikianos.
From 0600 of 23 May, the Heilmann Detachment moving from the Aghya area, after capturing Stalos and leaving the 1st Engineer Company there, moved northward. In order to neutralize this dangerous infiltration a company of the 18th Brigade was ordered to deploy in the village of Agia Marina and to the east of it. The company was to link the east flank of the 5th Brigade with the northernmost boundary of the 10th Brigade in order to forestall any danger of the brigade being cut off. The 10th Brigade was ordered to move forward the troops on its right (north) wing, up to the heights east of Agia Marina.
During the movement of the troops of the 10th Brigade to their new positions, villagers alerted the officer of a small group as to the German positions at Stalos, against which he moved. At about 1100 the company dispatched by 18th Battalion also arrived. Through a joint action of the company and this small group, the Germans were forced to abandon Stalos losing two guns and leaving five killed. Later on, the New Zealand troops also left the village, taking into account that German troops in the area numbered about 200 men and were therefore far too strong to be countered by the available New Zealand troops. Thus, the Germans recaptured Stalos.
On the morning of 23 May, Colonel Kippenberger after inspecting the positions of the Composite Battalion concluded that, because of its composition,4 the casualties sustained, and low morale, it would not be in a position to resist a strong enemy attack. At noon he went to the division headquarters where he reported the situation to the divisional commander, Puttick, and requested the relief of the battalion.
At about 1530, a squadron of twelve RAF Blenheims bombed Maleme airfield destroying six German aircraft on the ground, while others frantically took off to avoid destruction. The appearance of RAF planes enhanced the morale of the ground troops, but had little effect on the Germans. It was a far cry from the strong air support, which Freyberg had requested.
- The imminent withdrawal eastward of the whole front made an attack against the SudaΠChania sector from the southwest much more possible. Faced with this prospect, the commander of the sector attempted to coordinate the efforts of the units in the area assigned to him, which comprised the 2nd Greek Regiment and the Australian 2/8th and 2/7th Battalions.
For this reason he ordered the 2/8th Battalion to move forward to within two kilometers west of Mournies, with its left on the positions north of Annibali Tower and its right in contact with the Australian 2/7th Battalion at the point in the ground where the Aghya Prison road met the Perivolianos river. The 2nd Greek Regiment covering the whole left (south) wing of the front was to link up with the 2/8th Australian Battalion. Late in the afternoon the 2/8th Australian Battalion and a little later the 2/7th Battalion manned their new positions.
The 2nd Greek Regiment did not move troops in order to link up with the 2/8th Australian Battalion, because, with its troops on the heights of Agia Varvara and to its south, it faced the Germans who held Annibali Tower; at the same time, it was preparing to attack that position on the morning of 24 May.
The commander of the regiment had suggested this attack to General Weston when the latter happened to pass by the regimental headquarters during a visit to this area. If the attack were successful, it would deprive the Germans of their primary strongpoint on the Aghya plain. The commander of the regiment requested, first, that the attack would be supported by artillery fire, and second, that troops from the Galatas area (implying the 19th New Zealand Battalion) take part in it. Weston rejected the request for artillery support as well as any participation by troops from the Galatas area, as these troops were not assigned to him. He made clear that the regiment should limit itself to the fire support of light machine guns belonging to the 2/8th Australian Battalion. Despite this, the commander of the regiment decided to attack on the morning of 24 May.
The British liaison officer to the regiment, Captain Wheeler, in a visit to Chania made efforts to supply the regiment with ammunition and to reinforce it with arms. Thus, around afternoon he brought to the battalion a sufficient number of hand grenades and ammunition, as well as a hundred rifles and twelve light machine guns. These where used to complement the arms of the 1st Company and to arm forty men of the Militia.
These troops along with a machine gun platoon under Major Trikourakes, were designated for the attack. The rest of the regimentΥs troops would hold advanced positions from where they would support the attacking troops with their fire and the fire of the machine gun platoons of each company. The severe shortages in arms and ammunition prohibited the regiment from employing more forces for the attack. Machine gun fire from the 2/8th Australian Battalion would also support the group under Major Trikourakes. Relevant written orders were dispatched to the second in command of the regiment and to the companies after 2000 on 23 May.
In the meantime, the bombardment of the city of Chania and Suda continued unabated throughout the day. As a result of the bombing the buildings of Chania were reduced to rabble and conflagrations raged throughout the city. An oil tanker was set ablaze at Suda. The port of Suda was the only point from which British troops could be re-supplied. In order to make its antiaircraft defense as effective as possible, all antiaircraft guns occupied new positions forming a protective dome of fire over the loading docks. Because of the increasing force of the bombardment of Chania, Major General Weston relocated his headquarters to an area close to the Suda Sanatorium, in order to be able to communicate with his units.5
The Decision for Further Withdrawal
- The commander of the New Zealand Division and the commander of Creforce realized that even after the withdrawal of the 5th New Zealand Brigade to the PlataniasΠAgia Marina area the improvement in the existing situation was only temporary. The New Zealand Division had suffered casualties to a scale of 20% of its total strength. Casualties among its battalions ran much higher, especially in the 5th Brigade. It was becoming obvious from the continuous arrival of aircraft at Maleme that the enemy was constantly being reinforced while the pressure against the 5th Brigade by superior forces and artillery from the south and west was constantly mounting.
On the other hand, the gap between the northwest front of the 10th Brigade and the rear of the 5th Brigade had diminished, but was still over 2000 meters long and continued to pose a threat since the 5th Brigade could be cut off. The brigade also had to fight on two fronts, to the west and to the south. Already enemy infiltration toward the gap had been observed. For this reason, the 10th Brigade and the 18th Battalion were ordered to move forward troops south of the gap in order to cover it. This measure was only a temporary solution to the problem. A more radical readjustment of forces was called for in order to meet the threat.
At 1100 of 23 May, the commander of Creforce in conference with the commander of the New Zealand Division decided to withdraw after dusk the 5th Brigade, as a reserve, to the area northeast of Daratsos. There, the brigade would reorganize and rest. The 4th Brigade would deploy in front of the division taking over the sector of the 10th Brigade. The troops of the 10th Brigade would be subordinated to the 4th Brigade. The 19th Battalion and the Russell Detachment would maintain their positions south and east of Galatas.
The Australian 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions, under Brigadier Vasey, designated the 19th Australian Brigade, would be subordinated to the New Zealand Division. The battalions of this brigade were to extend the front of the division south of the 19th Battalion and to its east. The boundary of their positions to the right (north) would be the Aghya PrisonΠChania road and to the south would be the area immediately northwest of Perivolia. The 2nd Greek Regiment was to keep in contact with the south flank of the 2/8th Australian Battalion by moving forwards troops towards Perivolia. The positions of the Australian battalions remained much as Suda Sector had determined them.
The realization of these adjustments shortened the front and resulted in economy of forces and the ability to relieve the troops in the front-line with less battle weary ones.
When the commander of the New Zealand Division became aware of the situation of the 5th and 10th Brigades (see ¤¤ 117Π118), he informed their commanders on the decisions taken, which were to solve their problems to the extent that it was possible.6
- At about 1700 detailed orders were dispatched concerning the new deployment. According to these orders: The New Zealand Division would hold the line formed by Staliana ChaniaΠRed HillΠRuin HillΠCemetery Hill (exclusive), up to Perivolia. The 4th Brigade along with the Composite Battalion and the Russell Detachment would hold the right of the line (Sketch-map 12).
The 19th Australian Brigade would hold the left (south). The boundary between the 4th and 19th Brigades would be the Aghya PrisonΠChania road. The 5th Brigade would assemble east of Daratsos (in the former area of the 18th and 20th Battalions) as a reserve. A platoon of 75mm guns from the 5th Brigade and six machine guns from the 10th Brigade were assigned to the 4th Brigade. The withdrawal of the 5th Brigade would begin after 2045 of the same day (23 May).
Late in the afternoon, the commander of the 4th Brigade and the commander of the 18th Battalion made reconnaissance of the area to be occupied by the 18th Battalion, and they ascertained that the front to be covered by the battalion would be twice as long as normal and would therefore be riddled with gaps. It was believed, however, that the Composite Battalion, once established on the Ruin Ridge, would be able to neutralize any German infiltration through the gaps with timely counterattacks.
The movements, according to the orders, took place after dark.
At 2145, the major in command of the 18th Battalion moved with his battalion in order to relieve the Composite Battalion and take over its positions. The battalion, however, did not occupy Ruin Hill, as its commander was afraid of extending its front too widely in proportion to the available troops.
Ruin Hill dominates the Galatas area from the west. Not occupying it meant that if the Germans captured it they would put the battalion in a precarious position and they could also use it as a base from which to launch attacks to the east and north. Any successful attack eastward through which Galatas would fall into German hands, would also open the gates to Chania.
The 5th Brigade moved to the area north of Daratsos.
The rest of the Russell Detachment, comprising a company of the Composite Battalion reinforced by a platoon, and a group belonging to the 6th Greek Regiment (about 60 officers and enlisted men) attached to the detachment, remained in their positions immediately north of the cemetery as far as Dampia.
The 19th Battalion was ordered to remain in its positions.
The Greek troops at Galatas (about 360 officers and enlisted men) were to occupy positions towards the eastern approaches of Galatas. It was there that the headquarters of the 10th New Zealand Brigade would be established.
- On the morning of 23 May, the Schaette Detachment, tasked with the mission of securing Maleme airfield from the west and south, moved in that direction. At 0800 the 1st Greek Regiment observed a force of about thirty Germans moving towards the regimentΥs positions by the coastal road shielded by an equal number of women and children. Another group, preceded by a truck full of troops and with a few motorcycles at its head, was moving on the MalemeΠKastelli road towards Kastelli. The group moving on the coastal road was attacked by the regimentΥs troops and put to flight losing a few men and some automatic weapons.
The inhabitants of the village of Drapanos fell upon the other group and put them to flight. The truck and two motorcycles fell to the hands of the heroic villagers, who turned them over to the regiment.7
According to the commander of the 5th Mountain Division, Major General Ringel: . . . at dawn of 23 May, mountain engineers arrived at Kastelli and to the west and came in contact with a strongly organized enemy. . . these troops were effectively countered by the Regiment and armed groups from the Kastelli area. . . they were not able to continue their advance. . .8
Other troops of the Schaette group, moving southward and terrorizing the non-combatant population, arrived southwest of Kakopetro at Phloria, where they were attacked by armed civilians. They withdrew towards Kakopetro, which they set on fire.9
After a laborious night march, the cadets of the Military Academy arrived at Choste and deployed defensively. During the day the Luftwaffe strafed them without results.
The transportation of German forces by air to Maleme continued unhindered throughout 24 May. Two hundred aircraft arrivals were noted. Battalions I and II of the 95th Mountain Artillery Regiment and the 95th Mountain Antitank Artillery Battalion with twenty 50mm guns (of which eight were vehicle-towed) were added to the German forces on Crete. After concerted efforts the airfield at Maleme was ready to act as a base for fighter aircraft.
The German troops at Maleme had not yet linked up with the German troops at Alikianos and Aghya.
Major General Ringel considers the battles of this day very tough. The lack of information concerning the forces and intentions of the opponents made Ringel more cautious about future actions, despite the forces at his disposal. An order from Ringel to Colonel Heidrich informed the latter of the assignment to Ringel of all forces on Crete, including HeidrichΥs.
At 2000, Major General Ringel issued orders for 24 May. In these he laid out that all troops would secure the positions they already held. Afterwards the Ramcke Group would dispatch patrols southeastwards towards Stalos.
The Utz Group was to link up with the 3rd Parachute Regiment and to advance astride the AlikianosΠChania road up to the mountain approaches to Galatas, with two battalions north of the road and another (Battalion I/85) south of it. Battalion I/85 would cover the whole disposition from the direction of Alikianos, i.e. against the 8th Greek Infantry Regiment and the armed groups of National Guards. In addition, the battalion also had the mission of reconnoitering for possible gaps in the British defensive area. Finally the group was to link up with Colonel HeidrichΥs troops at Stalos and south of Galatas.
The artillery was given the mission of supporting the Ramcke Group. Its secondary mission was to support the Utz Group as much as possible. The Luftwaffe was requested to support the main fronts with dive-bombers.
A detachment, comprising the 95th Mountain Engineer Battalion reinforced by the 55th Motorcycle Battalion and a battery of the 95th Mountain Antitank Artillery Battalion, was to continue mopping up operations in the direction of KandanosΠPalaiochora. It was to capture Palaiochora and defend it from any attack. Specifically regarding Kastelli, the town should be . . . fired upon in such a manner so that it be rendered ripe for an attack. For this reason an attack by Stukas and bombers was planned for the following day.Σ10
Readjustment of the Forces of the New Zealand Division
- The movement of the units of the New Zealand Division to their new positions and their redeployment along the new front consumed the night of 23Π24 May. During 24 May the units deployed and reorganized, improving their positions by digging trenches, replenishing stocks in food and ammunition.
During the day German movements were observed. German patrols constantly assaulted the front-line, while in the afternoon these efforts became more intense. The city of Chania and Suda, the communication routes, and the positions of the troops were bombed incessantly from the air. All this constituted an obvious warning for the command and the troops that a strong attack was imminent.
In order to repel this attack, Creforce units consolidated at their new positions. However, while massive German reinforcements in personnel and equipment were constantly arriving the defending forces were steadily diminishing and expending ammunition and other supplies. The forces of Crete in the SudaΠChania sector had suffered heavy casualties: 396 killed, 1,118 wounded and 395 missing. At Herakleion casualties amounted to 790 killed 200 wounded and 178 taken prisoners. At Rethymno the casualties amounted to about 500 killed, 300 wounded and fifty prisoners. Total German casualties were estimated at 3,340. But these casualties, especially of the parachute units, had already been replaced through the introduction of the fresh troops of the 5th Mountain Division into the battle. The crucial problem of the lack of materiel on the part of the defenders constantly asserted itself, while German supplies were abundant
General Freyberg reported to Middle East Headquarters on the evening of 24 May that he anticipated an enemy attack for 25 May, assuring that his men could be counted on to do their best. He added, however, that because of the complete lack of air support and with battle-weary troops the results of this battle would be doubtful. He requested all possible assistance in neutralizing the German air force, mainly to bolster the morale of the troops.11
- On the evening of 24 May, the disposition of the New Zealand Division (Sketch-map 12) resembled an arc, the right end of which lay on the coast at the height of Red Hill. The arc passed through Red Hill and Wheat Hill, turned eastward at Dampia up to the Perivolianos stream. From there following the course of the Perivolianos it terminated at the height of the village of Perivolia, a little to the west of it. To the south the line was extended by the 2nd Greek Regiment, which was assigned to the SudaΠChania sector.
The headquarters of the division remained at its original position near the crossroads of the MalemeΠChania and GalatasΠChania roads. The 4th Brigade along with its headquarters was by the crossroads north of Daratsos. The brigade had deployed its battalions from north to south, with the 18th Battalion deployed with three-and-a-half companies along the old line of the Composite Battalion, except for Ruin Hill, which was left unoccupied. Half a company and troops acting as infantry constituted its reserves.
To the south, the disposition of the brigade continued with the Russell Detachment, which remained at its positions near Dampia. The troops of the detachment comprised a company and a platoon of the Composite Battalion, troops from the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry fighting on foot, and troops of the 6th Greek Infantry Regiment. The Russell Detachment covered Galatas from the south and extended its front eastwards up to the road east of the cemetery (exclusive).
The 19th Battalion remained deployed east of the road with its front northeast of Cemetery Hill and north of the AghyaΠChania road.
Behind the brigadeΥs defensive line thus formed, the Composite Battalion (minus one company and one platoon) was positioned immediately east of the 18th Battalion in the area north of Daratsos, near the brigadeΥs headquarters. The 20th Battalion, as the brigadeΥs reserve, extended the front to the coast by utilizing personnel of the 27th Battery as foot soldiers. The battalion was also reinforced by part of the New Zealand Engineer Detachment. The rest of the engineers were assigned to the 19th Australian Brigade.
The immediate defense of the village of Galatas was assigned to troops of the 6th Greek Regiment,12 360 strong, under Greek officers, with two British liaison officers and groups of armed civilians.
The mission assigned to the troops along the line of defense was to maintain their positions. The Composite Battalion was tasked with launching local counterattacks to the benefit of the 18th Battalion.
The coordination of the operations of the Composite Battalion, the 18th Battalion and the defense of Galatas was assigned to the commander of the 4th Brigade, Colonel Kippenberger, who kept his headquarters (formerly headquarters of the 10th Brigade) at the northeastern edge of Galatas.
The front of the New Zealand Division continued south of the AghyaΠChania road with the 19th Australian Brigade. Reinforced by a part of the New Zealand Engineer Detachment, the brigade was deployed along the axis of the Perivolianos with the 2/7th and 2/8th Australian Battalions deployed from Galaria up to the height of Perivolia village. The front extended towards the southeast to Perivolia with the New Zealand Engineer Detachment, which was to maintain liaison with the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment. The 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment was assigned to the SudaΠChania sector.
The 5th Brigade, minus the 21st Battalion, acting as the reserve of the New Zealand Division was deployed within the triangle formed by the Kladisos river and the AghyaΠChania and PlataniasΠChania roads. The 21st Battalion occupied positions immediately west of the Kladisos river as far as the sea.
The 5th Brigade had been instructed that from 0800 of 24 May it should be ready to carry out the following missions: a) launch counterattacks, b) defend the coast, c) conduct anti-paratroop operations, and d) defend its positions. The New Zealand Division had eleven guns, of which two were antitank.
The redundant personnel of the 27th Battery was organized into a group to fight on foot as infantry, which was assigned to the 18th Battalion. These troops also provided auxiliary personnel for six heavy Breda machine guns, which were allocated in pairs to the 4th and 5th New Zealand Brigades and the 19th Australian Brigade.
The total number of personnel of the New Zealand Division, including staff and headquarters personnel, did not exceed 4,400 men. One ought to add to these about 1,170 men of the 19th Australian Brigade. The 5th Brigade had 1,380 men, the 4th had about 1,440, and the Composite Battalion about 800. Thus, each brigade had a strength of one-and-a-half battalion.13
In the isolated area of Alikianos, the 8th Greek Regiment and groups of armed civilians held the line formed by ChoirospelioΠ Kerites bridge ΠAlikianosΠVatolakkos. These troops were bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe. The Germans attacked with strong patrols along the whole length of the Greek positions, but were successfully repulsed. Eight officers and a few enlisted men of the regiment were wounded and five armed civilians were killed. By the end of the day all the troops remained in their positions, while the German reconnaissance patrols withdrew northward.
- Following the new disposition (facing the Galatas line) assumed by the New Zealand Division during the evening of 23Π24 May, modifications of the general disposition were necessary in order to reinforce the SudaΠChania sector from the west. For this reason troops were ordered to move in this direction and a new defensive line was formed along the Mournianos river, which was now the western boundary of the SudaΠChania sector. A Royal Marine Battalion and the 2/2nd Australian Battalion manned from north to south this new line, that ended around Mournies at the northern edge of the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment. Troops of the 106th Royal Horse Artillery (around 250 men) fighting as infantry had been deployed as reserves.
The above units constituted a brigade with a strength of about 2,000 men, designated the Suda Brigade. The 1st Welch Battalion, the 1st Ranger Battalion, and the Northumberland Hussars remained in their positions around Chania.
According to Freyberg the bombardment of Chania and Suda during this day was rabidΣ.
After dusk, the British warship H.M.S. Abdiel arrived at Suda and disembarked 200 men of Battalion A of Colonel R. E. LaycockΥs Commando Brigade. They constituted the first echelon of this force, which comprised Battalions A and D.
Around 0530 of 24 May, in the SudaΠChania sector, the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment attacked the German positions at Annibali Tower supported by machine gun fire from the 2/8th Australian Battalion.14 Despite the fire from the German strong positions and the bombing and strafing by the enemy air force, some of the troops taking part in the attack managed to reach their objectives. Others however were pinned down before really closing to the enemy positions, because they delayed their assault. The troops that had approached their objectives became embroiled in fierce fighting with hand grenades and automatic weapons, while an effort was made to support them with machine gun fire. Due to lack of liaison officers, support was very difficult. Because of this, the attacking 1st Company advanced beyond the predetermined safety limit of machine gun fire and as a consequence it was fired upon by friendly machine guns. The battle was hard and many Germans fell victim to the Greek bayonet and hand grenade. Greek casualties were also heavy. The battle still raged on at 1700.15
The attack, which had lasted twelve hours, finally petered out. On the one hand this was due to the uncoordinated support, and on the other, to the exhaustion of the attackersΥ ammunition. At 1700, the commander of the regiment in concert with the British liaison officer ordered the attacking troops back to their positions. The Germans remained masters of Annibali Tower.
- In the morning of 24 May, small New Zealand covering groups, which had remained at the old defensive area of the 5th Brigade, withdrew after noticing the approach of enemy troops.
Strong German patrols from the Ramcke Group, which had arrived east of Agia Marina undisturbed, moved southward to link up with troops of the center group and the 3rd Parachute Regiment. During this time, Mountain Battalion II/100 linked up with the Heilmann Detachment of the 3rd Parachute Regiment at Stalos and sent strong reconnaissance patrols towards Galatas. These patrols ascertained and reported that the Galatas area was held by strong forces. Similarly, patrols sent forth by Battalion I/85 southward ascertained that the Alikianos was held by the enemy, and that the routes to the south were blocked.
In the evening, the command post of the 100th Mountain Regiment relocated west of Aghya. Mountain Battalion II/100 was in the area north of Troulos, while Battalion I/100 had occupied positions on Ruin Hill. Battalion I/85 was at Episkope, covering the left of the whole German disposition from the south.
Capture of Kastelli, Kandanos, and Palaiochora
- The 1st Greek Regiment, isolated since 20 May, remained steadily in its positions in the area of Kastelli Kissamou, ready to repel any German attempts to capture Kastelli and the beach to its north.
Every day, the regiment, the gendarmes, and the armed civilians of Kastelli and the surrounding villages were strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe. The defense of Kastelli until 27 May denied the Germans the use of the beach, which was most suitable for landings and unloading of heavy materiel. For this reason and in order to secure their rear (with regard to Maleme area), the Germans intensified their ground and aerial efforts against the 1st Greek Regiment on 24 May.
According to the decisions of 23 May, beginning at 0700 the German air force attacked this zone with exceptional intensity. About twenty bombers and dive-bombers bombed and strafed the positions of the regiment from heights of 150Π200 meters. Half the buildings in the town were demolished by the continuous bombing. During the four hours that the bombardment lasted, over 1,200 bombs were dropped. As a result of this activity, the Greek troops withdrew south of their positions, except for one of the companies of the reserve battalion, which occupied positions on the heights south of Kastelli.
At about 1100 the east side of the valley of Kastelli was without cover, at the same time as Major SchaetteΥs 95th Mountain Engineer Battalion appeared moving towards the abandoned positions.
Despite efforts by the commander of the regiment, the second in command, and the commander of the battalion, it was not possible to move the troops back into their positions. Following an order of the colonel, the second in command rushed to the reserve company, the only one still in its positions. He deployed it in the uncovered front, plugging, however imperfectly, the uncovered flank. The Germans at this time were already 500 meters away. The fire from this company halted the German advance. However, after a few minutes the company was intensely fired upon by mortars and 37mm guns.
The colonel, wishing to reinforce the company, but ignorant of the fact (due to a lack of liaison) that the troops belonging to the battalion west of Kastelli had also withdrawn, sent his second in command to lead them against the flank which was coming under German attack. In the meantime, the company continued to defend until the first afternoon hours, when, after its ammunition was exhausted, it was forced to withdraw southward along with the commander of the regiment.
During the battle a bomb blew open the doors of the Gendarmerie station of Kastelli. German prisoners held there, seizing the opportunity, rushed out and, grabbing any weapon they found, began firing within the town against anyone. Coming upon the car of the New Zealand training group of the regiment, which was rushing towards the eastern exit of the town to reinforce those fighting there, the Germans attacked it. The liaison officer, a major, and a second lieutenant were killed, while two noncommissioned officers were wounded. The rest of the group fled south, taking the wounded with them, led by the second in command of the regiment, who had come upon them on his way back, after he had ascertained that the troops on the western flank had retired southwards. During that dayΥs fighting, the regiment had five officers and thirty men killed, and 200 wounded.16
By evening, Kastelli and the surrounding area had fallen to the hands of the enemy. Thus, all the area west of the Tauronites was now in German hands. Despite this, harassment by small groups of heroic defenders did not cease. This forced the German command to issue orders for further mopping up operations.17
The 1st Greek Regiment ceased to exist as unit, as it had no food or ammunition to continue fighting. Since May 20 it had pinned down German forces in excess of a battalion and caused them considerable losses. Troops from the regiment and armed civilians continued to pose a new continuous threat against the flank and rear of the enemy until 26 May. The German command considered this serious enough to prohibit the utilization of the Kastelli beach, which was suitable for landings. About 140 officers and enlisted men from the dissolved regiment eventually reached the Middle East. The rest were either captured or escaped to various villages.
Another group from the Schaette Detachment, which had withdrawn to Kakopetro after a clash around Phloria on 23 May, moved southwards in the morning of 24 May. This group was reinforced by an armored group of mountain troops and rendered mobile (as General Ringel mentions) by motorcycle troops of the 55th Motorcycle Battalion assigned to it. After fierce fighting against parties of savage volunteersΣ,18 the group managed to advance to the village of Kandanos and by evening of 25 May had reached the fishing docks at Palaiochora.
During the descent of this group into Kandanos the lead element of the group comprising twenty-five men was completely wiped out in an ambush by armed civilians at Sellia, to the southwest of Kakopetro. Seven prisoners were taken; the rest were killed. As the group moved towards Palaiochora, its advance was halted time and again by groups of civilians armed with obsolete weapons, but with hearts steeled by the passion for freedom.
The heroic history of the people of Crete continued.
On 3 June, the Germans exacted terrible revenge for the defense of the area by the armed civilians and their own heavy losses, by leveling Kandanos with fire and explosives. This was the beginning of more than three years of systematic destruction of inhabited areas throughout occupied Greece fed by the blood of thousands of Greeks, who continued to fight for their freedom and the freedom of the whole world.
- During 24 May, further reinforcements arrived by air at Maleme. These comprised Battalion II/85, the staff of the 85th Mountain Regiment, the 95th Mountain Reconnaissance Battalion, a company of antiaircraft machine guns, a signals unit and a company of motorcycle troops. Battalion III/85 with the commander of the 85th Mountain Regiment, Colonel Krakau, headed for the area of Episkope Alikianou. There, along with Battalion I/85 it formed a new group, the South Group.
The Central Group comprised Mountain Battalions I/100 and II/100 under Colonel Utz. The Ramcke Group, designated the North Group, reorganized during the day and thus comprised a battalion of three companies under Captain Gericke, a battalion of four companies under Major Stentzler, and a battalion of two companies under Lieutenant Stoltz. The group also possessed an antitank battery with six 55mm guns and twenty machine guns.
The orders issued by Ringel for 25 May set the following missions:
The Krakau Group (the 85th Mountain Regiment minus one battalion) was to capture Alikianos and the area to its east. Afterwards, advancing by way of Mariniana towards Suda, it was to cut off the ChaniaΠRethymno road, bypassing Chania, in order to expedite the movement towards Rethymno.
The Utz Group and the Ramcke Group were to attack; the Utz Group would assume the main effort and capture Galatas. The Ramcke Group was to attack the heights which lay from the north of Galatas up to the sea. A strong section from the Ramcke Group would stay back as a reserve.
The 3rd Parachute Regiment under Colonel Heidrich was to move south of the AghyaΠChania road, in contact with the 100th Mountain Regiment to the north and the 85th Mountain Regiment to the south. The 95th Mountain Artillery Regiment had as its main mission to support the operations of the Central Group. Its secondary mission was to support the right flank. The 95th Mountain Reconnaissance Battalion and the 95th Mountain Antitank Battalion remained under the division, ready to intervene in the battle. Instructions were given to avoid frontal attacks as much as possible in order to curtail casualties. The Luftwaffe was requested to prepare and later support the ground operations in the Galatas area at 0800, 1245 and 1345 of 25 May.
The attack against Galatas was set to begin at 1320, 25 May. The attack against Alikianos was set to begin at 0800 25 May.
In the area west of the Tauronites, the 95th Mountain Engineer Battalion and the 55th Motorcycle Battalion (Schaette Detachment) was to continue mopping up operations in the areas of Kolymbari, Kastelli Kissamou, Kandanos, and Palaiochora.
The Collapse of the Defense of Western Crete
The Fighting around Galatas
- From the first hours of 25 May, the New Zealand positions in the area west and south of Chania came under sporadic machine gun fire. Reconnaissance patrols, dispatched by 18th New Zealand Battalion, identified at least eighteen machine guns against the front of a single company. Later, at daybreak, fire became generalized along the whole front, augmented by mortar and artillery fire. After 0800, the barrage became more intense through the involvement of the German air force, which augmented the effects of land weapons through the unopposed bombing and strafing of defensive positions.
Fire was so effective that, a company of the 18th Battalion lost eighteen men from it, despite the cover offered by their trenches. The New Zealanders were forced to react to these attacks with few weapons due to their shortage of ammunition. By morning, the 18th Battalion had only ten mortar shells at its disposal. The commander of the battalion requested and received the remaining mortar shells, thirty in all, from Colonel Kippenberger.
The commander of the 4th Brigade realizing that Kippenberger would need reinforcements in order to be able to maintain his lines, assigned to him two companies with 140 men, belonging to the 20th New Zealand Battalion, which was in reserve.
- A little before 1400, the aerial bombardment against the positions of all units of the 4th New Zealand Brigade became more intense. German infantry jumped off under cover of heavy mortar and machine gun fire immediately after the bombardment had died down. The attack took place simultaneously against the whole front of the 18th New Zealand Battalion and the Russell Detachment, which was positioned around Dampia.
The attack against Dampia was checked.
The company defending Wheat Hill was reinforced and heavy fighting was taking place there. More to the north, Red Hill was seized around 1500 following heavy fighting in which the commander of the company was wounded and evacuated, while the second lieutenant, who succeeded him, was killed. Around 1600, a strong attack against the right wing of the 18th Battalion, which touched on the sea, brought about its fall and the subsequent surrender of the troops there. The battalion commander personally led a counterattack taking with him whatever force there was available from his command post, about twenty men in all.
Failing to bring about any change in the situation, the commander of the 18th Battalion reported to Kippenberger requesting his intervention in order to seal his right flank. Colonel Kippenberger ordered the two-company force from 20th New Zealand Battalion to attack and occupy positions on Ruin Ridge in order to block enemy movement towards Chania from that direction, which also constituted the shortest route. The Composite Battalion, which had been on Ruin Ridge, had almost leaked away during the Luftwaffe bombardment The two-company force, moving immediately under enemy fire, occupied positions on the ridge and consolidated there. In order to strengthen the two companies the commander of the 18th Battalion rushed to the spot assembling the men who had scattered from his right flank.
The company defending on Wheat Hill began to withdraw as it was fired upon from the flanks because of the abandonment of Red Hill. Colonel Kippenberger, who was the coordinator of defense, rallying as many of the dispersing men as he could, manned positions on the road north of Galatas and west of Daratsos. At the same time he requested divisional intervention.
At 1930, the division commander ordered the 23rd New Zealand Battalion to move forward and to take over the positions of the 20th New Zealand Battalion, which was engaged in combat. The 21st New Zealand Battalion moved forward to the positions of the 23rd Battalion and the 28th New Zealand Battalion was ordered to be ready to intervene at first light. The headquarters of the 5th Brigade moved to the north in order to contain the troops dispersing from the front so that new reserves could be mustered.
Wheat Hill was by now in German hands. From there around 1900 the first German troops began to infiltrate Galatas after hand-to-hand fighting with the few Greek forces defending the area. With the occupation of Galatas by the Germans a reality, the Russell Detachment, which was defending against forces of 100th Mountain Regiment attacking from the south, west and north, was in danger of being cut off. For this reason Colonel Kippenberger ordered the brigade to withdraw. Following this order, some of the troops withdrew to the positions of the 19th Battalion while others to positions north of Galatas.
- The troops of the 6th Greek Regiment around Galatas along with the armed militiamen had originally been ordered to Dampia in order to reinforce the defense there. During this movement they came under flanking fire from the west and dispersed. They regrouped close to the Russell Detachment. From there they were ordered to occupy defensive positions in a line oblique to the western front of Galatas. Later, however, when KippenbergerΥs order for the withdrawal of the Russell Detachment were received, Russell ordered these troops also to withdraw, which they did towards the positions of 19th Battalion.
Through the occupation of Galatas and Ruin Ridge, the front of the New Zealand Division was limited to a line, which ran from north to south immediately to the west of Daratsos. This line extended from the sea to the north, to the AghyaΠChania road to the south. To the south, and a little to the east, the 19th Australian Brigade occupied positions on the axis of the Perivolianos river.
The forces of the New Zealand Division manning the front at about 2000 were from north to south as follows: the personnel of the 27th Battery fighting as infantry, in positions by the coast occupied since 24 May, and the 20th Battalion. The 23rd Battalion along with auxiliary formations of the brigade had arrived and deployed south of the 20th Battalion. The division had dispatched two tanks, at KippenbergerΥs disposal. These were in the area of the 23rd Battalion near the road leading to Galatas. Division headquarters was established near this road. Two other tanks deployed at the western entrance to Daratsos. The New Zealand Engineer Detachment, attached to 20th Battalion, and part of 4th Brigade headquarters had deployed immediately to the north of Daratsos. The troops of the 18th Battalion and the Composite Battalion, which had slipped through, began to reorganize immediately to the east of Galatas, while the Greek troops in Galatas were deployed behind them (to the east). The 19th Battalion held its positions and had been reinforced by dispersed troops of the Russell Detachment.
- A little before 2000, the first two tanks appeared. It was then that Kippenberger decided to attack the Germans at Galatas in order to pin them there until darkness fell. This would give the 18th Battalion and the other withdrawing troops time to reorganize. For this reason he ordered the second lieutenant commanding the tanks to reconnoiter the village. The second lieutenant in turn advanced with the tanks, which soon were heard to be firing intensely. Meanwhile, two companies of the 23rd Battalion, each of about eighty men, arrived. Kippenberger ordered the commanders of the two companies to recapture Galatas with the aid of the two tanks, the return of which from their reconnaissance he awaited. The companies were to march directly on the road and astride to it, in single file, behind the tanks.1
While the companies were preparing for the attack the tanks returned. The second lieutenant commanding them reported that Galatas was full of Germans and that he had fired with his machine guns from the village road, which he had followed to a great depth. In the meantime, Kippenberger informed the commander of the 18th Battalion of the counterattack, ordering him to participate.
The Greek troops of the 6th Regiment and the armed groups with the British liaison officer rushed voluntarily to take part in the battle. Many small groups of New Zealand troops under officers and noncommissioned officers rushed along with them.2
The New Zealand troops assaulted into the village with the two tanks in front and using the two companies of the 23rd as a spearhead. At the same time, the troops of the 18th Battalion and the other units assaulted from the eastern entrance. Galatas was recaptured by the New Zealand and Greek troops after heavy hand-to-hand combat that continued until midnight. The success of the counterattack blocked the continuation of the German attack and the resulting defensive line was secured, at least until morning. It was, however, obvious that this success was of purely local significance. It only bought time for the defenders and nothing more, given that the ridges around of Galatas (the heights south and west of the village) were still held by the Germans (Sketch-map 13).
- From the beginning of the German attack and from the agonizing attempts of the defenders to repulse it, it became obvious to the commander of the New Zealand Division that the situation was further deteriorating. He realized that the divisionΥs casualties were steadily mounting without the possibility of replacements. At the same time his forces were inadequate for covering the divisionΥs entire front. The reports he received informed him that the troops, or most of them, were demoralized by the air attacks (during which the Germans utilized even 1000lbs bombs) and by mortar fire. Apart from the 28th Battalion, there were no other reserves available to him. Artillery support was totally inadequate. The fighting in Galatas underscored the inability of the division to maintain a cohesive front, despite the temporarily successful outcome.
It was becoming clear that, in order to maintain a cohesive front under these conditions, it would be necessary to reduce its width. This necessitated the withdrawal of the divisionΥs units to a line level with the 19th Australian Brigade and as far as the sea. The 5th New Zealand Brigade would be assigned the manning of the new line extending north of Perivolianos. It might then be possible to withdraw the 4th New Zealand Brigade for rest and reorganization. The headquarters of the division would relocate close to the headquarters of the 19th Australian Brigade. With these thoughts on organizing a new line of defense in mind, the division commander sent one of his staff officers to the headquarters of 4th New Zealand Brigade. This officer was authorized to attend to the details of organizing the new front. At 2300 he sent the division commander his report concerning the situation and the decisions taken by the brigade.
- On 25 May, the troops of the 8th Greek Infantry Regiment which had remained on the heights east of Alikianos, along with groups of armed villagers defending the AlikianosΠVatolakkos line, came under intense air bombardment. Following the bombardment and throughout the day, the Krakau Group subjected these troops to the pressure of strong offensive probes. Because of an overestimation of the Greek strength in the area, generated by the stubborn resistance they had been offering, Krakau dared not launch a determined attack, by the time night fell.
With the coming of night, the German attacks ceased. The defenders having exhausted their ammunition and supplies withdrew unobserved under cover of night to the heights south of Alikianos.3 The troops of 8th Greek Regiment withdrew towards Phournes and from there to Therisos.
On 27 May, the 8th Regiment arrived at Drakonas from Therisos. Its troops had been sleepless for three days and had no ammunition. The regiment ceased to exist as unit. Most of the enlisted men dispersed. The commander of the regiment with twenty officers and about eighty enlisted men surrendered at Chania on 29 May. They were detained in a makeshift prisoner-of-war camp at the ChildrenΥs Summer Camp of Chania, where other Greek and British troops were being held.
The casualties of the regiment during the days of action were as follows: two majors (one of which was the New Zealand liaison officer), two cadets acting as platoon leaders and sixty enlisted men killed. One captain, three second lieutenants of the reserve and about twenty enlisted men wounded.
Thus the 8th Greek Regiment and the brave groups of armed Cretans from the area of Alikianos terminated their heroic struggle against the attacker. For five days they blocked the German advance and caused them heavy casualties with almost no means other than their superb morale. It can be surely said that the Greeks had delayed through their tenacious resistance at this unstable sector of the front a dangerous advance.4
The Collapse of the Defense of ChaniaΠSuda Area
- In the rest of the area of the ChaniaΠSuda sector, the situation was such that defensive efforts were limited to repulsing the threats caused by the German ground attacks. Since 24 May, General WestonΥs forces were oriented towards this direction, while some of these forces moved westwards. As a result of these movements a second line was formed, behind the line of the Perivolianos river, along the axis of Mournianos gorge (Sketch-map 14).
On 25 May the movements of the troops were almost complete. The 1st Welch Battalion assembled on Agios Ioannes Hill, immediately southeast of Chania, as the Creforce reserve. The Northumberland Hussars and the 1st Rangers constituted the Akroteri Group, under the commander of the Rangers. This group was assigned the defense of the Akroteri peninsula with orders to repulse all seaborne or airborne invasions against it.
The 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment still held its positions. The lack of food and especially ammunition made its ability to withstand the anticipated German attack questionable. Taking stock of the situation of the regiment, the New Zealander liaison officer went to FreybergΥs headquarters in order to request food and ammunition. He reported that because of a lack of such commodities the regiment was at the threshold of disintegration. General Freyberg promised to supply the regiment, but this promise was never fulfilled. From the generalΥs stance the liaison officer concluded that Freyberg had decided on an evacuation from Crete in order to save his troops.5
The headquarters of the SudaΠChania Area was established in a gorge near the road from Tsikalaria to Christos Hill, which lies between Suda and Chania.
- On 25 May, the Greek Higher Military Command of Crete, which was based at Chania, had lost all contact with the Greek units because the continuous bombardment and strafing had severed all communication. By the evening of the 25th the city had been almost destroyed and fires raged in its neighborhoods. The presence of a general military command within the city could contribute nothing, as there were no means of communication. It was best that it relocate close to the troops. This was decided in concert with the British command of the SudaΠChania sector. From 2200 the Higher Military Command and the Ministry of the Army relocated to Nerokouros. The troops of the Gendarmerie and the Regimental Depot Battalion would remain to defend the town.
The escaping men of the 2nd, 6th, and 8th Regiments and other units also assembled at Nerokouros. There were several hundred men, but their reorganization was impossible as there were no means available.
Major General Skoulas, as commander of Greek forces, sent a report to General Freyberg, which the latter received on 26 May. In the report Skoulas informed Freyberg that because of a complete lack of munitions, food, and medical supplies and their constant engagement in battle, the condition of the Greek troops was critical, while in many places units were disintegrating. He closed with the statement that only if considerable forces were dispatched soon, as had been promised by the British prime minister, even at the last minute, these might prove a decisive aid to victory.6
- At 2100 of 25 May, General Ringel issued orders for the following day. The attack would continue. The Ramcke Group was to attack to the north, the 100th Mountain Regiment towards the center, and the 3rd Parachute Regiment south of Galatas. They were to advance slowly and methodically eastwards.
During the day, Battalion II/85 landed on Maleme airfield and joined its regiment (the Krakau Group). Reinforced in this way, the Krakau Group would renew its attack on Alikianos. The mission of the group was to open a route to cut off British forces and then to rush to the relief of the German troops trapped in the Rethymno sector. A heavy aerial bombardment was to precede the attack.
- During the whole of 25 May, General Freyberg received no news of how the situation was developing. This was due to the extremely heavy enemy air bombardment and strafing (which prohibited communication), and the relocation of FreybergΥs headquarters and ancillary services south of Suda, then under way. From what he could deduce, he believed that the line still held. He fully understood, though, that if the line broke it would no longer be a matter of how Crete would be held, but rather, how his troops would avoid destruction and capture.7
About midnight of the 25 to 26 May, Freyberg received a report from Brigadier Puttick. This informed him of the breakthrough at the front in the area of Galatas and of the decision to withdraw to a new line. At the same time he received information that the Greeks were on the verge of disintegration because according to reports by the British liaison officers they lacked arms and supplies.8
What worried Freyberg most was the doubt expressed by Puttick in his report whether the new defensive line could hold during 26 May.
For this reason, at about 0200 of 26 May, Freyberg sent a report to Middle East Headquarters recounting the anxiety-ridden events of that day and the efforts at stabilizing a new line. He concluded the report by expressing his fears concerning a consolidation of his forces at the new line. Through orders to the commander of the New Zealand Division, Freyberg demanded that the commander exert all his efforts to hold the line to which all forces were withdrawing for the next twenty-four hours at all costs.
- It was still dark when the troops of the New Zealand Division completed their withdrawal to the new line specified by orders, which had been sent to these units about 0100 of 26 May.
In compliance with these orders the new front of the New Zealand forces was manned by the 5th New Zealand Brigade, with the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 28th, and 19th Battalions (Sketch-map 14). Each of these battalions was hardly of a company strength. The front began at the coast, specifically at the foot of the peninsula where the Greek ammunition depots were located, and ran southward to the 19th Australian Brigade. The 21st Battalion, reorganized into one company and reinforced by the men of the Russell Detachment who had escaped, by a company of 20th Battalion and by troops of the New Zealand Engineer Detachment, held the right of the new line up to the MalemeΠChania road. The 19th Battalion held the center. In contact with the 19th and to the left of it, the 28th Battalion had occupied positions as far as the AghyaΠChania road, where it was in contact with the 19th Australian Brigade. The brigade reserves, comprising the 22nd and 23rd Battalions, and its headquarters held positions by the junction of the AlikianosΠMaleme and MalemeΠChania roads. The strength of the 5th Brigade thus deployed was not more than a normal battalionΥs because of the heavy casualties in killed, wounded and missing.
The 4th Brigade, comprising the 18th and 20th Battalions and the remnant troops of the Composite Battalion, withdrew east of the Kladisos river to reorganize.
The 19th Australian Brigade, in contact with and to the south of the 28th Battalion, held its front along the axis of the Perivolianos river.
The artillery of the New Zealand Division, comprising eight guns in all, was positioned on the east bank of the Kladisos river near Pelekapina. The division also had four light tanks remaining.
The headquarters of the New Zealand Division deployed about a kilometer northeast of Mournies, within the defensive perimeter of the SudaΠ Chania Area.
- In the morning of 26 May, General Freyberg decided to unify the Suda and New Zealand Division sectors and to reinforce the new line with forces from the Suda sector. He did this bearing in mind that according to the commander of the New Zealand Division the line could not hold under German pressure and believing that maintaining the line was vital for the protection of Suda. For this reason he ordered the formation of a unit designated the Composite Brigade, comprising the 1st Welch and the Akroteri Group (that is the Northumberland Hussars and 1st Rangers). The Composite Brigade would relieve during the night hours of 26Π27 May the troops of 5th Brigade. The commander of the 4th Brigade was appointed commander of the Composite Brigade. Command of the 4th Brigade (18th and 20th Battalions) was assigned to Kippenberger, who had been the commander of the disbanded 10th Brigade. Command of the unified sector was assigned to the commander of Suda sector, General Weston. At the same time orders were issued to personnel belonging to non-combat units in Suda to move to Sphakia. This became also known to men who for whatever reason had become detached from their units, causing a constantly growing stream of movement towards Sphakia and giving rise to rumors that the evacuation had begun. Brigadier Inglis, commander of 4th Brigade could not meet the commanders of his new unit and therefore remained with his brigade, while Kippenberger, who had been designated commander of the 4th Brigade, assumed the command of 20th Battalion, which he had commanded during the Battle of Greece.
At about 0930 of 26 May, General Freyberg sent a message to Middle East Headquarters, in which he reported, among other things, that the troops had gone beyond their limit of endurance and that the difficulties entailed in disengaging of the forces were insurmountable. He stated that the decision to evacuate the island had to be taken immediately so that there would be hope to save some part of the forces through embarkation on ships at Sphakia. He also stressed that within twenty four hours Suda would come under enemy ground fire.9
- From the morning of 26 May, the Luftwaffe resumed its attacks on the positions of the defenders, strafing and bombing from minimum height. Besides the attacks, air reconnaissance pointed out the positions of the defenders for German ground troops who would then fire on them with continuously increasing mortar and machine gun fire.
The whole morning went by with air and ground fire. At 1000, the Ramcke Group captured Euthymi and the 100th Regiment captured Daratsos.
In the afternoon hours, the 21st Battalion in the zone of the 5th Brigade came under heavy attack from the Ramcke Group and lost ground. Through the intervention of the 23rd and 22nd Battalions the line was reinstated. Cumulative losses for the three battalions totaled 120 men. The 28th Battalion defended its positions effectively.
More to the south, on the Perivolianos front (Sketch-map 14), the German air force attacked the positions of the Australian Brigade and the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment with the same fury as that meted out to the 5th Brigade. At about 1030, the 3rd Parachute Regiment and Mountain Battalion I/141 attacked with their main effort against the 2/8th Australian Battalion. The front was breached between the Australian battalion and the 2nd Greek Regiment. In time the attack spread along the whole front of the brigade and the 2nd Greek Regiment. The infiltration of the enemy in the breach between the Australian battalion and the Greeks forced the Australians to pull back, while German troops infiltrated around Perivolia village. After a renewed preparatory bombardment by the German air force and heavy weapons, the Germans continued their attack towards the northeast. At about 1700 the retreating 2/8th Battalion reached Mournies village.10 As a result of this withdrawal, the 2/7th Battalion was receiving flanking fire apart from the frontal attack. At about 1830 the Germans captured Perivolia and Galaria villages.
Many troops of the 2nd Greek Infantry Regiment retired in stages to the heights south of Agia Varvara after exhausting their meager supplies of ammunition. Other troops, machine gun teams, and an infantry platoon supplied with a handful of cartridges, along with local civilians continued the struggle and only after nightfall did they slip through the German positions towards the south and east.
The troops of the Krakau Group moved over harsh mountain trails, often facing attack by armed groups, local pockets of resistance, and surprise attacks.11 Despite these conditions it managed to advance, and by nightfall the entire group had reached the area of Agia VarvaraΠMournies (Sketch-map 15).
Up to that time, the German maneuver from the south, which aimed at cutting off the SudaΠChania sector, had failed solely due to the brave Greek defense put up by the 2nd and 8th Greek Regiments in their respective sectors.12 However, the fall of Galatas, Alikianos and the positions of the 2nd Greek Regiment at Mournies allowed the enemy to prepare in order to attack more decisively on the next day, 27 May.
- From reports of the 5th New Zealand and the 19th Australian Brigades, as well as from personal observation, Brigadier Puttick understood that it was impossible for the division to maintain its front during the night of 26Π27 May. At about 1800, he requested of General Weston to redeploy these units to a new line along the ChristosΠTsikalaria road, known as 42nd Street (Sketch-map 16). Weston informed him that he would suggest this to the commander of Creforce, since he could not assume the responsibility for such a withdrawal.
At 1930 Weston met Freyberg and reported that New Zealand troops could not be kept in the existing lines for one more night. After this the Composite Brigade was ordered to be at notice to move from 2030, to relieve the 5th New Zealand Brigade, while the 19th Australian Brigade would defend the area of Mournies.
Puttick was uneasy. Until 2210 he had been attempting to come into contact with Creforce Command in order to receive orders. Instead he received the answer that General Weston was authorized for that.
Being unable to get in touch with General Weston, Puttick decided to carry out the withdrawal of his forces as he had suggested earlier. At 2230 he issued the relevant orders according to which the 4th Brigade would withdraw to Stylos in order to regroup, and the 5th and 19th Brigades would deploy defensively along 42nd Street. The 19th Brigade was to occupy the north part, with one of its flanks on the coast, while the 5th was to occupy the southern part, up to Tsikalaria. The three tanks of the 3rd Hussars would cover the withdrawal of the 5th and 19th Brigades.
- Thus, General FreybergΥs plans for holding the line from Mournies village to the area west of Chania with the Composite Brigade and the 19th Australian Brigade were frustrated. Through PuttickΥs initiative a new line was formed between Chania and Suda along the axis of 42nd Street, as he had suggested.
The higher commands had no knowledge that the New Zealand Division had abandoned the line MourniesΠthe area west of Chania. In the meantime the Composite Brigade had received orders and was moving towards the positions vacated by the 5th Brigade unaware that its front and flanks were uncovered. The Germans did not become aware of these movements. In fact they didnΥt realize the withdrawal until the dawn of 27 May.13
The 5th and 19th Brigades, which had withdrawn, were deployed in their new positions between 0300 and 0400 of 27 May. The 19th Brigade occupied positions on the right of the new defensive lines, while the 5th Brigade was on the left up to Tsikalaria (Sketch-map 16). The headquarters of the New Zealand Division and the 4th Brigade deployed in the village of Stylos. The three tanks belonging to the 3rd Hussars followed the 4th Brigade to Stylos by mistake. The movement of the 4th Brigade to Stylos was finally completed at 0900, because one of its battalions had followed the wrong route. General Weston received news of the withdrawal under progress at about 0100. He sent orders to the Composite Brigade, which was moving towards the new positions, to halt its forward movement. These orders never reached the brigade commander and the brigade continued its movement towards Kladisos river.
The withdrawal of the New Zealand Division was followed by the dispersal of the Suda Brigade, from the area of Mournies to the south, along the Mournianos river.
- The German air force continued to bomb and strafe relentlessly Chania throughout 26 May, completing the destruction and devastation. The city was almost empty of inhabitants. At 2300 the Greek troops of the Regimental Depot Battalion, who were stationed in the area, were ordered to withdraw towards Nerokouros and to deploy from that point and to the north, in order to cover the ChaniaΠSuda road from the west. The battalion, arriving at the area north of Nerokouros, deployed near Katsiphariana.
The Higher Military Command of Crete and the services of the Ministry of the Army relocated to Kontopoula and from there to Stylos.
At about 0100 of 27 May, British warships sailed into Suda. They disembarked Colonel LaycockΥs staff and the remainder of Battalions A and D, 750 men in all. The ships departed after embarking 930 men not fit for combat duty.14
General Weston deployed 200 men belonging to Commando Battalion A in Suda for the protection of the town and the docks. This force was placed under the commander responsible for the defense of Suda docks, who also had under his command several hastily organized units and Greek Gendarmerie troops, as well as armed civilians. All personnel apart from the above units, comprising gunners and service troops, trickled towards the Sphakia road under WestonΥs orders.
The remainder of Commando Battalion A, of about company strength, occupied positions in the area of Veritiana in order to cover the road to Sphakia. The whole of Commando Battalion D with two tanks was ordered to move towards Bampali Chani in order to occupy defensive positions. Its mission was to cover the escape route to the south by repelling any German attack in the event that the defense of Veritiana was overrun.
The Decision to Evacuate Crete
- During 26 May, the commander in chief Middle East, having received a message from General Freyberg about the need to evacuate Crete, ordered the latter to contain the situation through a counterattack, utilizing the newly-arrived units and those units which had suffered the least. If this was not possible he was to withdraw using the above units as a rear guard.15
The commander in chief Middle East reported to London that the Chania front had collapsed and that Suda bay could not be held for more than a further twenty-four hours. As there was no possibility of sending reinforcements he had ordered the evacuation to commence. He expressed his deep regret for the failure, fully cognizant of the grave consequences this would have on other problems in the Middle East.16 He added that prolonging the defense would exhaust all services and would cause dangers for the Middle East even graver than those brought about by the fall of Crete.
The chiefs of staff in London sanctioned the evacuation with the directive that priority be given to evacuating the men at the expense of materiel.
The evacuation order was sent to the commander of Creforce from the commander in chief Middle East at 1550 on 27 May.
- During 26 May, Mountain Battalion I/141 landed in the Maleme airfield, and after linking up with Battalion III/141 comprised Colonel JaisΥ group. Similarly the remaining troops of the 95th Mountain Reconnaissance Battalion met their parent unit in the area of Meskla. Among the troops landed that day were the heavy weapons of the 100th Mountain Regiment and the remainder of 95th Mountain Artillery Regiment.
The disposition of German forces on 26 May was as follows (Sketch-map 15):
Ramcke Group was deployed along a line from the coast down to the north edge of Daratsos. Next to it was the 100th Mountain Regiment (Utz Group), which to the south reached the AlikianosΠChania road (exclusive). To its south was the 3rd Parachute Regiment astride the AlikianosΠChania road.
The line continued with the 141st Mountain Regiment (Jais Group), which had advanced to Galaria and Perivolia (inclusive). The 85th Mountain Regiment was in contact with the 141st and to its south. It occupied positions on the heights south of Perivolia and its disposition was forwarded up to the Mournianos gorge.
The south flank of the whole disposition was covered by 95th Mountain Reconnaissance Battalion in the area of Meskla.
- Ringel had decided on a converging attack against Chania for 27 May in order to pin down the British troops operating in the area. At the same time the Krakau Group would continue its broad maneuver in a northeasterly direction in order to cut the escape routes of the British troops.
To achieve these objectives, at 2100 Major General Ringel issued his orders for the operations of 27 May. According to these the artillery was to move forward and organize advanced observation posts for the operations of the following day.
On the morning of 27 May, the 100th Mountain Regiment (Utz Group) was to advance towards Charakia, a southwestern suburb of Chania, in contact with the Ramcke Group operating to its left (north). The 3rd Parachute Regiment was to advance to the right, northwest of the 100th Mountain Regiment, in contact with the Jais Group (141st Mountain Regiment). The Krakau Group (85th Infantry Regiment) was to move against Mariniana village and from there to Stylos and Megala Choraphia, that is up to the coast east of Chania. The 95th Mountain Reconnaissance Battalion covering the south flank of the entire German disposition was to move in the direction of MesklaΠNeo Chorio in order to capture the village.17
Withdrawal to Sphakia and Evacuation
The Fall of Chania and Suda
- After midnight of 26 May, the New Zealand and Australian forces (15th and 19th Brigades) were withdrawing towards 42nd Street, while the Composite Brigade commanded by the commander of the 1st Welch was moving towards the Kladisos area. The brigade was unaware that to its east and south there were no friendly troops and that the troops of the 5th Brigade, which it was supposed to relieve, had already withdrawn.
The 1st Welch, with a strength of about 700 men, deployed west of Kladisos from the coast up to the ChaniaΠAghya prison road (Sketch-map 16). Behind it (to the east and left of it) were the 1st Rangers (about 400 men) and the Northumberland Hussars were on the east bank of the Kladisos river with a strength of about 200 men. Two mortars supported the whole front.
From the first morning hours, troops of the Ramcke Group and the 100th Mountain Regiment attacked the positions of the brigade supported by artillery and individual aircrafts.
At about 0800, the right flank (north) of the brigade was cut off and isolated along with its command, continuing the struggle until the afternoon hours. The left flank, under constant pressure by attacks from the front and the south, constantly withdrew with many casualties in killed, wounded or captured. By 1700, the Composite Brigade had completely disintegrated. Of its strength of over 1,300, only about 350 finally trickled to Sphakia, the rest being killed, wounded or captured along with their commander.1
There were no friendly forces between the Germans and Chania.
Troops of the 100th Mountain Regiment and the Ramcke group began to enter the town from three points at 1700 on 27 May 1941. At about 1800 the mayor surrendered the almost empty town to the commander of the 100th Mountain Regiment. The German flag was raised in the central square of Chania amidst rubble and the still-burning buildings.
The German forces established their headquarters in Chania.
- At about 0900, to the south, the Regimental Depot Battalion of Chania with groups of armed civilians as well as small groups from various Greek units, poorly supplied in ammunition, contained the attack of the 141st Mountain Regiment north of Nerokouros. After a battle that delayed the German advance for more than an hour these troops turned to the heights south of Nerokouros, where they engaged other enemy units until 2000, harassing the movement of the Krakau Group. The 141st Mountain Regiment continuing its advance to the east came upon the line of 42nd Street at about 1100. The 28th, 21st, 19th, and 2/7th Battalions forcefully counterattacked. The Germans were overpowered and withdrew about two kilometers losing about 300 men killed.2
Through these counterattacks both brigades managed to hold on to their positions.
With time, however, enemy troops appeared moving on the heights west of Malaxa on their uncovered left flank.
- It was obvious to the brigade commanders that they were in danger of encirclement. They had no contact with their commander, General Weston. Therefore, on their own initiative they decided to withdraw towards the area of Stylos and Neo Chorio under cover of Commando Battalion A at Veritiana. The 5th Brigade would deploy in the Stylos area, the 19th in the area of Neo Chorio, maintaining liaison with Stylos through one of its battalions. Its other battalion would cover the entire disposition from the KalyvesΠNeo Chorio road. A two-company force of the 28th Battalion would reinforce the troops of Commando Battalion A near Veritiana.
The withdrawal began at 2200 on 27 May. The first troops reached Stylos at 0330 on 28 May. The battalions occupied their positions in compliance with the above decision.
During the night of 26Π27 May, the 4th Brigade withdrew towards Stylos according to the orders of the division commander, Puttick. It arrived there at about 0900 of 27 May followed by a platoon of three tanks, which, instead of covering the withdrawal of the 19th and 5th Brigades, followed the 4th Brigade by mistake. From there the brigade continued moving southward.
The commander of Creforce ordered the New Zealand Division to assign troops in order to counter possible parachute drops in the Askyphou basin and to cover the route from Vrysses to Georgioupolis (Sketch-map 16).
For this reason at 1000 on 27 May, the division commander ordered the 4th Brigade to undertake the above missions. The brigade moved towards Askyphou along with the tank platoon, which was escorting it and occupied the designated positions with troops of the 18th and 20th Battalions. At the same time, its troops leading the way south (artillery troops fighting as infantry and remnants of the Composite Battalion and the 22nd Battalion) continued their movement towards Sphakia.
- At midnight of 27Π28 May the disposition of the British forces in western Crete had as follows (Sketch-map 17):
Π Rear guard group at Veritiana (troops from Commando Battalion A and a two-company force of 28th Battalion).
Π One group in the area of Stylos and Neo Chorio (5th and 19th Brigades).
Π One group at Bampali Chani (Commando Battalion D with two infantry support tanks), which arrived there about midnight.
Π One group of the 4th Brigade in the Askyphou area with three light tanks belonging to the 3rd Hussars.
Π The headquarters of the New Zealand Division at Askyphou, where it had relocated following orders from the commander of Creforce.
Π General WestonΥs headquarters on the move towards Sphakia.
Π Creforce commanderΥs headquarters with the representatives of the Greek government moving from Phres to Sphakia.
Π Units, troops, or services not included in the above, moving southward in disarray.
Lacking all kinds of means, the Greek units had disintegrated. Efforts were being made to establish small forces from the remnants of the regiments and groups of armed Cretans in order to use them on the heights west of the road leading to Sphakia.
- Following the capture of Chania and Suda, Major General Ringel set two objectives: first, to pursue and destroy the British troops, which he thought would be retreating towards Rethymno; second, to relieve as soon as possible the German troops trapped in the Rethymno area. In order to achieve his aims he ordered the formation of a highly mobile detachment under Lieutenant Colonel Wittmann, comprising the greater part of 55th Motorcycle Battalion, 95th Mountain Reconnaissance Battalion, two batteries of 95th Mountain Antitank Battalion, three vehicle-towed mountain guns, and a platoon of engineers mounted on vehicles. The detachmentΥs objective was to pursue the enemy relentlessly along the ChaniaΠRethymno road and if possible to relieve the besieged German paratroops in Rethymno.3
On the same day, Battalion II of the 141st Mountain Regiment arrived in Maleme. The regiment had three battalions at its disposal from that point on.
Believing that the bulk of the British forces were retreating towards Rethymno, Ringel oriented the remainder of his forces as follows:
The 85th Mountain Regiment towards Rethymno, by way of the villages Armenoi Apokoronou and Episkope.
The 141st Mountain Regiment also towards Rethymno, by way of the villages of Kalami and Vamos.
The 100th Mountain Regiment, following at the tail of the 141st Regiment up to the area of Alikampos, and Episkope, was to cover the area west and south of Drapanos cape and to mop up the road from Armenoi to Sphakia and the port of Loutro.
The 3rd Parachute Regiment was to mop up any pockets of resistance in the Akroteri peninsula.
The Ramcke Group was to mop up the Chania area after which it was to defend the coast from Maleme to Chania.
In short: the Wittmann Detachment, with the 85th and 141st Mountain Regiments, would advance towards Rethymno.
The severely weakened parachute troops, that is the Ramcke Group and the 3rd Parachute Regiment, would mop up and secure the coastal zone from Maleme to Akroteri.
The 100th Mountain Regiment would secure the coast of Suda bay up to cape Drapanos and Episkope and to mop up the road towards Sphakia.
The bulk of the German forces was oriented towards Rethymno, while all British forces in western Crete were leaking towards the embarkation point at Sphakia under cover of its most battleworthy troops.
Evacuation of Western Crete (28 MayΠ1 June 1941)
- Starting at 0600 of 28 May, the Wittmann Detachment attacked the Commandos and the two-company force of the 28th Battalion in Veritiana. At about 1100, the commandos after suffering heavy casualties with many killed and wounded retired behind and to the south of the positions of the two-company force. The companies of the 28th after defending until 1230 withdrew towards Armenoi and from there moved in order to meet up with their battalion. This they succeeded in doing, after breaking through the German troops which were operating towards the south.
From 0630 on, the 85th Mountain Regiment attacked the 5th and 19th Brigades at Stylos. The troops held on, but the commanders of the brigades foreseeing the impossibility of continuing the defense, decided to withdraw the brigades to Vryses by way of Bampali Chani. There they would be covered by Commando Battalion D, which had occupied positions there, reinforced by two tanks. The commando battalion was to be reinforced by the 2/8th Battalion when this would arrive at that location.
The withdrawal took place with the Germans following close behind the rear guard, comprising the 2/7th Battalion. The 5th Brigade passed to the south of the line of defense of Commando Battalion D, followed by the 2/7th Battalion. The 2/8th Battalion reinforced the commandosΥ defense at about 1400.
The troops of the 85th Mountain Regiment, reinforced by troops of the Wittmann Detachment and a motorized patrol of the 141st Mountain Regiment, attacked Bampali Chani at 1515. Commando Battalion D, along with the 2/8th Battalion and the two tanks defended until 2115, when they began to withdraw towards Vryses. The two tanks were destroyed.
Meanwhile, the 5th and 19th Brigades (minus the 2/8th Battalion) after about an hourΥs rest at Vryses continued on their route southward. The 23rd Battalion deployed at Amygdalochori covering the route of withdrawal. The 2/7th Battalion deployed at the north entrance to the Askyphou basin. The rest of the troops took cover south of the 4th Brigade which was deployed there.
Commando Battalion D and the 2/8th Australian Battalion, which had withdrawn from Bampali Chani, continued from Vryses southwards. Fatigue forced the 2/8th Battalion to encamp at Kerates at about 0500 of 28 May 1941. The commandos continued moving towards Imbros, south of the Askyphou basin.
The Germans had suspended their pursuit and their forces encamped at Vryses and to the north of the village.
- Immediately after receiving the evacuation order, General Freyberg attempted to relay this to the Rethymno garrison. Unable to get into contact with the garrison, he requested that Middle East Headquarters do this. Middle East Headquarters warned the Herakleion garrison directly on 27 May.
During the first morning hours of 28 May, the commander of Creforce from his headquarters near the Askyphou basin sent the evacuation orders to General Weston, to whom he assigned the command of all forces in the old sectors of Maleme and SudaΠChania. Afterwards he moved towards Sphakia, where he established his headquarters in a cave by the shore. The objective of further operations was the evacuation of personnel from the shores of Sphakia and Loutros at the following rates.
1000 during the night of 28Π29 May
6000 during the night of 29Π30 May
3000 during the night of 30Π31 May
3000 during the night of 31 MayΠ1 June.
It was stressed that the first to embark would be the combat troops and the wounded. Later, efforts would be made to embark the auxiliary troops and formations.
The 5th and 19th Brigades would move to the embarkation area and embark during the night of 30Π31 May.
It was estimated that the enemy would attack the 4th Brigade during the afternoon of 29 May. The brigade was to contain the attack until late into the night of 29Π30 May. The time was considered sufficient for the brigade to move, under cover of the darkness, to the shore for immediate embarkation.
The Commandos and Royal Marines would remain with General Weston to protect the evacuation of the rest of the troops. In order to do this they would occupy positions on the Askyphou basin and would withdraw during the night of 31 MayΠ1 June. If the situation allowed, it would be possible to speed up the embarkation. In that case there would be no need to organize the covering position south of Askyphou plain.
In the afternoon of 28 May, General Weston issued orders according to which:
The 4th Brigade was ordered to maintain defensive positions at the southern entrance of Askyphou plain under cover of the 23rd New Zealand Battalion until 29 May, when it would withdraw towards the embarkation point. The 19th Brigade, together with a marine detachment and with the only two surviving guns, would occupy defensive positions on the Vitalokoumos heights during the morning of 29 May. In front of the brigade, three light tanks and three surviving Bren carriers were assigned to conduct a delaying action, about 1500 meters north of Imbros.
The commandos (Battalion D and the remnants of Battalion A) were ordered to deploy defensively in order to cover the gorge to the east of the road near the village of Komitades.
The 5th Brigade would move towards the embarkation point from its positions south of the Askyphou plain, except for 23rd Battalion which would remain in its positions under 4th Brigade.
A Royal Marine detachment occupied positions on the shore in order to maintain order during movement and embarkation.
At about 2200, four warships sailed into the sea area of Sphakia. About 1,100 men embarked on the warships, of which about 230 were wounded, men from the Suda area and RAF personnel.
- General Ringel, ignorant of the fact that the bulk of the British forces was moving southward, did not modify his orders of 28 May in any way. Thus, the Wittmann Detachment, the 85th Regiment, and the 141st Regiment after regrouping and resting during the night of 28Π29 May continued their movement towards Rethymno on 29 May. The 100th Mountain Regiment moved troops to the south for a routine mopping up of the road to Sphakia. At 0715 of 29 May, troops of the 100th Mountain regiment were observed moving slowly towards the positions of the 23rd Battalion at the entrance to the Askyphou plain. They did not come into contact with the battalion until the afternoon hours. The 23rd Battalion then began withdrawing behind the positions of the 4th Brigade. This withdrawal was concluded at 2100 without enemy harassment.
The 5th Brigade continued its movement towards the coast where it assembled on the morning of 30 May. The 4th Brigade also began to withdraw towards Sphakia immediately after the 23rd Battalion had finished withdrawing. This exposed the defensive disposition of the 19th Australian Brigade and the forward positions of the tanks and the carriers north of Imbros.
At about 2230 of 29 May eight warships sailed into the sea area of Sphakia. About 6000 men embarked on the ships, of which 550 were wounded. The convoy sailed off at 0320 of 30 May. The commander of the New Zealand Division and his staff also departed with this convoy.
The commander of Creforce and an echelon of the Greek Military Command with the representative of the Greek government remained at Sphakia, even though Freyberg had been ordered to be the first to leave on 28 May.
- At about 0500 on 30 May, German troops belonging to the 100th Mountain Regiment along with light tanks attacked the advanced mechanized echelon of the defensive area of the 19th Brigade north of Imbros. This force fought from position to position until about 1600, when after an order it withdrew behind the 2/7th Battalion having caused heavy casualties to the enemy.
Later, the first troops of the German regiment attacked the positions of the 2/8th and 2/7th Battalions, without results. In order to avoid casualties, the commander of the 100th Mountain Regiment ordered outflanking maneuvers over the mountains abandoning the frontal attack along the axis of the road.
During these battles, the troops of the 4th and 5th Brigades that were to embark assembled close to the embarkation points.
General Weston received orders from Alexandria stating that it would be possible to embark only 2,000 men during the following night (30Π31 May) on four destroyers. During the sailing to Sphakia one destroyer was damaged from bombardment while another suffered engine failure. These two ships were ordered to return. Thus, only two destroyers arrived at Sphakia. The 4th Brigade and troops of the 28th Battalion of the 5th Brigade embarked on the ships, along with Brigadier Inglis and his headquarters. The two destroyers carrying 1,500 men sailed off at 0300 of 31 May.
The commander of Creforce along with the Greek echelon and the staff officers of the heaquarters of Generals Freyberg and Weston left with two flying-boats after further orders. Before departing, General Freyberg delegated command of all forces on Crete to General Weston.
- It was estimated that during 31 May, the total number of men awaiting embarkation around Sphakia included some hundreds of Greeks from the dissolved battalions and armed civilians and about 4,000 New Zealand, Australian and British combat troops. There were also 5,000 men from non-combat units and services.
General Weston designated that 1,400 men of the New Zealand Brigades, 700 men of the 19th Australian Brigade and 850 British troops would embark during the night of 1st June. The 19th Australian Brigade and the marines assigned to it were ordered to move towards the beach between 2100 and 2115 of 31 May.
During the whole day the Germans refrained from attacking but harassed the advanced positions of the Australians, the commandos and the marines with fire.
In the afternoon three fighters strafed and bombed the troops awaiting embarkation.
At about 2320, four warships sailed into the sea area of Sphakia, on which the men would embark. On board came the battalions of the 5th New Zealand Brigade, the 2/8th Australian Battalion, the commander of the 19th Australian Brigade and his headquarters, 100 marines and some men from other units. A few score Greeks were also embarked, among them 40 men of the 1st Infantry Regiment and groups of armed civilians or soldiers with a few officers. In all, 4,050 men left Crete with this convoy.
At 2130 General Weston handed Lieutenant Colonel Colvin, the commander of Commando Battalion A, a written order. In this he informed him that there were no more rations available and that from then on no contact with Headquarters Middle East would exist, as the batteries were being depleted and the wireless set would presently cease to function. The order also notified Colvin that the last embarkation would take place during that night. Weston suggested that Colvin collect all remaining officers and make known to them the contents of the order. He further ordered him to make contact with the enemy in order to arrange a capitulation during the following day, 1 June.
During the same night General Weston along with the commander of the 5th New Zealand Brigade departed from the island in a flying boat.
- During the night of 31 May, German troops of the 100th Mountain Regiment systematically fired on the Sphakia coast. From Hill 892, lying about two kilometers northeast of Komitades, which they had captured, they realized, when daylight came, that the bulk of the troops defending western Crete had not moved towards Rethymno, against which General Ringel kept directing his main effort. Only then did the Germans realize by the first time that the main body of the British forces lay on the beach, opposite their observation post.
After a preparatory aerial bombardment, two battalions from the Utz Group supported by a single gun moved forward towards the beach.4 Their attack against the troops concentrated in Sphakia was pointless at that point. White flags were raised and the bulk of those stranded on the beach surrendered. Some hundreds escaped towards the mountains finding refuge among Greek villagers.
Of those that had escaped in this manner, as well as from the British forces on Crete, about 600 escaped to Egypt by September 1941.
The prisoners of war were led to prisoner-of-war camps, which had been established in the area of Maleme and at the ChildrenΥs Summer Camp in Chania.
Fighting in the Rethymno Sector
Disposition and Missions of the Greek and British Forces
- The Greek and British forces allocated for the defense of the Rethymno sector were under the command of Brigadier Vasey, commander of the 19th Australian Brigade. The forces were distributed among three defense groups (Sketch-map 19): of Georgioupolis, of Rethymno, and of the Pege airfield, east of Rethymno. The dry stream of Platanes was the boundary between the Rethymno and the Pege airfield group.1
The Georgioupolis group comprising the headquarters of the 19th Brigade and the 2/7th and 2/3rd Australian Battalions along with a machine gun platoon were deployed from the southwest edge of the village up to the hamlet beside Kourna lake. Two 4-inches coastal defense guns of XΣ Coast Defence Battery Royal Marines, and a 75mm battery of the 2/3rd Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery supported this group. The coastal defense guns were positioned at the south edge of Georgioupolis. The 75mm guns were deployed at the area called Madouri.
The mission of the group was to repel any attack from sea or air.
- The Rethymno group, comprising only Greek troops, was under the commander of Military District II, Colonel Stamatios Pothoulakes. It comprised the Regimental Depot Battalion of Rethymno and the Battalion of the Royal Gendarmerie Training School.
The Regimental Depot Battalion deployed four companies in the area of Perivolia village,2 one company in Atsipopoulo and an attached company in the city itself. A St.-ƒtienne machine gun team had deployed on the city fort, called Phortetza, and was assigned antiaircraft mission. The mission of these forces was to annihilate completely or capture the enemy in the event that the he attempted a seaΠ or airborne landing.
Specific orders, commands or directives concerning the mission and actions of each unit had not been issued. The troops in the Perivolia area were to maintain liaison with the left flank of the British forces. The Royal Gendarmerie Battalion was positioned with its main bulk at the east edge of town, with one company at Atsipopoulo and another at Panormos.
- The group at the Pege airfield comprised the 2/11th and 2/1st Australian Battalions, the 4th and 5th Greek Infantry Regiments, two Australian machine gun platoons, four 100mm guns and six 75mm guns belonging to 2/3rd Regiment Royal Australian Artillery. These forces were under the commander of the 2/1st Australian Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel I. R. Campbell. The 2/1st Australian Battalion held deployed defensively on the heights southeast of the airfield. One of its companies, along with four 75mm and two 100mm guns, and a platoon of medium machine guns, was deployed on the vital Hill A. The rest of the battalion, comprising four companies (the headquarters company was being organized as a rifle company, as its normal equipment for that role, i.e. carriers, wireless sets, vehicles, etc., was lacking) was deployed on Hill D, which was contiguous and to the south of Hill A. The command post of the battalion and of all the groupΥs forces was also there. Towards the eastern boundary of the battalion were positioned two 75mm guns and two Vickers machine guns. The 4th Greek Infantry Regiment was deployed between A and D Hills and to the south of the southern edge of the airfield. The 5th Greek Infantry Regiment was deployed as a reserve further to the south in the area between AdeleΠPegeΠAgios Demetrios. The 2/11th Australian Battalion along with a machine gun platoon and two guns of the 2/3rd Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery was deployed west of the airfield with Hill B as a vital point.
Great care had been taken to camouflage and conceal the positions of the troops. The ground, covered by vineyards, olive and fruit trees, greatly facilitated these efforts. German aerial reconnaissance photographs, which fell into British hands a few days before the attack, revealed that the Germans had spotted only one position from the whole of the Rethymno sector. The position was forthwith abandoned. Before 17 May all troops had been alerted to expect an aerial assault from that day on.
From the morning hours of 20 May, information received from Chania as well as continuous thudding noises coming from the west made known to the forces in the Rethymno sector that the anticipated aerial assault on Crete had begun. For this reason the troops were ordered to occupy their battle positions.
- The German command designated Battalions I and III of the 2nd Parachute Regiment of the 7th Parachute Division to attack the Rethymno area after a heavy preliminary bombardment. As the bombers could not effectively attack all the assault areas on the island, it was decided that the attack against Rethymno take place eight hours after the assault on Maleme and the areas of Chania and Suda. The time would be H plus 8 of D Day.
According to the operation plan, Battalion I of the 2nd Parachute Regiment (minus two companies) with a machine gun and heavy weapons company was to land east of the airfield and seize it.
Battalion III, with two batteries and a machine gun company, was to land in the area between the dry stream of Platanes and Perivolia village (east of Rethymno) and to capture Rethymno.
A group comprising the headquarters of the 2nd Parachute Regiment, an infantry company from Battalion I, and a platoon from each one of the heavy weapons companies (13th and 14th) was to land in the area between the airfield and Platanes village.
The Germans considered the above forces totally adequate for the completion of their mission.
Invasion and the Development of the Battle
- At 1600 about twenty fighters and bombers arrived above Rethymno. They proceeded to bomb and strafe the area around the airfield without result because of the excellent camouflage of the positions.
From 1615, squadrons of troop-carrier planes began to drop parachutists against the Rethymno sector, initiating the air assault. The troop-carriers did not arrive simultaneously above the drop zones as had been planned, but went on for about two hours. This upsetting of the timetable was due to the dense clouds of dust raised by the aircraft propellers during take-off in the airfields of Greece, which delayed the timely take-off of the aircraft that were to follow. This irregularity precluded the tactical surprise of the defenders. It also robbed the parachutists of the ability to exploit the bombardment and strafing that had preceded.
The drops of parachutist and their equipment were carried out by 161 aircraft in all, as follows: two companies of Battalion III/2 landed immediately east of Perivolia; one company of Battalion I/3 near and on top the positions of the 2/11th Australian Battalion and the 4th Greek Infantry Regiment; the 10th and 12th Companies of Battalion III/2 landed on top and to the east of the positions of the 2/1st Australian Battalion, in the area of the village of Stauromenos, northeast of the airfield, along the shore; the staff of Battalion I/2 along with the 3rd Company were dropped far to the east, just north of height marker 217 (Koules) and Latzimas, that is about three kilometers east of Stauromenos village.
No enemy action was observed in the area of Georgioupolis. For this reason the commander of Creforce was able, as we have seen, to move the 2/8th Battalion of the Georgioupolis group, to the area of Suda and to assign it to Weston. On 21 May, the rest of the Georgioupolis group with Brigadier Vasey moved towards Suda.
- In the Rethymno Group, the troops of Battalion III/2 which were dropped east of Perivolia attacked immediately the almost unarmed Regimental Depot Battalion. This they dispersed taking its commanding major and the entire 2nd Company prisoner. They also captured the villages of Perivolia and Kastelakia. Subsequently these troops continued their attack towards Rethymno.
The Gendarmerie companies rushing from their hastily prepared positions pinned down the attackers on the eastern edge of the city. Through a series of bloody counterattacks they forced the enemy to withdraw towards Perivolia. There the paratroops deployed with the church of Saint George and the cemetery as their center of defense. Casualties on both sides were heavy during these heroic counterattacks. From among the gendarmes, Second Lieutenant of the Gendarmerie Chlempogiannes and thirty-five gendarmes were killed, while two officers and sixty gendarmes were wounded.
The citizens of Rethymno and the surrounding villages rushed to the defense of the town bravely aiding the combat troops. Not even the elderly were absent.
Thus, the first day of fighting, 20 May, ended with victory for the Greek troops defending the town against an enemy armed with modern weapons, artillery and plentiful ammunition. Two small mortars, an antitank rifle, two light guns, many sub-machine guns and plenty of ammunition fell to the hands of the defenders. Many Germans were killed and some were taken prisoner. During the night, the Greek troops in Rethymno regrouped in their positions in expectation of the following day.
- At the Pege airfield group, the German 2nd Parachute Company landed on the positions of the 2/11th Australian Battalion and the 4th Greek Regiment near Hill B. After suffering disastrous losses the German unit was annihilated. More than eighty parachutists were taken prisoner by the 2/11th Australian Battalion.
The greatest pressure was exerted against the strongpoint of Hill A. It was attacked by the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 10th and 12th Parachute Companies with the Machine Gun Company and the headquarters of Battalion I under the command of the battalion commander. The parachutists who landed close by were quickly killed. However, those that landed further to the east continued their attack against the hill and the airfield. In order to reinforce the strongpoint of Hill A, Colonel Campbell ordered the two tanks to move out of their positions in the Pege dry stream (nicknamed by the Australians Wadi PigiΣ). However, because of erroneous driving one of the tanks became bogged down on a sandy drain near the north side of the airfield, while the other after surmounting Hill A fell into a deep gully. By a night probing action the Germans captured the immobilized tanks and took their crews prisoner. Only a small Australian pocket of resistance remained surrounded on the north slope of the hill. The rest of the Australian troops withdrew to the south approaches of the hill. When the Germans captured the hill, they captured the guns deployed there as well.
The night of 20Π21 May found the Germans in possession of the villages of Perivolia and Kastelakia, and of Hill A and Stauromenos, but not of the airfield. Their casualties amounted to about 400 killed and an unknown number of wounded. This comprised about a third of their strength and they had not yet captured any of their objectives.
- Colonel Campbell decided to counterattack on the following day in order to clear completely the area of the enemy. He radioed to Creforce command requesting reinforcements to carry out his decision. At midnight Creforce Headquarters informed him by a message that his request was denied. Therefore, Campbell planned to counterattack with his own forces.
One counterattack was to be launched by the 2/11th Australian Battalion in the direction of the flat zone lying to the north and to the east of its positions up to the sea. A section of the 5th Greek Infantry Regiment was to cover this counterattack operating more to the west, towards Platanes village. The second counterattack was to be launched by the 2/1st Australian Battalion with the objective to recapture Hill A. Another section of the 5th Greek Infantry Regiment conducting offensive operations towards Stauromenos village in order to capture it, would cover by this action the right (east) flank of the 2/1st Australian Battalion and of the whole disposition of the group.
The 2/1st Australian Battalion began its attack to recapture Hill A at daybreak of 21 May.
The company that had withdrawn on the previous night was the first to attack, reinforced by two infantry platoons. This company, supported in its efforts by other companies of the battalion, captured the Hill A around noon, recovered the guns and took about sixty Germans prisoner.
By surmounting Hill A and continuing their movement to the sea, the Australians recovered also the tanks, which they managed to pull back and repair.
During their attack the Australians were unwittingly aided by a German bomber, which unloaded six bombs on the German positions on Hill A.
During the day, strong patrols composed of troops from the 4th Greek Infantry Regiment and Australians mopped up isolated parachutists and the small groups, which had landed or infiltrated to the south of the airfield. The same fate awaited the Germans who fled after Hill A had been recaptured. Of these small groups, those that were not captured or annihilated by the Greeks and Australians fled to Stauromenos, and turned it into a strongpoint, of which the vital point became the local olive oil factory, a building of stout construction with a surrounding stone wall.
The counterattack launched by the 2/11th Australian Battalion against the flat area north of Hill B was a complete success. The German troops there could not move, as they were pinned down by the machine gun platoon, the fire of which dominated the flat ground. Those Germans not killed outright were taken prisoner. Among them was the commander of the Central Group echelon which was attacking Rethymno, Colonel Sturm, together with the plans and his operation orders which were carried by him. From these Campbell was informed that the airfield and Rethymno should have been captured from the day before.
- From 0300 of 21 May both detachments of the 5th Greek Infantry Regiment attacked in the designated directions towards Stauromenos and Platanes. At about 0402 of 21 May they came in contact with the German troops deployed there.
The western detachment completely cleared the designated area, captured Platanes and reached the eastern edge of Perivolia village.
The eastern detachment mopped up any enemy pockets it met. By the following day this detachment also had arrived in front of Stauromenos, where the Germans had established themselves since the day before.
The detachment was pinned down and its commander requested artillery support and a tank in order to capture Stauromenos.
Instead Colonel Campbell ordered one company to remain assigned to 2/1st Battalion, while the rest of the force to withdraw to its positions. The relevant signal read:
. . . The Australians report that they are proud to fight at the side of the Cretans and the Greeks. Warmest congratulations for your brilliant success. Detach one of your companies to the Australian Battalion and return to your original positions.3
Following this order, the 5th Greek Regiment left its 2nd Company on the height northeast of Chamaleuri. The rest of its troops withdrew to the area of Mese, Agia Triada, and to the east, with the regimental command post at Agia Triada.
The results from the action of the 5th Regiment were significant, in that the flanks of the Australian troops defending the airfield were freed from all German flanking action from the east, since Stauromenos was under observation by the regimentΥs 2nd Company. Prisoners were captured in significant numbers along with canisters full of weapons, hand grenades, and ammunition, which fit Greek weapons of 7.92-mm caliber.
German casualties during 21 May rose to 70 killed, 300 wounded and 200 prisoners, among which the commander of German forces in the Rethymno sector, Colonel Sturm. In the evening of 21 May, the airfield was completely secure and the Greek and Australian troops had been reinforced in terms of firepower from the captured materiel. The German plan to capture the Rethymno area and the airfield had failed from the first day, while half of the invasion force had been rendered out of action.
The Germans already held on to two strongpoints, which they defended, at Perivolia and Stauromenos. Small groups of parachutists had organized pockets of resistance southeast of Rethymno hindering the communications of the airfield group with Rethymno, Georgioupolis, and Chania.
Colonel Campbell decided to attack the two German positions on 22 May and issued orders to this effect.
- The fighting of the Rethymno Group continued vigorously during 21 May, while the town was being bombed from the air. The Greek troops held their positions on the eastern edges of the town successfully defending against German troops attacking from Perivolia, despite the heavy losses incurred from the Luftwaffe. A single bomb killed sixteen gendarmes of the 11th Gendarmerie Company. In the end, the Greek troops and the armed civilians forced the parachutists to withdraw to their positions at Agios Georgios and Kastelakia.
At 1715, Kastelakia village was captured by a vigorous attack of the 11th Gendarmerie Company. The Germans hastily withdrew inside the church of Saint George at Perivolia. A captured quantity of German cartridges proved invaluable as the four Gendarmerie companies were armed with American rifles, which were chambered for this type of cartridge.
- From the morning of 22 May 1941, in accordance with the decisions of the German command, the Luftwaffe began a new round of strafing and bombing in the entire Rethymno sector, in order to give the parachutists on the ground some respite. The bombing demolished many buildings in Rethymno. Among these was the building of the National Bank of Greece. The prefect of Rethymno, G. Tsagres, the commander of Gendarmerie Lieutenant Colonel Stylianos Menoudakes, along with some citizens who were in conference inside the building at the time, were killed.
No movement was possible, because of the bombardment. Therefore the troops remained in their positions.
At about noon, following a loosening up of the German air force action, gendarmes, troops of the Regimental Depot Battalion, and armed civilians from the eastern edge of the town advanced and began to besiege the German parachutists, which were barricaded in Saint George at Perivolia. Second Lieutenant Nikolaos Miaoules of the depot battalion, along with a gendarme were killed during this action, while two other gendarmes were seriously wounded.
A Greek warrant officer, who had been captured at Perivolia during 20 May, escaped and presented himself to the commander of the Regimental Depot Battalion. He reported that the Germans holding Saint George numbered about 220 men and that they were holding women and children as hostages.
Incessant bombardment had several disadvantages: among them, it rendered working in the Rethymno bakeries impossible. The fighting troops suffered from lack of bread. With great difficulty during 22 May it was possible to bake bread in Armenoi village and to collect hard tack from the surrounding villages.
- According to orders issued by Colonel Campbell, the 2/11th Australian Battalion from the airfield group attacked in the morning of 22 May with the aim to capture Perivolia. One of the battalionsΥ companies led by Captain Honner4 advanced without resistance by way of Tsesme towards Platanes stream. There the company halted for a bit after being fired upon from the easternmost houses of the village. By order from the battalion commander the company continued its movement, supported by two mortars, and captured a few houses about a kilometer from the church of Saint George, where the Germans had organized their main defense. The Australian company, using German ground panel signals and codes captured during the first day of fighting, requested that the German air force bomb Perivolia. The Luftwaffe falling for this ruse bombed the Germans at Saint George.
Despite this aid the company was forced to halt, as the ground in front of the enemy positions was steep and bare offering the Germans an excellent field of fire.
While HonnerΥs company was pinned in these positions, another company under Captain Jackson, with two mortars, arrived close by, late in the evening. This company, sent by the battalion commander to reinforce HonnerΥs company in attaining its objective, was also pinned down by enemy fire. The battalion commander, informed of the inability of the companies to advance in this direction, ordered them to remain and organize the positions they held.
At 1000 of 22 May, to the right (east) of the airfield group, the 2/1st Battalion moved two companies in order to capture the Olive Oil Factory in Stauromenos. Support would be provided by the 2nd Company of the 5th Greek Regiment, from positions on the height north of Chamaleuri, and by artillery fire from Hill A. However, while the two Australian companies were advancing, one of the company commanders was killed and the only other officer of that company was wounded. On account of this the attack did not take place at that time, and the battalion commander rescheduled it for 1800.
This new attempt, however, also failed, due to lack of coordination between Greeks and Australians: the Australians could not take advantage of the Greek covering fire. Also, they could not negotiate from that direction the bare ground swept by German fire. After this new failure, the 2nd Greek Company was ordered to remain in the Chamaleuri positions and to keep the Germans in Stauromenos busy with its fire. After dark, the two companies of the 2/1st Australian Battalion retired to their original positions.
- During all of 23 May, the Greek group at Rethymno limited itself to maintaining the positions it held and to improving these through minor advances. The arrival in the evening of an officer sent to Chania to request ammunition augmented the firepower of the group, since he had brought by automobile 210 Italian rifles, ammunition, and hand grenades.
Between 1300 and 2000, strong air forces savagely bombed the Rethymno area. During this bombardment, among other buildings, the barracks and the hospitals were destroyed, even though the red cross had been clearly painted on the buildings of the hospitals. The bombardment induced those responsible for the safety of the patients to order their evacuation to the villages of Prines and Atsipopoulo. As for the machine guns which were assigned an antiaircraft defense mission, they had failed in this role. They were ordered therefore to withdraw from their positions on the fort and were assigned to the troops operating against Perivolia.
Out of the available unarmed men, one unit was formed, the 1st Attached Company. It was armed with the Italian weapons recently fetched from Chania, and was deployed in Tria Monasteria (Chromonasteri).
- In the evening of that day, a company of the 1st Rangers along with an artillery platoon arrived at Rethymno. They were sent by the Creforce headquarters with orders to restore the severed communications with the Chania area.
During the evening, an attack against the Germans holding out in Saint George took place after coordination between the commander of these troops with the airfield group. This attack also failed because of a lack of coordination between Greeks and Australians, and between the Greeks themselves as well.
By the night of 23 May, the Rethymno group was in absolute control of Rethymno town and tightly besieging the Germans in Saint George at Perivolia. It held the western edge of Perivolia with the whole force of the Gendarmerie and groups of armed civilians. The 11th Gendarmerie Company remained in Kastelakia, the 1st Company of the Regimental Depot Battalion was in Chromonasteri, and the 5th Company of the same battalion was in Atsipopoulo.
In the zone of the airfield group the Germans and the Australians concluded a three-hour truce for the burial of those who had been killed. During the truce the commander of the German troops at Stauromenos sent an officer-messenger with a document demanding the surrender of the Australians. His argument was that German successes in Maleme and Aghya rendered the position of the Australians in Rethymno desperate. Campbell rejected the proposition and underscored this by artillery fire on the Olive Oil Factory, immediately upon the expiration of the truce. The Germans at Stauromenos were considerably reinforced through the gradual assembly there of all the scattered parachutist groups. This worried the Australian liaison officer to the 5th Greek Regiment, who suggested to the regimental commander to move forward troops to positions northeast of those already held in order to repulse any German attacks from Stauromenos or from east of that area. Because of the German air force action the advance of the battalion took place after dark. The battalion deployed defensively along the line formed by PankalochoriΠChamaleuri.
Around sundown, the Germans fortified in Perivolia attacked against these positions but were repulsed with losses.
- During the morning of 24 May, in the area of the Rethymno group the Ranger company, which had arrived from Chania with the artillery platoon moved eastward, and attempted to force the German positions in the Perivolia area. The company was spotted and bombed by the German air force, suffering fourteen casualties, and returned to Chania.
At 0800 of 24 May, after preparation by heavy weapon fire and strong support from the air force, the German troops at Saint George attacked the defensive line of the Rethymno group in an attempt to improve their positions. This German attempt continued until 1400 when it was finally crushed by the Greek troops. The Germans were forced to withdraw to their positions abandoning many killed and abundant materiel in doing so. The GreeksΥ casualties were thirty-seven gendarmes wounded and a cadet officer killed.
During the morning, in the area of the airfield group, one of the tanks, hastily repaired conducted reconnaissance towards the Olive Oil Factory and to its north. During the night, this tank was assigned to 2/11th Battalion in order to support the battalionΥs attack ordered by the group commander for 25 May.
On 25 May, the 2/11th Battalion was ready to attack Perivolia supported by the tank. The tank, however, fell into a ravine. Because of the unavailability of the support offered by the tank the attack was postponed for the following day.
In the eastern part of the airfield area the 2/1st Australian Battalion utilizing a captured mortar and Greek gunners bombarded a house on a height east of Stauromenos, which was defended by thirty Germans. The advanced 2nd Company of the 5th Greek Regiment taking advantage of the mortar fire assaulted and captured this house. However, it was not possible to conduct stronger offensive actions, because the Australian artillery could not offer support due to the activity of the German bombers.
- Campbell decided on one final attack to capture Stauromenos for 26 May. For this reason, the 5th Infantry Regiment was ordered to move forward troops before the village in order to attack the next morning.
The regiment moved forward the 3rd Company, which despite the German air presence overhead arrived in front of the village during the afternoon hours. The company occupied positions on the low ridges north of Nea Magnesia village and to the right (west) of the 20th Company, which held the height northeast of Chamaleuri.
At 0900 of 26 May, Colonel Campbell realizing that German fire from the Olive Oil Factory had diminished, conducted a reconnaissance in force by a platoon, supported by a tank and by the artillery positioned on Hill A. At the same time, the 5th Infantry Regiment attacking with its 2nd and 3rd Companies captured Stauromenos. Significant quantities of communication equipment, arms and clothing fell to Greek hands.
The Greeks and Australians captured about 100 Germans of which 42 were wounded. Up to that day the airfield group had captured about 500 prisoners in all.
To the left of the group, the 2/11th Australian Battalion was again ready to attack. The tank at its disposal, repaired again, moved to support the troops, which would attack Perivolia. Before the infantry could move, the tank was put out of action by a German round, which wounded the crew. The attack of the 2/11th Battalion was again postponed.
During 25 and 26 May, the Rethymno group continued to hold its positions west and south of Perivolia, harassing the enemy through patrols.
The Luftwaffe continuously surveyed and attacked the area. The German air force on the one hand, and the Greek hostages at Perivolia, on the other, hindered any strong attack on the part of the Greek troops. From 25 May, the command of Military District II was relocated to Chromonasteri. On 26 May the Rethymno Garrison Post also relocated there. The Gendarmerie commander, Captain of the Gendarmerie Georgios Chalkiadakes, with over a hundred gendarmes remained in Rethymno.
- On 27 May, the Germans in Perivolia, with close air support, attacked the troops of the 11th Gendarmerie Company in Kastelakia in order to capture the village. Encountering strong resistance, the attack failed and the Germans were forced to retire to their starting positions.
An officer was killed and many gendarmes were wounded during this action. After the second attempt to attack and capture Perivolia by the 2/11th Australian Battalion was canceled, Campbell decided that this should take place on 27 May with the same unit. For this reason during the night of 26Π27 May he assigned the other tank (from the area of the 2/1st Battalion) to the 2/11th Australian Battalion. The tank that had been damaged the day before had been repaired.
The attack was to be conducted by the Honner and Wood companies, which had advanced towards Perivolia, supported by the tanks. HonnerΥs company had moved during the night of 26Π27 May without being discovered to within 70 meters of the German positions, awaiting the assault of the tanks.
At dawn of 27 May, the two tanks advanced each under an officer. One of the tanks approaching the German positions was hit and burst into flames. The other tank advancing towards HonnerΥs company without knowing that they were friendly troops opened fire killing two men. The company attempted through signals to alert the tank as to their identity. This however revealed their positions the Germans, who began to fire against it. The tank moving towards the enemy positions in order to cover the imminent assault of HonnerΥs company moved ahead of the companyΥs positions. There, after a while it was hit by enemy fire and immobilized. It continued to fire, however, until its weapons were put out of action by enemy fire.
Despite the loss of both tanks HonnerΥs company advanced suffering many casualties in the process.
- As soon as this failure was reported to him, Campbell ordered the attack to be suspended and a new one to be scheduled for the following night (27Π28 May).
During the new attack the two advanced companies (HonnerΥs and WoodΥs) would keep the Germans busy from the positions they held, by means of fire and combat patrols. Two fresh companies from Hill C were to attack on each side of the road leading south from Perivolia. JacksonΥs Company, which would be on the left, was to seize the crossroads in front of Perivolia and continue its attack up to the coast. The other, WoodΥs company, would seize the buildings east of the crossroads.
According to this plan, JacksonΥs Company began its attack at 0320 of 28 May. The advanced troops of the company received heavy fire at close quarters. Despite this, the company, acting swiftly, captured the crossroads and continued its movement towards the shore mopping up before it any enemy pockets of resistance. WoodΥs Company moved likewise and fired upon the buildings along the RethymnoΠHerakleion road which passed through the village. However, the heavy fire of the defending Germans forced the company to withdraw to the east, losing more than half of its force, including its commanding officer and two other officers who were wounded.
At the same time, the advanced companies on the right were fired upon with sustained machine gun fire and where therefore unable to launch patrols as had been planned.
JacksonΥs Company captured the buildings west of Perivolia and towards the shore. The company remained there throughout the day being fired upon by mortars and machine guns from the area of Saint George as well as from the coast.
During the night of 28Π29 May the company attempted to break through to the east. During this movement it was fired upon by small-arms from a nest of resistance located in a downed aircraft on shore. The company doubled back and moved towards Rethymno along the shore. Halfway between Rethymno and Perivolia it turned south, and then to the east by a route passing a kilometer and a half south of Kastelakia. About noon of 29 May it reached the positions of its battalion near Hill C. Total casualties for the company from the time it moved out until its return amounted to twelve men out of a total strength of seventy.
- In the evening of 28 May, some cases of food and ammunition were dropped on the airfield group by British aircraft from Egypt. There was only enough food for the Australians to last for one more day, despite the fact that rations had been halved. Artillery rounds had been almost exhausted. Ammunition for other arms was dangerously low.
By contrast, the Germans at Perivolia were being supplied effortlessly by the German air force. The Luftwaffe was no longer prone to being deceived by deceptive signals of the Australians on the ground, who had German panels in their hands.
The enemy bombardments of Rethymno were well guided and proved disastrous. Although the bombing had no serious material effect on the Greeks and Australians, they did force the troops to remain pinned down during the day. In this way the Germans, far fewer than before, succeeded in retaining their organized positions at Perivolia until they were relieved by the forces advancing overland from the west.
- In the Rethymno group, the command of Military District II had been informed on 28 May by an officer arriving from Chania that the defense in the Chania sector had collapsed, and that the British troops were withdrawing towards Sphakia.
They were also informed for the first time that King George and the government had left Crete. This information influenced adversely to a great degree the morale of fighting troops and the civilians, which up to that point had been excellent. Moreover, the arrival of German reinforcements from the direction of Chania in the Rethymno sector was awaited at any time.
At 1000 of 29 May, the commander of the Garrison Post of Rethymno, who was in Chromonasteri, was informed by telephone from Episkope, that German motorcycle troops were at that time passing through the village on their way to Rethymno. The garrison post commander relayed this information to the commander of the military district.
This piece of information was the final blow. The belief in a need to capitulate prevailed, in order to avoid further unnecessary destruction and casualties, especially among the non-combatants from the continuously mounting aerial bombardment.
It was decided that the Gendarmerie School surrender, as most of the gendarmes hailed from mainland Greece and their dissolution and dispersal would render their provisioning difficult. The troops of the Regimental Depot Battalion, being mainly Cretans, would assemble at Vrysina and disperse to their villages.
The city of Rethymno would be handed over to the enemy. Major Chaniotes, commander of the Gendarmerie Battalion, was ordered to come to terms with the Germans in order to surrender the city and the battalion. Chaniotes refused to carry out this order however.
The Collapse of the Rethymno Sector
- During the night of 29 to 30 May, the motorized detachment under Colonel Wittmann entered and captured Rethymno without any resistance.
The Gendarmerie troops, groups of armed civilians and some groups of troops from the Regimental Depot awaited the Germans east of the city for one last stand, with what little ammunition they had remained. . . . As soon as the advance guard exited the city they met heavy machine gun and mortar fire.Σ5 Following a brief resistance, these troops were forced to surrender.
In the evening of 29 May, in the airfield group, the commanders of the 4th and 5th Greek Regiments were informed of the collapse of the defense of western Crete. They were also informed of the approach of the Germans from Chania to Rethymno and the decision to surrender, taken by the commander of Military District II.
After this, at 2200 of 29 May, the commander of the 5th Greek Regiment decided and ordered the withdrawal of the regimentΥs troops towards Arkadi, since there was no food or ammunition and considering any further resistance and sacrifice to be in vain. At Arkadi, the regiment was dispersed and those of the troops that were locals left for their villages, while those from mainland Greece were distributed among various local communities.
For the same reasons, the 4th Greek Infantry Regiment, whose men hailed mainly from mainland Greece withdrew to Adele in order to surrender according to the decision of its commander. The distribution of the men among various communities, as was decided for units the majority of the men of which were locals, would render their victualing problematic.
- None of the orders from Creforce pertaining to the evacuation ever reached Colonel Campbell. For this reason, as the Germans approached the area, during the night of 29 May, following the collapse of the Rethymno group, Campbell was determined to continue fighting. Therefore he ordered the 2/11th Battalion to occupy the positions vacated by the 4th Greek Regiment, apart from HonnerΥs Company, which would remain in advanced positions in front of Perivolia. The available artillery was positioned on Hill B.
During the morning of 30 May, HonnerΥs Company was fired upon with mortar and artillery fire from Perivolia. The sound of motors could be heard from west of Perivolia. At about 0930, a German detachment comprising approximately thirty motorcycles appeared on the left (west) flank of the 2/11th Australian Battalion. Later the German troops advanced south of Hill D. It was obvious that the airfield group was quickly becoming encircled.
Colonel Campbell estimated that he could continue defense for only an hour and only with great sacrifice. In order to avoid needless bloodshed, and as he didnΥt have enough food to last for the three-day walk to Sphakia in order to escape, he decided to surrender along with his unit. He made his decision known to the commander of 2/11 Battalion. The latter assembled his officers and told them that he gave freedom of action to them and to their men to decide their moves. Whoever wanted to surrender was free to do so; he with those remaining would take to the mountains and would attempt to reach the south in order to finally escape to Africa.
At about noon, HonnerΥs troops, fighting bravely against the Germans attacking from Perivolia, withdrew towards the battalionΥs headquarters, which was already under attack by the German motorized detachment.
A last-ditch defense took place there. Finally, some surrendered, while others Πamong them the battalion commanderΠ took to the mountains. The remaining Australian troops with the group commander and the 4th Greek Regiment surrendered. The road to Herakleion was now open for the Witt-mann Detachment.
Fighting in the Herakleion Sector
Disposition and Missions of the Greek and British forces
- The defense of the Herakleion sector was assigned to the 14th British Brigade, under the command of Brigadier B. H. Chappel, who had established his headquarters in Nea Alikarnassos, and the Greek forces of Military District III under Colonel (Inf) Charalampos Papathanasopoulos, subordinated to the British brigadier. The 2nd Military Command of Crete was also based in Herakleion under Major General Michael Linardakes with a skeleton staff.
The mission of the forces in this sector was to repulse any airborne or seaborne attack, aiming at capturing the airfield and harbor of Herakleion (Sketch-map 19).
The forces allocated for this mission were divided into two groups. The western group comprised the Greek forces, tasked with the protection of the city of Herakleion. The eastern group comprised the 14th British Brigade reinforced by artillery and tanks tasked with the protection of the airfield and the harbor.
- The western group comprised the Regimental Depot Battalion of Herakleion under Major Demetrios Kasimates, the 7th Greek Infantry Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel (Inf) Euangelos Chairetes and the 3rd Greek Infantry Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel (Inf) A. Beteinakes. The Regimental Depot Battalion of Herakleion, apart from a few troops occupying key positions within the city, was deployed in front of and on the west walls of Herakleion. Its positions to the west extended to Giophyro river, with its left (north) wing resting on the coast and its right (south) in Therisos, east of Herakleion. The 7th Greek Infantry Regiment minus a two-company force was deployed in Therisos as sector reserve.
The 3rd Greek Infantry Regiment with its command post at Mastampas was deployed south of Therisos, covering Herakleion from the south by occupying the area between the roads HerakleionΠKnossos and HerakleionΠPhoinikia.
A two-company force of the 7th Greek Regiment had deployed in the area of Kakon Oros, four kilometers east of the airfield, by order of the British sector commander. There were also prison camps with about 5000 Italian prisoners at Agios Thomas and Chountetsi.1
The eastern group, composed by the 14th Brigade, reinforced by artillery and tanks, comprised four battalions. Of these, the 2nd Battalion Black Watch was deployed at the airfield and on the heights southeast of it. The 2/4th Australian Battalion held positions at the southwest edge of the airfield with its vital point on the Twin Hill 134. Immediately to the west was the 2nd Battalion, Leicestershire, which as a reserve had been ordered to counterattack against any parachute force dropping on the airfield or to its southwest or northwest. West of this battalion was the 2nd Battalion, York and Lancaster, with its zone extending up to the HerakleionΠKnossos road (Knossos excluded).
About three hundred officers and enlisted men of the 7th Medium Regiment Royal Artillery, fighting as infantry, held positions in the area of Nea Alikarnassos up to Chrysoupolis.
The artillery at the disposal of the sector comprised the 234th Medium Battery Royal Artillery with thirteen French and Italian guns of 75mm and 100mm caliber, one section of the 15th Coast Regiment Royal Artillery with two 4-inch guns, the 7th Australian Light Antiaircraft Artillery Battery (minus three sections) with six Bofors 40mm guns, one troop of the 156th Light Antiaircraft Battery Royal Artillery with four Bofors 40mm guns, two sections of CΣ Heavy Antiaircraft Battery Royal Marines with four 3-inch guns and one troop with light machine guns only from the 23rd Light Antiaircraft Battery Royal Marines.
The bulk of the artillery was positioned southwest of the airfield. The four Bofors of the 156th Light Antiaircraft Battery and the six Bofors of the 7th Australian Antiaircraft Battery surrounded the airfield. The entire artillery, therefore, was assigned to the eastern group. Six light tanks were positioned southeast of the airfield. One Infantry tank was on the southeast edge of the airfield and another on the southwest edge.
A Radar station (AMES) was established on the northern approaches to Height 182 (Kopraina).
Apart from the units mentioned above, there were three Infantry tanks and the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland at Tympaki, where it had landed in the evening of 19 May.
Thus, the British troops of the Herakleion sector were deployed with a front four miles wide from north to south, and two miles in depth, with the airfield as the center of defense. One battalion (the Argyll and Sutherland) and three tanks were at Tympaki.
According to the instructions for the conduct of the defense, the infantry forces should cover themselves during the preparatory bombardment and attack the enemy parachutists at the moment of their landing.
The antiaircraft artillery was ordered to fire according to the best judgment of the gunners. The 75mm and 100mm guns were ordered not to fire on the airfield unless given the order by the sector commander.
Concerted efforts were made to protect and screen the troops through the construction of well-camouflaged trenches surrounded by barbed wire, which were continuously manned by the defenders. Thanks to this organization the results of the enemy air attacks on men and materiel were negligible, despite the systematic aerial bombardment that began on 14 May.
- The Germans earmarked the 1st Parachute Regiment under the command of Colonel BrŠuer for the capture of the city, the airfield and the harbor.
According to the plan, after a preparatory bombardment lasting about an hour, the troops were to drop simultaneously at 1615 on 20 May with the following missions: Battalion I/1, landing east of the airfield would capture the wireless station at Gournes and would cover the eastern flank of the main attack. Battalion II/1 would capture the Herakleion airfield. Battalion III/1 would capture the city attacking from the west and south. Battalion II/2, landing west of Battalion III/1, would assist the latter in its attack.
Air-Assault and Clashes in the Herakleion Area
- Starting at 1500 of 20 May, approximately fifty bombers and fighters began bombing and strafing intensely the area of the sector with little effect on the troops but causing serious damage to the city. At 1600 the troop-carrier formations appeared over Herakleion and Colonel BruerΥs parachutists began to jump.
Because of the delay in take-off from the airfields of mainland Greece, the Luftwaffe was not able to support the parachutists during their landing.2 Thus, while the bombing took place at the arranged time and the parachute drop lasted about three hours (until about 1900), the fighters charged with providing support for the landing parachutists were forced to depart at about 1715 because of lack of fuel.
The lack of timing among the transport echelons and between the transport echelons and the air support forces proved a decisive factor for the fate of the troops of the Herakleion attack group from the first moments of their landing.
- The parachutists of Parachute Battalion III/1, under Major Schulz landed immediately to the west and south of Greek positions, in the areas of Mastampas, Therisos, and Giophyro, and also in close proximity to the city walls. Battalion II/2 landed at Gazi, except the 5th and 6th Companies, which remained at airbases on mainland Greece. The Greek troops were ready to receive the attackers. As soon as the first parachutists landed, they were fired upon and many of them were killed before reaching the ground. Any German troops that landed were dispersed by continuous attacks against them. Very few managed to organize on the ground, but even these and the troops that landed farther from the Greek lines lost their offensive momentum, lapsing into defense far from the Greek positions. The strongest of these sections was a group from Battalion III/1, which assembled about half a kilometer west of the city walls.
Greek troops fiercely attacked the positions of these troops throughout the day. Nightfall brought an end to these attacks. All German efforts to capture the city had been successfully repulsed.
A group of 150 reservists who were without arms in the city, had been armed care of the commander of the 3rd Greek Infantry Regiment with some American weapons found by chance at the last minute in a warehouse of the regimental depot. At about 1900, these troops attacked towards Mastampas and pushed out the Germans, who after capturing the eastern edge of the neighborhood had surrounded the regimental command post.
The commander of the 3rd Greek Infantry Regiment was on the city walls at the time of the parachute drop. The military district commander, Colonel Papathanasopoulos, had rushed to the command post of this regiment at Mastampas from among the first. There he was surrounded, along with the officers and men of the regimental command, and later relieved, as mentioned above.
With the coming of darkness the Greek troops reorganized in their positions.
A great number of weaponless men were armed with the German arms that fell to Greek hands. The struggle became more equal since Greek troops were now armed with German weapons, sub-machine guns, hand grenades, mortars and machine guns. However, there werenΥt adequate supplies of ammunition for these weapons to continue the struggle for long.
Parachute Battalion II/2 did not take part in the fight during this day. However, it was forced to maintain a defensive stance against the harassment it suffered by bold armed groups.3
- Parachute Battalion II/1 along with the machine gun company landed in two echelons, west and south of the airfield. Troops of the 2/4th Australian Battalion and the infantry-fighting personnel of the 7th Medium Regiment Royal Artillery, attacked the western group. The Black Watch Battalion and the tanks attacked the eastern group. By 2130, few small teams of Parachute Battalion II/1 were left. The battalion had 12 officers and 300 enlisted men killed, and 8 officers and 100 enlisted men wounded. After dark, the battalionΥs survivors, about seventy parachutists in all with some machine guns, assembled under a captain on Hill 182 (Kopraina) southeast of the airfield.
Of Parachute Battalion I/1, only the 3rd Company landed on time in the area of Gournes and captured the village unopposed. The other two companies, the 1st and 2nd, along with the staff and command of 1st Parachute Regiment landed hours later east of the 3rd Company. The 4th Company remained at its airfield in mainland Greece.
Upon landing, the commander of the regiment attempted to support the attack of Parachute Battalion II/1 against the airfield, by committing Battalion I/1, according to its mission. For this reason he moved westward along with these troops after assembling them at Gournes. However, during their assembly and their movement towards the airfield they were continuously attacked by groups of armed civilians, the few gendarmes of the Gendarmerie posts of the surrounding villages, and, finally, by the two-company force of the 7th Greek Regiment, which was deployed in the area of Kakon Oros, east of the airfield. As a result of these skirmishes the German troops arrived late at the airfield and suffered casualties exceeding the strength of a company.4
Colonel BrŠuer believed that Parachute Battalion II/1 would have already captured the airfield, according to plan. Therefore, when he arrived he was surprised at being fired upon with intensity from positions of the Black Watch Battalion.
Only one platoon under Lieutenant BlŸcher managed to infiltrate the heights east of the airfield and deploy there.
- Despite the tremendous attrition suffered by his forces, Colonel BrŠuer decided to attack during the night of 20Π21 May from the west against Herakleion and from the east against the airfield, to capture both.
In the area of Gazi, west of Herakleion, the forces available for the attack against what he had estimated as a small Greek group, was Parachute Battalion II/2, of diminished strength, and Battalion III/1, which had landed around the city and suffered significant casualties. The greatest concentration of III/1 forces was about half a kilometer west of the city walls under Major Schulz. In the east he had Battalion I/1, of diminished strength due to the series of clashes with the Greeks on the way from Gournes to Kakon Oros, and five heavy machine guns salvaged from the Machine Gun Company, which had landed with Parachute Battalion II/1.
In order to implement his decisions, BrŠuer ordered Schulz by radio to attack Herakleion immediately. Schulz never carried out the order, because he never received it.
Regarding the forces to the east, BrŠuer moved them piecemeal towards the British positions. The efforts of these troops to attack the airfield failed as infantry, mortar, and artillery fire neutralized them.
BrŠuerΥs spasmodic actions of attacking unprepared successively with the available troops were due to his opinion that he could achieve nothing during daylight. Bruer believed that the passing night did not afford him the time to assemble the forces and prepare a coordinated attack, which he believed should be launched under cover of the night.
In this way, the attack against the Herakleion sector by Parachute Group Orion was crushed from the first hours. The Germans achieved none of their objectives and lost close to a thousand parachutists.
The firepower of the Greek and British troops was greatly augmented as a result of recovering canisters dropped in the wrong places by the enemy air force and salvaging the arms of the fallen.
- With dawn of 21 May the Luftwaffe appeared again above the sector. At first through reconnaissance they identified the positions of the parachutists on the ground. At 0900 this was followed by transport aircraft, which went on to resupply by air drops the German troops on the ground.
The reconnaissance, resupplying, and bombing carried out by the Luftwaffe was hindered by the Greek and British troops using flares and ground panel signals, which along with the relevant codes had fallen into their hands.5 In one instance, through a request of the Australian battalion to the Germans, the Luftwaffe dropped machine guns, wireless sets, mortars, a motorcycle with sidecar, chairs and tables, a tent, and much food and ammunition on their positions.
During the day, in the area of the eastern group, strong British patrols mopped up small groups of parachutists; the most important such skirmishes took place at Bampali and Prasses. An attack of infantry accompanied by tanks destroyed BlŸcherΥs advanced platoon and he himself was killed. During the twilight, Bruer reduced the front of the remainder of his two battalions and assumed a hedgehogΣ formation on the western slope of Height 182 (Kopraina) with the Kartero stream separating his troops from the British.
In the area of the western group, Major Schulz learned by accident from a signal not addressed to him that from 0900Π1000 Herakleion would be bombed. He decided to take advantage of the bombing to capture Herakleion.
Indeed, beginning at 0900 the area of the city was subjected to heavy bombardment. The walls of Herakleion and the area of the harbor sustained heavy damage. The small number of troops from the Regimental Depot Battalion on the walls suffered heavy losses. The troops guarding the city gates suffered the heaviest losses since their positions were easily attacked, as they were spotted from the air by observers who guessed their whereabouts from to the roads leading out of the city to the country.
At about 1000, Schulz attacked the city. The attack was carried out by two groups, which managed to infiltrate the city after suppressing the defenders, who were already weakened by the bombing, with concentrated mortar and machine gun fire. All available forces in the city as well as a host of armed civilians attacked the invaders. Many were killed on both sides during the ensuing street fighting, which lasted until nightfall. When darkness finally fell, Schulz with his group withdrew through the northern gate towards positions outside the city at Tsalikaki and Stauromenos east of Gazi village.
During the street fighting, the commander of the 3rd Greek Regiment reinforced the troops fighting within the city with a company, which entered the city from the south gate. With all available troops he pinned down the Germans that had not entered the city, isolating them and preventing them from aiding Schulz.6
Brigadier Campbell dispatched two platoons from the five battalions available to him in aid of the Greeks.
The casualties in men killed were heavy on both sides. Major (Inf) Michael Tzolakes, Second Lieutenant Ioannes Manolarakes, and Lieutenant (Inf) Ioannes Marineles were among those who fell heroically fighting in the city streets. About fifty Germans were taken prisoner, among them two officers.
On 22 May 1941, in the area of the western group the mopping up continued with strong patrols, mainly from the 3rd Greek Infantry Regiment and armed civilians, up to Giophyro stream to the west and PhoinikiaΠArchanes to the south.
By the dayΥs end the mopping up operations had been completed and no Germans remained inside the Greek defensive area. The dayΥs operations resulted in over 150 parachutists killed or taken prisoner. The Greeks also suffered many killed among which the four officers mentioned above.
The most significant German presence were the troops from Battalions III/1 and II/2, about 500 men in all, who were pinned down in defensive deployment in the area of TsalikakiΠStauromenos.
- The 7th Greek Regiment and the troops of the Regimental Depot Battalion lay between the German troops and Herakleion. The main mission of the 7th Regiment was to defend the west side of the city, while the troops of the Regimental Depot Battalion had as their mission the defense of the northern side of the city, the Venetian harbor, and the city center.
Advanced Gendarmerie troops and armed civilians had been dispatched up to the Giophyro stream in order to keep the German positions at TsalikakiΠStauromenos under surveillance.
The German troops organized in these positions, gathered women and children around them for cover, and posed a constant threat for Herakleion. For this reason, the commander of the 2nd Military Command, Major General Linardakes, requested support of tanks and artillery from the British command of the sector, in order to attack the Germans and clear the area of this threat. However,
. . . no reinforcements were sent to him. A few guns fired sporadically against pockets of resistance but this fire had no results as it was not possible to coordinate action with our infantry because of the great distance. . .7
Throughout the day, the Germans on the ground maintained a defensive stance. The Luftwaffe continued strafing and bombing, attacking mostly the roads leading from the city to the country.
- In the area of the eastern group, troops of the Black Watch Battalion mopped up and pushed back nests of parachutists from the eastern edge of the airfield. All units of the group sent out strong patrols and detachments to clear the area south of the airfield, up to Knossos, of small detachments, scattered groups, and isolated parachutists.
The Germans had deployed on the slopes of Hill 182 (Kopraina) and up to the point where the Karteros stream meets the HerakleionΠAgios Nikolaos road, with the bed of the stream in front of them as an obstacle. During the day, their lost equipment had been replenished with the drop of light artillery pieces and a great number of mortars and machine guns. Reinforced in this way, they had rendered their positions very strong.
It was for this reason that the Black Watch Battalion, the unit closest to the German positions, avoided attacking them. Brigadier Chappel, comprehending that this hedgehogΣ constituted a constant threat to the airfield, ordered the Black Watch Battalion, which he had reinforced with a company from the Leicester Battalion, to attack and capture the hill. The battalion replied that it could not do so as it had insufficient strength for such an action.
During the day, work parties dealt with the collection and burial of the dead parachutists. From 20 May until the evening of 22 May, the Greeks buried about 300 corpses, while the British forces buried about 950. Many others lay unburied, fallen at places under German fire.8
Following the Black Watch commanderΥs refusal to attack the constantly reinforced German hedgehogΣ, Brigadier Chappel ordered no further offensive action against this German strong point, which posed so serious a threat to the airfield and its communication with the south.
- From the morning of 23 May, citizens of Herakleion began streaming into the command post of the 2nd Military Command. They reported that women and children relatives, sent to the country for protection from the bombings, had been captured by the Germans and were being used as a shield by the enemy in his attempt to advance towards the city.
. . . After this garrison post commander, Major Tsangarakes, was ordered to approach the German lines and demand of the German commander the release of the women and children, otherwise reprisals would be dealt against the prisoners . . .9
. . . Then I requested (Tsangarakes states) of the German major taken prisoner the day before, to address a letter to the German commander at Stauromenos, in which he should stress the futility of continuing to resist, that the British and ourselves had many prisoners, that the battle for them was lost as all resistance had been broken. And, finally, that if he didnΥt want to surrender he could continue to fight under condition that he let the women and children go free and not use them as a shield for his operations . . .10
Major Schulz, on hearing the demands for the release of the women and children and for his surrender, agreed to the first but rejected the second. Indeed he replied with an opposite demand, that the city be surrendered to him within two hours, otherwise it would be subjected to an aerial bombardment by great numbers of bombers. He added that all of Crete had been captured and that the Greeks in Herakleion did not have a clear picture of the general situation as to make such proposals.
The military commander turned down the conditions of surrender out of hand, and ordered the continuation of defense to the last. He also informed the British brigadier of all that had transpired.
- At 1600, successive waves of bombers began a merciless bombing of the city resulting in the destruction of whole blocks from demolished buildings and raging fires. From the first days, some of the non-combatant inhabitants had fled to the countryside, while others had taken refuge in the vaults within the city walls. This curtailed losses in lives.
All communication by telephone with the British forces had been cut off. The military bakeries were destroyed and the bakers fled the town with the other non-combatants. Thus the baking of bread ceased. The city streets were rendered impassable by rubble and no vehicles could move about. Under these conditions the victualing of the troops became very difficult. It was impossible to solve the problem of supplying water because of the destruction of the water network. Ammunition, always in short supply, had been almost exhausted. The troops from their incessant four-day fighting, without rest and without replacements, were greatly fatigued.
The military commander briefed the British sector commander on the situation and requested the relief of Greek troops by British troops. Following this, it was decided that the Greek troops assemble in the KnossosΠSpelia area in order to reorganize and with the mission of protecting the Knossos hospital and keeping the road to the hospital open. Two companies of the York and Lancaster Battalion would defend the city. The Greek troops were to leave the city during the night of 24Π25 May.11
- Around noon, two tanks arrived in the area of the Eastern Group from the Tympaki detachment, in order to be ferried by barge to Suda, according to the instructions of Creforce. One of these however remained in the Herakleion sector along with two 75mm guns.
At the same time, the 1st Battalion, the Argyll and Sutherland Regiment, minus a company, was moving towards Herakleion. The other company had been left at Tympaki and Agioi Deka.
Six Hurricanes appeared above the sector during early afternoon. The British antiaircraft artillery mistaking them for enemy planes opened fire shooting down two of them. Then the three of the remaining Hurricanes left for Egypt, while another landed.
Later, while the city was being bombed by about fifty aircraft, another squadron with six Hurricanes appeared. After a dogfight with the Germans, they landed on the airfield. Four of the planes had damaged tail landing gear. The Luftwaffe later destroyed another on the ground.
- When StudentΥs headquarters was informed of the presence of the twelve Hurricanes over Herakleion and at the airfield, there was concern that the British forces might use the airfield. There was also a need for a second airfield, because Maleme airfield was insufficient to support the German troops on the ground, and resupply by sea was out of question. It would be also necessary for bombers and fighters to be based on the island. In such a case transit time would be shorter and the efficiency of transportation greater, to the benefit of the ground forces.
Colonel BrŠuer was therefore ordered to deny the use of the airfield to the British forces by concentrating his troops in its direction. Later, with reinforcements dispatched to him, he was to capture it.12
From the morning of 24 May, the Germans resumed the destruction of Herakleion by bombing with few intervals. The Greek troops in the city remained in their positions despite the saturation bombing.
German aircraft dropped leaflets threatening any Greek continuing to resist with execution. This had no effect on the heroic citizens to which it was addressed.13
From midnight onwards the Greek troops began to retire to the area of Spelia according to the decision made the day before. Two companies of the York and Lancaster Battalion relieved the retiring troops. Meanwhile, even before the withdrawal had begun, enlisted men from all units, without ammunition, food, or water had trickled on their own towards this area.
Sections of the 3rd Greek Infantry Regiment, very fatigued and with very little ammunition held their positions south of the city. The strength of the regiment was halved as a result of casualties and stragglers. It too was ordered to retire towards the area of Spelia, to reorganize and resupply.
- In the Eastern Group, the movement of the Argyll and Sutherland Battalion from Tympaki to the Herakleion sector continued very slowly, due to enemy air force and the activity of German detachments which hindered its movement. During an engagement with German troops deployed astride the KnossosΠTympaki road, almost forty troop-carrier planes appeared overhead. The troop carriers dropped a battalion of parachutists comprising two parachute companies, with a strength of about 400 men, and with two heavy weapons. The greatest part of this battalion with its commander, Captain Vogel, landed west of Herakleion. Another, smaller group, fell in the area where the engagement was taking place and immediately attacked the British troops. During the ensuing battle against these fresh troops the Argyll and Sutherland Battalion was forced to withdraw after losing two officers and twenty enlisted men. A small advanced section of the battalion managed to reach the British defensive perimeter.
- The British commander of the sector sent a detachment comprising mainly RAF personnel by car to Agioi Deka to aid the troops of the Argyll and Sutherland remaining there in establishing a landing field. This group arrived at its destination despite the previously mentioned adverse encounter. The day before, another car dispatched to Knossos was not able to get through because of the presence of German troops, while two other cars transporting foodstuffs for Tympaki were captured by the Germans. These incidents are indicative of the fluidity of the situation in the area outside the defensive perimeter of the sector. It was obvious that German troops were very active in that area.
The Luftwaffe repeated its bombardment, on the morning of 25 May. The German troops west of the city, reinforced by Colonel BrŠuer, attacked in order to capture Herakleion. These troops aimed at keeping as many British troops busy at Herakleion in order to weaken the airfield group against which the main attack was taking place. These attacks were repulsed by the British two-company force positioned there (paragraph 193).
In the Eastern Sector, the bulk of the Argyll and Sutherland Battalion comprising two companies entered the British defensive perimeter after having moved through the hills west of the HerakleionΠKnossosΠTympaki road during the night. This force occupied the positions of the Leicester Battalion. The troops of the Leicester Battalion became a mobile reserve, apart from those dispatched for other duties. A strong outpost of platoon strength was moved forward by the 2/4th Australian Battalion to Agios Elias Hill with the mission of reporting enemy movement. The outpost had been ordered to withdraw if subjected to attack by strong forces.
The Greek troops which had assembled in the area of Spelia and Archanes, were kept busy reorganizing. During the night, cars were dispatched to Herakleion in order to receive foodstuffs and wounded who were transported to the school at Archanes, which had been transformed into a hospital.
During the same day, the command post of the 2nd Military Command of Crete relocated from Spelia to Archanes. At Archanes there was a telephone exchange making contact possible with Military District IV (at Lasithi) and a few villages south of that area. During the night of 25Π26 May the 3rd Greek Regiment arrived there to reorganize and to resupply. The troops were reorganized into two regiments of a thousand men each, under the command of the commander of Military District III, Colonel Papathanasopoulos.
- In the evening of 25 May, the troops of Parachute Battalions III/1 and II/2 under Major Schulz, as well as VogelΥs battalion, began moving eastwards according to the orders of Colonel Bruer, in order to attack and capture the airfield. In the morning of 26 May, these troops, after bypassing Greek pockets of weak resistance south of Herakleion, approached the Agios Elias Hill. At about 0700 they attacked the platoon of the 2/4 Battalion Australian on its top, and after a brief battle they captured the hill and deployed there. Major Schulz rushed to meet Colonel BrŠuer in person. The Australian platoon withdrew to the positions of the British defensive perimeter.
The commander of the Greek forces at Spelia, Colonel Papathanasopoulos, understood that the occupation of Agios Elias Hill would render the occupation of the Spelia position by Greek troops impossible. Therefore, he ordered the 7th Regiment to organize a section with which to attack and seize Agios Elias Hill. The Greek attack failed due to the insufficient firepower of the troops that conducted it. The troops were forced to abandon the struggle and return to Spelia after exhausting all their ammunition. They had suffered many casualties. The commander, Lieutenant Colonel Chairetes, and his replacement, Captain Chardalakes, were both wounded.
At dusk, and after the failure of this attack, the Greek troops withdrew towards Metochi Kapnistou and to the south by order of Major General Linardakes. Outposts were established at Metochi Kapnistou, while the rest of the troops occupied the heights northeast and northwest of Archanes with the mission to cover the HerakleionΠArchanes and HerakleionΠMessara roads (to Agioi Deka, Tympaki, etc.).
It was no longer possible for the Greek troops to assume any offensive operations, because of the extremely limited amount of ammunition.
Evacuation of the Herakleion Sector
- Brigadier Chappel assumed a continuous defensive stance limiting his efforts to maintaining possession of the airfield and the port of Herakleion, despite initially having more numerous forces than the enemy.
After the continuous reinforcement of the enemy, Chappel was concerned for the fate of the troops under his command. During the night of 26Π27 May, Chappel sent General Freyberg a cable by way of Cairo stating that the enemy was steadily deploying astride the road leading south (HerakleionΠKnossosΠArchanes). He also stated that the frequency of the parachutist landings and their strength were beyond the ability of his troops to repulse them. He also reported that the enemy held higher ground, and thus menaced his own positions, while the ammunition of his forces was steadily diminishing. Concluding he requested instructions concerning the need to attack and open either the road west or the road to the south.
General Headquarters Middle East asked whether the Argyll and Sutherland Battalion had arrived in the area of the sector, whether it was possible to attack in order to open the road to Tympaki, and whether the port of Herakleion was usable. Chappel answered that it was possible to use the port.14
Middle East Headquarters answered with the word evacuationΣ. This order was not relayed to the troops during that day. Instead, attacks were ordered whenever the occasion presented itself.
For the Greek forces, 27 May passed quietly. The troops continued their deployment in their new positions, with the command post of the commander of Military District III at Kato Archanes. The troops suffered from hunger and lack of ammunition and for this reason many men coming from the locality began to trickle away to their villages.
On the other hand, the German troops assembled at their positions preparing for the final assault against the airfield. The air force continuously supplied the German troops with ammunition and all type of supplies. Major SchulzΥs troops on Agios Elias Hill were reinforced by a light gun and its ammunition unloaded from a Junkers 52 that had landed on the hill. During the day more troops of battalion strength disembarked from aircraft around Gournes in order to reinforce the Germans. Instructions were sent to launch an attack on 28 May, after an aerial bombardment, to capture the airfield and keep it operational for the German aircraft.
The Germans had no information concerning the imminent withdrawal of the British troops from the area. Colonel BrŠuer requested that the attack be postponed for the evening of 29 May believing the time inadequate for completing the preparations for the attack. His request was approved.
27 May went by with the Greeks trying to reorganize and resupply in order to continue the struggle and the Germans preparing for the final assault against the airfield. The British command of the sector was preparing the evacuation in utmost secrecy.
- On the morning of 28 May, in a meeting of unit commanders (except for the Greeks, who remained uninformed to the end), Brigadier Chappel made known his orders concerning the evacuation through the port of Herakleion. In the orders he specified that all troops would board ships during the night to follow. By the same means he also specified the order and routes to be followed by the troops on their way to the port, in order to assemble in the embarkation area. Security measures and necessary demolitions of installations and materiel were delineated. According to the instructions the vehicles were disabled and depots destroyed. Explosives were placed at all fuel and ammunition depots and set to explode in the morning of 29 May.
According to the evacuation plan, on 28 May after dark, the troops began moving towards the pier. At 2230 two cruisers and six destroyers arrived for the embarkation of the troops. Four of the destroyers entered the port simultaneously and the awaiting troops embarked.15
The space thus freed on the wharf was continuously taken up by the arriving troops, which made their way through the city in single file, because of the rubble cluttering the roads. At about 0100 of 29 May, the last positions were abandoned, and all British troops were on board except for a detachment guarding a roadblock at the area of Chountetsi, the dressing station at Knossos besieged by the Germans, and the troops of the Argyll and Sutherland Regiment in the area of Messara (Tympaki, Agioi Deka).
At 0300 of 29 May, the convoy set sail for Africa.
The Greeks were not informed of the embarkation on the ground that the activity of the Germans in their area made it impossible for the orders to be safely conveyed to them and in any event the ships could not carry many more troops. The decision may seem callous when examined from a distance, but it can hardly be disputed that to have attempted to organise the embarkation of the semi-trained Greeks might have endangered the whole delicate operation.Σ16
- On 28 May, the commander of the German group, Colonel Bruer, continued the preparations for the strong attack aiming to capture the airfield.
The German air force bombed many inhabited areas along the axis of the HerakleionΠTympaki road. The road itself was strafed and kept constantly under surveillance.
On the evening of the same day the Germans spotted the movement of ships offshore. This, however, gave them no cause for thought.
On the morning of 29 May, reconnaissance patrols moving towards the British perimeter encountered no resistance in the area of the city and towards the airfield and found themselves facing a vacuum. BrŠuerΥs troops then moved towards the airfield and Herakleion, which they occupied without resistance. The German command was established in the barracks of the 43rd Infantry Regiment.
- Throughout 28 May, Greek forces remained in their positions, undertaking no actions because of their total inability to do so.
In the afternoon, Major General Linardakes addressed a memorandum to the British command through which in reference to previous documents he relayed the necessity for resupply with food and ammunition. This document was sent the next day to the Argyll and Sutherland section at Agioi Deka. Naturally, nothing came of this.
During the night of 28 to 29 May, officers from the area of Chania arrived at Archanes relating the capture of Chania and Suda by the Germans and the withdrawal of British forces towards Sphakia. On the morning of 29 May, it became apparent that the British forces in the Herakleion sector had also evacuated the area during the night.
- The Italian prisoners in the prisoner-of-war camps at Chountetsi and Agios Thomas, driven by hunger began to escape and to scavenge around the villages in search of food.
. . . As the situation had unfolded thus (reports Major General Linardakes) and because of a total lack of ammunition, after conferring with the senior officers at my command post, I decided to seek a truce. I delegated Major Tsankarakes to proceed to Herakleion in order to meet with the German commander. This decision was necessitated in order to put an end to the bombing of the villages, which had been going on continuously for two days. . . 17
On the afternoon of that day, Major Tsangarakes with a German-speaking officer proceeded to the barracks of the 43rd Regiment. There he met Colonel BrŠuer and offered a cease-fire under the same conditions as those given to the troops on mainland Greece. The German commander turned down this proposal and demanded unconditional surrender. If this was not accepted the bombing of the villages would continue, and he would order the Wittmann motorized detachment, which was already moving from Rethymno, to head for the Greek troops.
Following this, the Greek major pleaded for an order putting an end to the bombardment of the villages since the Greek army had ceased fighting. After that he left accompanied by a German officer who was to meet Major General Linardakes and receive from him a document of unconditional surrender, for which Tsangarakes had no authorization.18
Following the delivery of Colonel BrŠuerΥs document for unconditional surrender to Major General Linardakes, the latter accepted it at 2215 and issued orders to all units to assemble and hand over their weapons, except for the troops guarding the Italian prisoners, until the latter were handed over to the Germans. These orders were addressed to the troops as well as to the police authorities of the prefectures of Herakleion and Lasithi.
- On 30 May, Major General Linardakes went to the offices of the 43rd Infantry Regiment in order to meet with the German commander and sign the truce. During this meeting he again requested that the terms to apply for the officers on Crete be the same as those that applied for officers on mainland Greece, as well as the immediate cessation of the bombing. He also requested that the German command undertake the victualing of the Greek troops. There were about a thousand men coming from mainland Greece mainly, because the local enlisted men had already fled en masse to their villages. In the afternoon of the same day, the Wittmann Detachment moving from Rethymno met Colonel BrŠuerΥs troops at Herakleion. From there continued its movement and reached Ierapetra at night, where it linked up with the Italian troops.
On 31 May, the Greek troops relocated to Peza. On June 1, following an order of the German command, two companies relocated to Herakleion while the rest of the troops with some officers relocated to Messara.
The rest of the officers remained under surveillance at Peza and Archanes from where on 9 June they were taken by car to the prisoner-of-war camp at Maleme and to another at the ChildrenΥs Summer Camp at Chania. From 20 June until the end of November the officers and enlisted men were demobilized and shipped to the mainland Greece in groups.
Later on, throughout Crete the officers and enlisted men, who had escaped with their arms and the groups of armed civilians, constituted resistance forces. These forces through their struggles and their sacrifice aided the Allied cause but also incurred the wrath of the invader, who imposed harsh penalties on the non-combatants of the heroic island.
- The Battle of Crete ended after ten days of fierce struggle in the total dominance of the German forces. It must however be noted that during this ten-day struggle the losses of the elite German parachutists were so heavy that until the end of the war the Germans never again attempted a similar operation. By HitlerΥs order all parachute units were relegated to the role of regular infantry.