18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 10 — Airborne Invasion
Crete, at first sight, was very like southern Greece, only drier. Square white houses, rolling hills covered with olive trees and vines. The bleary-eyed ragamuffins who crowded off the warships into tiny steamers and barges in Suda Bay weren't in the mood just then to appreciate anything much, so the beauty of the island held no charms for them. All they wanted was food, a clean up, and sleep. The short march from Suda, which normally they would have thought nothing of, was a weary drag that day, the feet leaden, the road dusty and rough. They viewed Crete, the Army and the world with disfavour.
Their way led from the wharf to a transit camp, if a piece of ground studded with olive trees can be so named. It was really a temporary clearing depot, where units arriving all mixed up were sorted out, fed, and sent on their way to their own camps. The meal provided was only bread and cheese, oranges and stewed tea, but it raised the spirits wonderfully. Later, in 18 Battalion's own camp, the cooks triumphed over their lack of gear and produced a hot meal, which the men wouldn't have swapped for an eight-course banquet at the Ritz.
The battalion area, five miles west of Suda and only two miles from Canea, was a good spot, under shady trees, beside a sparkling stream in which you could wash off your grime and cool your feet. By evening the men were feeling fit to face the world again. A night's sleep helped, too—they lay on the bare earth, mostly with no covering, but everyone slept soundly despite the chill of the night. The few blankets and greatcoats that had survived the embarkation were shared round as widely as possible, usually three men to a blanket or two to a greatcoat.
The battalion was allowed only one blissful lazy day here, and early on 30 April it was on its travels again. There was page 124 work to be done, a line to be manned, positions to be prepared in expectation of an airborne attack which, the ‘high-ups’ said, was bound to come within a few days, The battalion was fairly well armed, and with a few days' respite would be on top of its form again, and ready to give Jerry a hostile reception.
‘Fairly well armed’ means that everybody had a weapon of some sort. It had been a point of honour with most to keep their rifles, no matter what else went. According to a census taken a few days later, the battalion had 547 rifles, 36 pistols, 37 Bren guns, 27 Tommy guns, one 3-inch and one 2-inch mortar, nine anti-tank rifles and two flare pistols. For all these there was a fair amount of ammunition. But apart from that the battalion was destitute—no transport, no tools, no cooking gear, very little personal equipment or clothing. There was the precious signals gear that had found its way on to the ships, but that was soon lost; Divisional Headquarters, which was desperate for signals gear, took over everything except one phone which was to link 18 Battalion with 4 Brigade Headquarters.
By 30 April the disposition of the forces on Crete had been roughly decided. The Aussies departed for points east. To the Kiwis fell the sector west of Canea along the north coast, the part nearest Greece, an undulating, thickly cultivated stretch of country.
From Suda Bay and Canea a fairly good road followed the north coast westward through Maleme airfield, and just west of Canea another one, known as the Valley road, ran south-west through a low-lying stretch to the inland village of Alikianou. Two and a half miles west of Canea, and a mile from the coast, rose a cluster of bumpy hills crowned by the villages of Galatas and Karatsos. Near the Valley road, a mile south of Galatas, was a group of solid white prison buildings, and farther south this road passed Lake Aghya, which supplied much of Crete's electric power. These were the salient features of a landscape which otherwise was a mass of olive groves and vineyards, with high snowy mountains rising to the south. It was a pleasant, picturesque district, and it was to be the scene of one of the New Zealand Division's grimmest battles.
The first dispositions were 5 Brigade at Maleme, 4 Brigade round Galatas. (Sixth Brigade had gone straight back to page 125 Egypt.) So on 30 April 18 Battalion marched five hot, dusty miles to its battle position on the ridges just west and north of Galatas, its right flank on the coast, its left overlooking ‘Prison valley’, 19 Battalion to the east. Here it was to deal with either an airborne or a seaborne attack. This sounds ambitious, but the immediate work involved was negligible, as with no tools but bayonets the battalion couldn't do much to improve the position. There were defences of a sort there already, but nobody thought much of them—they consisted of unconnected single pits, or of section trenches six feet wide, which the company commanders encouragingly labelled ‘death traps’. Some were inexpertly sited and poorly concealed. A little wire had been strung in front of them, but it was most inadequate.
Two mornings later 4 Brigadier handed over to the ad hoc ‘Oakes Force’ (several hundred artillerymen and ASC drivers acting as infantry), and moved a little farther east, in reserve, with a counter-attack role either towards Maleme or up Prison valley. The word ‘reserve’ probably wouldn't mean much, since if Jerry attacked from the air everybody would be front-line troops anyway. But it was thought better to give 4 Brigade (the trained infantry formation) the role that might require more complicated manoeuvring. Brigadier Inglis,1 as yet in Egypt, was sent for to command 4 Brigade; Brigadier Puttick was in temporary command of the New Zealand Division, Major-General Freyberg having taken over all the forces on Crete.
Eighteenth Battalion's reserve position was among olives and cacti not far from the tents of 7 British General Hospital and 6 Field Ambulance, just east of the junction where the road to Galatas left the coast road. It was within easy reach of the sea, and, though the Mediterranean was still a bit cold for comfortable bathing, the sand was lovely and warm to lie on.
For the first few days there wasn't much to do except pickets and beach patrols, but from 6 May a strict routine was decreed by Lieutenant-Colonel Gray, with two hours of work a day, page 126 mostly ‘spit and polish’ parades, weapon training and inspections; also daily stand-to periods morning and evening, and an NCOs' school. All this called forth some muttering from the ranks, but it had the effect intended, which was to shock the battalion out of its post-Greece lassitude. Mere lying round, thought Gray, would be the worst thing possible in the circumstances.
The unit was as yet hardly ready to meet an invasion, but it was as ready as it could have been with so little equipment. More came in about the middle of the month, but not much. Enough blankets to give everybody one each, a little more clothing, ammunition, a few picks and shovels; two Bren carriers and three 15-cwt. trucks (more transport was promised, but never arrived). But the supplies that could be brought in by the available ships and unloaded at Suda in the face of daily air raids were a drop in the bucket compared with the shortages. So 18 Battalion, in common with every other New Zealand unit on Crete, was woefully under-equipped, with no means of moving except on foot, and relying almost completely on the individual soldier with his rifle or Bren.
The shipping difficulties also meant that food was short— for most of the time units were on half rations, which, said an 18 Battalion man, seemed like quarter rations. Luckily it was a good time of year for living off the country. Eggs and oranges were abundant, and potatoes, beans and tomatoes grew in small patches among the vines. All fairly cheap, in fact sometimes free, if the rightful owner was absent. So nobody starved. Most of the cooking was done in the platoons, and the men ate and drank out of whatever they could scratch up, largely bully beef tins.
Hungry men perked up amazingly on 10 May, when a big letter and parcel mail (the first for months) arrived from New Zealand. Never did food parcels arrive at a better moment. They replenished the tobacco stock, which was right down to zero. The YMCA ran a canteen in Canea for cigarettes and other goods, but the supply could never keep pace with the demand. For some days before the parcels arrived men were smoking tea leaves wrapped in airmail paper.
Luckily, the weather was mostly fine and mild, so the lack of shelter and blankets wasn't the hardship it might have been. page 127 There were occasional light showers, but 18 Battalion never got really wet as it had in Greece. Health was good, apart from a mild outbreak of diarrhoea, caused perhaps by eating too many oranges. Returning fitness, swimming, and leave to Canea revived the spirits very effectively; by mid-May nobody would have recognised the mob of tramps who had crawled ashore three weeks before. They weren't keen on the idea of facing an airborne invasion, which was something quite new and therefore vaguely worrying, but they felt that Jerry would get a terrible shock when he came.
From the beginning of May the prospect of invasion was Rumour No. 1. Various dates were confidently given as The Day, though nobody could say where the information came from. Then there was the other school, the wishful thinkers, who had heard from a reliable source that the Kiwis would all be going back to Egypt, or that the Germans had given up the idea of invading Crete. This last yarn gained ground in the battalion when the training began. That, said the experts, proved that there wasn't going to be an invasion—how could there be, with the cream of the New Zealand Division doing one-stop-two all over the place?
But Jerry's interest in Crete was clearly more than academic. He was not the one to waste bombs, and he was certainly dropping a lot of them on Crete. The battalion didn't come in for any personal attention, and wasn't greatly disturbed by the raids, which for the first half of May fell almost entirely on Suda Bay. When the battalion first landed it had seen evidence of these raids, bomb damage in Suda, the dismal sight of the cruiser York aground and heeled over in shallow water. Never a day passed without its raid. The ack-ack batteries were very active, shot down a number of planes and kept the rest high, so the damage was not as great as it might have been; but Suda Bay was a most unhealthy place, and the raids were all too successful in cutting down the flow of supplies to Crete.
From 13 May the raids were stepped up, and Maleme airfield and Canea began to get more. This was the ‘softening up’, the classical prelude to attack. A few days of it silenced the most optimistic anti-invasion prophet; everyone was convinced now that Jerry was coming all right, and pretty soon.
The 18th and 19th May were fierce days. The planes were page 128 over in swarms from early morning to late evening, paying their loathsome attention to Maleme, Canea and Suda. The Junkers 88s (‘the clumsy bull-nosed bastards’) that had at first monopolised the skies were now joined by ugly gull-winged Stukas and vicious little Messerschmitt fighters, which roved the sky spraying the whole place with machine-gun fire. The ack-ack guns were firing flat out for most of those two days, and the air was full of smoke and shellbursts. There was no opposition from British planes—previously there had been a few, but they were all out of action by 19 May, after an heroic fight against impossible odds. The Kiwis fumed and chafed at having to sit down under all this, and their mutterings broke out into loud but vain execration on the 18th, when a plane bombed 7 General Hospital, killing and wounding some of the staff and patients. But for the present there was nothing useful anybody could do about it.
B Company had a sudden call away from 18 Battalion on the 18th, to guard no less a person than the King of Greece, who had escaped from the mainland and was now living near the transit camp south of Canea. His Majesty's safety was a matter of political importance—when the invasion came on 20 May he had to leave in a hurry (along with his Prime Minister and a party of eleven others) and tramp over the mountains to the south coast. The escort on this arduous trip was Second-Lieutenant Ryan's 12 Platoon. Some of the platoon were sent back from the top of the mountains and rejoined the battalion later, but the rest carried on to the south coast with the royal party, and were evacuated from there to Egypt. A composite platoon of unemployed from the carrier and pioneer platoons under Second-Lieutenant Ray Lambie2 (known as 5 Platoon) replaced Ryan's platoon in B Company.
* * * * *
Nobody who was on Crete will ever forget the morning of 20 May. It was a privilege to have been there, though that didn't occur to anyone at the time. In fact, if you had put the idea forward you would justifiably have been thought crazy. page 129 The defenders of Crete were far indeed from thinking themselves privileged. But they witnessed something unprecedented that day.
It began just like any other day, German fighters overhead strafing from the crack of dawn. There seemed more of them than usual, but not so many as to make any special impression. The men of 18 Battalion got their breakfast, spooned it down, and were dispersing again when they realised, quite suddenly, that the ‘feel’ of the air attack had changed. The noise had risen to nightmare volume, and the planes, almost shaving the trees as they passed over, seemed to be trying to attract all possible attention, like boys showing off. They bombed and strafed, apparently at random. Then in the midst of this uproar appeared gliders, slow, majestic and ominous. Silently they passed eastwards towards Suda Bay. Hot on their tails lumbered a group of about twelve big Junkers transports, and from their bellies plunged little white and coloured dots, which opened out into parachutes, each bearing a man or a container of equipment.
Eighteenth Battalion knew in an instant what it was—had known for days what to expect—but that didn't prevent it from being momentarily stunned, gazing up in disbelief, thinking that surely it would wake up shortly. This dazed indecision lasted only a few seconds. Then everyone hopped out of the slit trenches, seized rifle or Bren gun, and began with one accord to blaze away feverishly at the dangling figures now approaching earth. It was like shooting sitting ducks.
The battalion's position ran along a low north-south ridge, covering a front of three-quarters of a mile, with the coast road cutting right through the middle. The forward companies (facing west) were A Company on the coast, with 4 Brigade Headquarters just in front of it; then D, with Battalion Headquarters on its left; then C on the left flank. Headquarters Company (its men acting as temporary riflemen) was in reserve at the coast end behind A Company. All the companies were well concealed in the olive trees, but there were big gaps between them, and it wasn't easy to see or find out what was happening in other areas. This mattered little as long as the paratroops were in the air and everyone could see them, but once they landed 18 Battalion was fighting more or less blind, and found it impossible to act with any cohesion.page 130 page 131
Under the circumstances it was just as well that only a small force—three plane-loads, totalling about forty men—came down near the battalion. They dropped right on the western edge of the unit's area; many of them didn't reach the ground alive, but those who did fell among tussocks, vines and olive trees on the next ridge forward of Battalion Headquarters and D Company.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gray didn't hesitate. Gathering up about twenty of the nearest signallers and Battalion Headquarters men, he ran forward to meet the Germans, and a tense little sniping battle took place among the olives. The paratroops were caught at their worst moment, just after landing, before they could link up. The 18 Battalion men hunted them from tree to tree, and several who had survived the descent were shot within the next few minutes. The fight wasn't all one-sided, though. Four of 18 Battalion were wounded, including the RSM, WO 1 George Andrews, who went back for medical treatment, but came forward again the same evening and stayed to do a first-class job over the next five days.
Men from C and D Companies, complete with 2-inch mortar, came forward to help in the hunt, but after the first success the position became a sort of stalemate. A few Jerries, apparently out of touch with their main body, established themselves in cover about 300 yards ahead of the battalion, put out snipers, and refused to be dislodged, though for the time being they couldn't do much harm. For the rest of the day both sides were cautious and watchful, the silence broken only by the occasional rifle shot as someone saw (or thought he saw) a fleeting target. Men from D Company and Battalion Headquarters went carefully out and collected what food and gear they could find from the dead paratroopers—in quite a small area they counted seventeen bodies.
These paratroopers were part of 10 Company of III Battalion, 3 Parachute Regiment, whose orders had been to capture what the Germans referred to as the ‘tented camp’ (7 General Hospital). In the German plan the whole battalion was to have dropped near the Galatas road turnoff, in which case 18 Battalion would have found itself mixed up in a much fiercer battle than it did. But, as it happened, only 10 Company dropped in the right place. The rest fell south of Galatas, got tangled up page 132 in fighting there, and didn't come near the hospital, which fell to the survivors of 10 Company, those who had dropped out of range of the battalion.
The planes screening the attack didn't spare the hospital, which was bombed and machine-gunned for an hour and a half, losing some more of its staff and patients and quite a number of its tents. Then the paratroopers arrived and captured the whole place without opposition. The hospital was marked with large red crosses, and it seemed inexcusable for any pilot to ignore them. This operation appeared, to all who saw it, to show Jerry up as a dirty fighter.
But it is hardly credible, looking back, that Jerry, in a campaign where he as a rule respected the Red Cross, should wantonly make an exception here. It now seems probable, in fact, that he had not previously recognised the hospital—such of his orders as have survived all call it a ‘tented camp’. And the dust and smoke of the air raids on 20 May could well have blotted out the red crosses by the time the planes turned their attention to the hospital. So the charge of ‘German frightfulness’ is by no means proved.
However this may be, the paratroopers who captured the hospital behaved not too well. Some of the patients and orderlies were left where they were, but most of them were herded over the road to 6 Field Ambulance, not far from where the odds and ends of 10 Parachute Company were playing cat and mouse with 18 Battalion Headquarters and D Company. Soon after midday the Germans, realising that they were out on a limb with little chance of help, began to move up the road towards Galatas, taking their ‘prisoners’ with them. D Company sped them on their way with Bren fire at long range, and soon they disappeared out of 18 Battalion's life, leaving D Company seething with rage at what it took to be a deliberate attempt to use the hospital patients as a screen. It certainly looked like that. But we will never know for sure whether the Jerries had any such idea in mind. They very likely thought they were moving away from trouble, not into it. Had they known what lay ahead of them they would have been wiser to abandon their prisoners and get away across country as inconspicuously as possible.
The further history of the party is brief and bloody. Near the page 133 outskirts of Galatas it walked into 19 Battalion, and after a short fight the Germans were almost wiped out, and the surviving patients and hospital staff rescued.
To return now to 18 Battalion. Although 7 General Hospital was only a few hundred yards ahead of the battalion, intervening ridges hid it from view, so nobody knew of its capture until Captain Kelleway went forward to 4 Brigade Headquarters to find out what was going on. He was ordered to take A Company forward and retake the hospital. Then, Kelleway reports:
I returned to the Coy. and we advanced as follows—7 and 8 Pls forward in open formation … and 9 pl. following in the rear, to take up a position covering us from a rise when we hit the flat hospital area.
We had not gone far, when my runner was killed beside me— some of the opposition were in trees…. We killed the few tree dwellers, and went down and through the hospital to find the place empty….
After proceeding about 800 yards past the hospital, and seeing no further opponents, we returned, and occupied the low ridge commanding the hospital, from the road, right down to the sea.
While A Company was moving forward Colonel Gray arrived back at Battalion Headquarters from his hunting expedition, and hearing from a Brigade Headquarters runner what had happened he at once ordered Headquarters Company and the two carriers forward in support. Headquarters Company moved up to A Company's old area. The carriers nosed forward quite close to the mingled crowd of patients and paratroopers at 6 Field Ambulance, but decided that everybody was so mixed up that they couldn't do anything helpful.
A Company's new line covering the hospital was about 600 yards ahead of the old one. Late in the afternoon the rest of the battalion moved up level with A Company, and at the same time extended its line half a mile south to cover a vacant gap between it and 19 Battalion. Headquarters Company came in beside A Company, just south of the Galatas road junction. Next was D Company, and C was on the left, its front reaching as far as the Valley road.
This road, and the heights between it and Galatas, had been the scene of confused fighting that day. Paratroopers had landed all along the valley, captured the prison and the Aghya page 134 reservoir, and established themselves in a strong organised body (most of 3 Parachute Regiment) holding a big stretch of the valley floor. Very serious from the New Zealand point of view was the loss of four British howitzers—half the artillery in the Galatas area—which were sited beside the road near the northern entrance to the valley, and had been put out of action that morning by paratroopers who landed right on top of them. The fighting here was very obscure, and nobody knew where anyone was, either friend or foe. It was about 4 p.m. before the loss of the howitzers became known, and Brigadier Inglis at once ordered 18 Battalion to send a company up to retake them.
C Company was chosen for the job. With both the battalion's carriers and its one and only 3-inch mortar in attendance the company left its position and began to advance south-west along the Valley road, which here runs along a hillside sloping down from Karatsos, with a riverbed running parallel on the left. One carrier, commanded by Second-Lieutenant Herdman,3 led the advance; then the company, with 14 Platoon in the lead; the mortar brought up the rear. It wasn't any Charge of the Light Brigade—the company moved forward slowly and carefully, very much on the alert, not knowing when Jerry might pop up in its path. It was barely a mile from the starting point to the objective, but the country was pretty broken, with lots of cover.
The company was about halfway when Jerry machine guns and mortars opened up from in front. Herdman's carrier snooped up the road, but injudiciously put its nose out from behind a building and stopped a burst of fire which knocked the carrier out, wounded the driver and killed Herdman—the first 18 Battalion officer to die in action. Most of 14 Platoon took to the ditches beside the road, and the whole company was held up by the fire. Jerry had a good position in thick trees, almost impossible to get at by a frontal attack. The best C Company could do was to sit down where it was, exchange fire with the invisible enemy, and send out a scouting party into the stream bed to try to find a way round the flank. This party (two sections of 13 Platoon led by Corporal Ron Ferguson4) page 135 got up close to the Germans and had a little fight on its own account, but the enemy was too strong, and eventually the patrol had to pull out with one man killed, rejoining the company as it was beginning to withdraw. By then it was getting dark.
In the meantime the main body of C Company had kept up a sniping match with the Jerries, both sides wary of showing themselves. The company lost a few wounded, and the enemy undoubtedly did too, though C Company couldn't see just how much damage it did. There seemed to be little point in staying there, however, and no chance of getting forward to the objective; so as dusk fell Major Lynch sent a runner to recall Ferguson's party, and then pulled the company back, complete with two prisoners picked up quite early in the scrap.
The battalion's front was quite peaceful that night. It was well away from the main scene of action on the hills south and west of Galatas. That area was the key to Canea and Suda Bay, and if Jerry were allowed to get a firm grip on it the outlook would indeed be dangerous. Tenth Brigade and 19 Battalion held the front there, while the Germans strove to consolidate in the prison valley below.
Tenth Brigade, a scratch formation under Colonel Kippenberger, consisted of ‘Oakes Force’ (now renamed the Composite Battalion), Divisional Cavalry and some hundreds of assorted Greeks semi-organised into two regiments. For a fortnight before the invasion six men from 18 Battalion and two from 20 Battalion had been attached as instructors to 8 Greek Regiment near Lake Aghya—this area got the full benefit of 3 Parachute Regiment's parachute drop, and the New Zealanders found themselves isolated, with Germans all round them. Four of the 18 Battalion men were trapped, and spent a miserable night and day inside a hilltop pumping station, waist-deep in water, before being captured. The other two, Lieutenant K. L. Brown and Sergeant L. V. Smith,5 took to the hills—Smith later joined up with Second-Lieutenant Ryan's royal escort, and Brown was captured on 21 May, made his escape the same day, and spent nearly a week in the hills, rejoining 18 Battalion on its withdrawal from Suda Bay.page 136
Surprisingly, 21 May was fairly quiet for 18 Battalion, which woke up expecting fireworks but didn't get them. There was a little bombing and strafing (not as much as expected), and no fresh paratroopers dropped near, though from their positions on the ridges the men could see little clouds of white dots drifting down like snowflakes to the west, and could hear a continuous reverberating roar as the Luftwaffe hammered 5 Brigade at Maleme. Apart from a little mopping up of isolated snipers, the battalion's day was just a matter of patrolling and keeping eyes open all round. At nightfall B Company came back from the transit camp and took over HQ Company's old area east of 7 General Hospital.
Until B Company's return 18 Battalion had had no news of its doings. On 20 May the company had had a little fun of its own. It took a severe strafing from about 8 a.m., and half an hour later a planeload of paratroops dropped right in its territory, in and round the grounds of the house where the Greek king had been. Patrols went out immediately to hunt the invaders, killed some and captured all the rest, who were taken to the house under guard. Later in the day 10 and 11 Platoons both sent patrols out eastwards to where some paratroops were worrying a company of British troops, and had little skirmishes in the trees with machine guns and 2-inch mortar bombs. The engagements were not heavy and cost B Company no casualties, but several more paratroops were killed and wounded, and the rest retired. At dusk B Company pulled back into the house grounds, protected by the walls, where it stayed until ordered back to the battalion next afternoon.
The night of 21–22 May is notable in 18 Battalion's history as being the only time the unit ever had a grandstand view of a full-dress naval action. From about 11 p.m. to nearly dawn the northern horizon was dancing with gun flashes, and the sound of firing came dully across the water to liven up the job of the beach and coast-road patrols. The battalion was alerted to deal with any landing, and Rumour had a night out, especially when four ships obviously on fire were seen away out to sea. By morning the excitement had ceased and there was nothing in sight, but the story was soon circulating—the Navy had been on the job again (good old Navy!) and had page 137 ‘fixed’ Jerry's invasion convoy. There would be no sea landing to repel in the meantime.
The whole Galatas front had been pretty quiet on 21 May. The 3rd Parachute Regiment had clung grimly to its perimeter, expecting a counter-attack from hour to hour, while the Kiwis sat tight, not daring to turn on a counter-attack which, if it failed, would leave them more vulnerable than before. As we know now, a bold counter-stroke would probably have cleaned out 3 Parachute Regiment, and might have changed the whole course of the campaign, but battlefield tactics can't be judged in the light of what we learn later. As it was, the risk was thought too great, so there was no counter-attack that day.
And by next day the situation was worse. Jerry had had a wonderful respite, and had consolidated his position so well that when 19 Battalion attacked southwards on the afternoon of 22 May it was knocked back. Eighteenth Battalion supported this attack by sending two platoons of B Company up the Valley road and into the hamlet of Galaria on the slopes east of it, to clear away any enemy that might threaten 19 Battalion's flank. No. 10 Platoon captured three snipers hidden in vineyards overlooking the Valley road, so well hidden that the men almost trod on them before seeing them. No. 5 Platoon had no trouble at Galaria—it occupied the village for two hours, then came back without having seen a single German.
This excursion, thought B Company, had been a ‘fizzer’. So it wasn't too pleased when the order came through, just about dusk, to go forward along the Valley road again and mop up some Jerries who were established in a group of houses and were cramping 19 Battalion's style. Once more the platoons (10 and 11 this time) had a long walk for nothing. Near their objective they met some hilarious bandits who turned out to be Greek soldiers and civilians, very pleased with themselves because they had beaten the Kiwis to it and cleaned out the Germans. The platoons stayed for a while in case they were needed, but were ordered home at 11 p.m., having had nothing to do but feel superfluous. Meanwhile the Greeks and some of the Composite Battalion had beaten back a German attack on Galatas.
No other companies moved on 22 May, but they had a page 138 disturbed day. For one thing, the Luftwaffe was overhead all day, looking for targets to strafe, so that anyone moving round in the open did so at his peril. There were still a few lone snipers in the area, too—sometimes there would be an hour or so of peace, and then firing would break out again as someone located a sniper and exchanged compliments with him. This was a wearing kind of warfare, harder on the nerves than anyone had imagined, for you never knew when or from where some accursed sniper might have you in his sights. A few of them had occupied two houses forward of C Company, and though they caused no casualties they were a nuisance until cleaned out by a C Company patrol on 23 May.
Hunger depressed the spirits even more. Since the invasion there had been no hot meals, not even a cup of tea, because the German planes made it impossible to light fires. The men had subsisted on cold rations, plus whatever German supplies they had, or the little they could scrounge off the country. On 20 May food, weapons and ammunition, medical supplies, all had been dropped with the paratroops, and a number of containers had found their way into 18 Battalion's welcoming hands. But this source of supply had now dried up, and with the battalion's own supply system disrupted by snipers and odd groups of paratroops in the rear, the outlook was bleak.
Bleak, indeed, and not only for supplies. Bigger things were being decided on 22 May. The whole fate of Crete, which had hung in the air for two days, now began to move to the German side. Jerry, getting his second wind, promptly grasped the initiative. From Maleme came the main body of 5 Mountain Division, circling round south of the New Zealand positions and then striking east to cut off 5 Brigade. And up from the prison valley, through a gap in the hostile ring, came a small but determined detachment from 3 Parachute Regiment, skirting the Galatas hills to the west, pushing north to cut the coast road between 5 Brigade's rear and the Composite Battalion. If these two groups met, it would be the end of 5 Brigade, and the Germans would be able to build up overwhelming strength against Galatas, Canea and Suda Bay.
There was little the New Zealand Division could do about it now. If 5 Brigade stayed out at Maleme it would beyond a doubt be cut off, all of it, by 5 Mountain Division's detour page 139 through the foothills. Fourth and 10th Brigades were too heavily engaged at Galatas to help. The Division had thrown all the troops it could into a counter-attack at Maleme that morning; it failed, and after that there was nothing left but to withdraw 5 Brigade, fatal though this course was bound to be in the end. So dawn on 23 May found 5 Brigade back east of the Platanias River (halfway between Maleme and Galatas), packed into a thin strip of ground along the coast, in contact to the east with the Composite Battalion. The danger of Jerry getting in behind 5 Brigade was averted, but on the other hand Maleme airfield was now abandoned, and Jerry could build up there unmolested for a heavy attack eastwards.
Meanwhile, the defenders of Galatas were doing what they could against the threat from 3 Parachute Regiment. By the morning of 23 May the paratroop detachment had penetrated a long way up towards the coast road and seemed likely to cut it. The Composite Battalion was ordered to push its front out westwards to meet this move, and B Company was detached from the comparatively fresh 18 Battalion and sent over in a hurry to help clear out the northernmost pockets of enemy, establish a line on the ridges west of the Composite Battalion, and keep Jerry off the coast road to protect 5 Brigade's withdrawal. The battalion's lone 3-inch mortar went with the company.
B Company didn't know when it set out exactly what it was going to find, except that it would probably be trouble. It moved due west, parallel to the coast, well dispersed under cover of the trees, right through the Composite Battalion's forward positions, then along a cart track towards the village of Stalos, perched on a narrow ridge. Down in the gully below Stalos was a Composite Battalion patrol, briskly engaged with the enemy on the ridge. Its commander took Major Evans forward and pointed out the state of affairs to him—the Germans were in strength in and round Stalos, and the patrol had already held them for an hour or more and had knocked out two machine guns.
Major Evans decided to go for Stalos. The mortar dropped a few rounds into the village, 10 Platoon gave covering fire, and 11 Platoon set out straight up the hill. Jerry was for once caught unawares, not expecting such a spirited foray. The page 140 men of 11 Platoon closed in, cleaned out two machine-gun posts after hand-grenade battles, and pushed on through the village to the last house, where they found another machine gun opposing them. But just as they were preparing to tackle it, word came up from Major Evans to pull out of Stalos and come back to the company.
This was galling for 11 Platoon, who had cause to pat themselves on the back for having chased away several times their number of Germans for the loss of one killed and one or two wounded. Corporal Alf Voss,6 a member of the platoon, comments:
This was one of the strangest orders I can recall ever being given; Maj Evans even chastized 11 Pl on their return for not being able to capture Stalos. Knowing Maj Evans' dynamic offensive spirit it was apparent he had not been given correct information as to what had happened.
So back came the platoon with no very good grace. B Company now took up a line on the next ridge north of Stalos, and spent the rest of the day exchanging fire with Jerry across the gully and watching for any advance north towards the coast.
But the Germans kept pretty quiet, and didn't venture out from Stalos till dusk, when they made a small, unsuccessful foray towards a monastery on B Company's right flank, possibly looking for food or loot. Evidently they weren't in sufficient numbers to try strength with B Company.
The rest of 18 Battalion had relative peace on 23 May, broken only by the odd brush with a sniper, mainly in the gap between 18 and 19 Battalions. Even the Luftwaffe was quieter, except for a force of Stukas which came over suddenly about midday and hit the Galatas area with great ferocity. So concentrated was this bombing that everyone felt sure it was the preliminary to an attack. A Company, which was right in the way of the bombs, lost Captain Kelleway and three others wounded. Captain Lyon took over the company.
It has already been seen how the general position was deteriorating. As 23 May wore on, Jerry's outflanking move from Maleme became more and more dangerous, and it seemed that this thrust might yet link up with the 3 Parachute Regiment page 141 party at Stalos and make 5 Brigade's new position untenable. So during the afternoon Divisional Headquarters issued new orders—5 Brigade to withdraw again through the Composite Battalion into reserve east of Galatas, 4 Brigade to take over from 10 Brigade. There would then be nothing to prevent the two German forces from linking up, but they would no longer be able to split the Division in two.
The Composite Battalion's line ran from the coast to a prominent height (named Ruin Hill by the Kiwis) some 1000 yards west of Galatas, and to another round-topped hill (Wheat Hill) a little farther east. It was almost the same line as 18 Battalion had taken over at the end of April, and now the battalion, the only reasonably fresh New Zealand unit left, was to take it over again.
Everyone knew that the Composite Battalion had had a bad time there. When 18 Battalion's company commanders went forward to reconnoitre that afternoon they found out why. Jerry was quite close up to the forward line at the south end, his snipers and mortars were uncomfortably active, and his planes seemed to be paying personal attention to everything that moved round this particular area. The Composite Battalion had had little opportunity to improve the defences— the wiring across the front was still scanty, the wide, badly sited trenches still in use. In front of the position the broken, wooded country offered splendid cover right up to the foremost posts.
So there was cause for pessimism, particularly as the unit's front was to be 2400 yards—far too long for an infantry battalion down in numbers and short of equipment—and Jerry was apparently squaring up for an attack there to complete the linking of his two groups. The only thing to do was to site the companies to cover the front as best they could, but there would be inevitable gaps, wide ones, between companies and platoons. So thin would the line be that Lieutenant-Colonel Gray decided he would have to leave Ruin Hill unmanned. This was unfortunate, expecially as he apparently did not report it. Ruin Hill was a commanding point in that gently rolling countryside, overlooking the ridge to the north (Red Hill) and Wheat Hill to the east, where the forward companies were to go.page 142
Nothing could be done before dark. At 9 p.m. the companies began to move up as silently as possible. At the Galatas turnoff they had to pass a house brightly in flames from a bomb hit, and the light falling on the road made everyone feel horribly exposed, but nothing happened. By the early hours of 24 May 18 Battalion had taken over the sector, with D Company holding a 500-yard front inland from the coast, then C on Red Hill, and A on Wheat Hill. B Company came back from Stalos and took up a reserve position in the centre. Headquarters Company was on the next ridge behind D, with the ‘ack-ack’ platoon a little way ahead giving D Company direct support. The Luftwaffe had disappeared with the daylight, but Jerry's mortar crews, evidently in no need of sleep themselves, were out to ensure that nobody else got any. The position gave every promise of being a tough spot, and the men were very soon to realise that, for all the sniping in their old area, they ‘hadn't seen nothing yet’.
1 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, VD, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Hamilton; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn, 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn, Dec 1939-Aug 1940; comd 4 Inf Bde, 1941–42; Armd Bde, 1942–44; GOC 2 NZ Div, 27 Jun-16 Aug 1942, 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50; Stipendiary Magistrate.