TWENTY-SECOND TO NONE
The History of the 22nd (N.Z.) Battalion
By Terence Power Mclean
25 Apr – 19 May, 1941
Out of the Frying Pan
Suda Bay, the chief port of Crete, seemed like peace itself after the turmoil of Greece and the air raids of the short voyage when the landing was made there at 1400 hours in 25 Apr. Because of the combination of exhausted men and indefinite, not to so inefficient, reception arrangements by the shore staff, there were many stragglers when the battalion marched away from the landing place a little later. On the following day, the unit strength was reduced by 50 because of these absentees. Half a dozen of the 50 were leaders in a gigantic binge which began when the staff of a NAAFI hurriedly departed from their store during an air raid. The party continued for some days because of the incidence of further raids. The somewhat austere welcome-home gathering was staged in the orderly room for the stragglers. There was a general realisation that Crete would have to be defended for a time, revellers were not the only ones who wanted to escape the atmosphere of war. “The men are a little trying at present and consider they have earned the right to relax,” said Lt McAra. “The island is so sunny, attractive and peaceful a spot that it seems natural and right to take life easily – the one thing we dare not do with the opponent such as we have.”
“By heavens, we know each other after the last month,” Lt McAra continued. “Beneath the surface one can sense continual cross-currents of exasperation and disgust. One sees the tide of respect receding from certain officers and NCOs. Many of the men are in a fine state of mental confusion that expresses itself in continual bitching at everything from the smallest order to the decisions of the British Cabinet.”
Within 48 hours of landing, the unit was in position on spurs down to the village of Platanias, near canes, the capital of Crete, and on 28 Apr it began the occupation of positions on the perimeter of Maleme aerodrome, one of the two airfields of the island, and the western point intended to be defended against the expected airborne assault from Greece.
Crete had been occupied by the British at the request of the Greek Government since November, 1940, but it had not been much fortified in the meantime. Its geographical feature was a high and steep mountain chain bisecting the island for almost all its length of about 200 miles. The lack of all-weather ports – Suda Bay was the only one of consequence – seemed likely to hinder the defence, for the German air bombardment of shipping caused havoc from the beginning. The terrain itself was not easily defensible, for the terraced vineyards and olive groves seriously restricted vision, and these were plentiful in the area of Maleme.
There had been some misunderstandings with the shore staff at the landing and a certain amount of precious equipment had had to be left at Suda Bay. As a result, there were only seven picks and shovels for the building of defensive positions. The delays did not promise well, for the intelligence reports spoke of intense enemy preparations and time was a factor of the greatest importance. The battalion’s daily routine was published soon after the occupation of the Maleme positions. Stands-to of all personnel were from 0500 to 0600 hours and from 2030 to 2100 hours, meals were at 0830, 1230 and 1730 hours and fires ere prohibited between 1900 and 0700 hours. There were many tasks, the most important being the preparation and wiring of defensive positions, but whatever the task – and the most pleasant variation was swimming in the sea – one man of each section by day and one third of strength by night maintained a constant watch.
On 4 May, General Freyberg talked to officers and men. “An informal chat that increased one’s confidence in the man,” Lt McAra said. “He told us the New Zealand Division in Greece was up against five German divisions and acted as rearguard to both the Australians and a few British units, retiring over 300 miles in constant touch with the enemy. General Wavell said to him afterwards, ‘I don’t believe any other division but yours could have done it,’ so the 1914-18 blokes needn’t fear we let them down. The general said there were several occasions when he gave up the division for lost, so fast were the Germans coming in on his left flank, but we got away with it.”
There were three alarms of attack. The first was of attack on 1 or 2 May with 300 heavy bombers and gliders and the second was of attack between 14 and 17 May with 30,000 troops, one third seaborne. The third alarm, which was only slightly inaccurate in date, was made known on 16 May and was of attack between 17 and 19 May with 11 Corps and 1 Airborne Division, a total of 35,000, with 25,000 to land from the air and 10,000 from the sea. In this third plan, the points of attack were given as Maleme, Canea, Retima and a valley (Aghya) southwest of Canea. Suda Bay was not to be mined and the aerodrome was not to be bombed. The method of attack was to be, it was said, a sharp assault by 100 bombers and fighters followed by use of 600 troop-carrying planes dropping parachutists, 500 in the first wave and 100 in each succeeding wave.
This was, as the event proved, good intelligence and given parity of equipment and personnel the defence might have forced the invader into the sea. This lack of equipment, combined with a number of other factors which hindered the defence, made Crete the most bitterly-remembered of the battalion’s actions. The battalion did not escape censure. Its enforced withdrawal from Maleme was much criticised by other units and the charge was even made, in not irresponsible circles, that the withdrawal cost Crete. For its own part, the unit was somewhat critical of the support it obtained, or failed to obtain, on the day. In this atmosphere of criticism, the eventual loss of the island was hardly taken by the fighting men. They thought it could and should have been held. But it is clear now, as it was then when the mists of argument were pierced, that the vital need in the defence was fighter aircraft and field and anti-aircraft artillery. These were not available in the needed numbers, and the ruthless German air bombardment caused many casualties before the ground fighting began.
Crete was an unhappy experience. There were many weaknesses in the defence. On the battalion level, an important request which could not be granted for lack of man-power was that the bed of the Tavronitis river should be defended. On both the battalion and a higher level, representations that the aerodrome should be put out of commission were not heeded. On the highest level, General Freyberg seriously questioned the worth of attempting to defend the island.
The shortages of equipment were widespread. Some French and Italian 75 mm field guns were without sights. A platoon of 27 MG Battalion in support of the 22nd had only Mark VII and few belts for its four guns. The air force at Maleme comprised at the beginning of May six Hurricane fighters, supplemented later by two more, and about the same number of Fulmar, Gladiator and Swordfish machines. It was a gallant but small company and unit was reduced on 19 May to a lone Hurricane. The Germans mounted a heavy attack. A brave pilot flew the machine off the ground and pitched it headlong into the mighty enemy armada. The odds were overwhelming and soon, flaming and spinning, the machine fell away and plunged, in a moment of agony, into the sea. For the battalion, this was the Unknown Warrior of Crete, a man of courage indeed.
The days mounted upon one another in slow movement toward a dreadful climax. Yet these extrovert Kiwis found their diversions and enjoyed themselves as much as if they were at Base with little to do. The people of the villages were friendly. Since so many of their own had died in the Greek fight against the Italian invader from Albania, they had a special feeling toward the soldiers who were in risk of their lives, and made them welcome. Estalliano, a tavern-keeper, became a special friend and outside his tavern there appeared in ti the sign, “KIWI KANGAROO KIPPER KLUB. Proprietor, E. Stallion.” It was then the fashion to call the English troops “Kippers”. Out of its recent battles, the Division had acquired a sense of its importance, and on Crete there was born that feeling of pride in the Division, as opposed to pride in units of it, which meant a great deal in later days. This promoted friendship and when time permitted there was much visiting among other units.
Thus, outside the real concern of war, the time passed not unpleasantly. The Ordnance Corps functioned and men who had not changed out of clothing for weeks felt gratefully the ecstasy of wearing new and clean gear. An issue of mess tins made it possible to throw away the noisome Meat and Vegetable tins which had had to serve so many men as mugs and dishes. The Kiwi Concert Party and the 5 Brigade Band arrived from Egypt in response, it was whispered in scandal, to a signal asking for entertainments for the troops. On 7 May Col Andrew made an aerial recce of the battalion positions and on his orders much attention was given to the proper camouflaging of weapon pits and of tracks to Coy HQs. Consequent upon the evacuation to hospital of Captain Laws, Captain Bourke and Lt Laurence, changes were made in some officer appointments. Captain Crarer took command of B Coy, Captain Johnson of C and Lt G G Beaven of HQ. Lt McAra was transferred temporarily from the mortar platoon to A Coy and two officers, Lts Wadey and Forster, were detached to command a small force supplied by the unit for the guarding of the RAF radar station at Xamoudokhori. There were no company 2 I/Cs and the signals, anti-aircraft, mortar and six rifle platoons were commanded by NCOs.
One officer, Lt G Sladde, of B Coy, had not managed to escape with the unit from Greece. He had been given up as a probable prisoner-of-war and there was, in consequence, rejoicing when he returned to the unit after an adventurous journey in a caique, or small sailing vessel, from Greece. None of the party in the craft had a knowledge of marine navigation and Lt Slade was principally responsible for performing the feat of steering by the sun and stars to Crete.
Until 10 May, the German air attack had been intermittent and, so far as could be seen, not obviously planned. As from that day, the air bombardment steadily mounted in strength. Suda Bay was much attacked and ships were sunk or damaged in number. On 11-12 May, in the full moon, a night attack was launched about Maleme and one bomber glided with engines silenced while the tail-gunner strafed the area. On 13 May there was a heavy raid on the airfield. On 17 May, Stuka dive-bombers were reported for the first time. Between1600 and 1930 hours on 18 May, battalion positions were strongly strafed and bombed and a death and two woundings occurred in C Coy. On 19 May, battalion positions were attacked at dawn, midday and at 1635 and 1912 hours and in one attack 150 bombs exploded in the area of C and D Coys within five minutes. On that day, the last serviceable Fulmar was destroyed on the aerodrome and the last Hurricane in the air, but for some days before that, the German attacks had been unimpeded. Meantime, the entire defenced area had been subjected to attack from day to day. As in Greece, the airplane was the terror weapon. Its effect on morale was liable to be considerable.
It could be said, on 19 May, that much had been done in the 24 days since the landing. It was not possible to feel that everything had been done, or that all shortages of equipment had been made up. The poverty of communications within the battalion, the need of reliance upon flags and runners forward of Battalion HQ and upon an inefficient radio set with weak batteries and a telephone to Brigade, was sorely distressing. A multiplicity of commands for the units charged with the first defence of the airfield was potentially a weakness. Too, the provision of only one minefield on the airfield was inadequate..
Nevertheless, the shortages were general and it could be said that worthy attempts to remedy the situation had been made. Within the unit, use had been made of weight Browning MGs taken from disabled aircraft. Each rifleman had been issued with 100 rounds of SAA. Each coy had six Bren LMGs and six Thompson sub-machine guns. Barbed wire which did jot, unfortunately, include dannert, had been laid in quantity for all-round defence.
Most satisfying, too, was the provision, at a fairly late stage of preparation, of two “I” tanks commanded by a British officer. These had been dug in in the rising ground behind the airfield for use as required.
With regroupings, the defensive plan on 19 May had become as follows:- Brigade dispositions were the 21st Battalion in immediate support of the 22nd, 23 Battalion at Platanias, and 28 Maori Battalion north of 21 Battalion. Later, 21 and 23 Battalions changed places because of the numerical weakness of 21 Battalion. 4 NZ Brigade was to the east of 5 Brigade and beyond it there were Australian and English formations, the latter including Royal Marines. The defending force of about 26,000 included 11 battalions of ill-equipped Greeks and there were a great many line-of-communication troops in the force.
The Battalion dispositions were, from right to left: HQ Coy to the east about the village of Maleme; B Coy on a road running from the airfield to Vlakheronitissa, which was behind the next ridge; A Coy west of B on higher ground than B; D Coy from a bridge over the Tavronitis on the coastal road south along the river bed to a valley at right angles to the river; C Coy on the western outskirts of the airfield, with one platoon just to the south of the airfield about the middle of it.
The principal elements in the supporting forces were: Ten Bofors 17mm anti-aircraft guns sited about the aerodrome (of which Brigadier E. Puttick, divisional commander vice General Freyberg, had written, “They seem horribly exposed… I am afraid they will not last long.”); two 3-inch guns on a high feature to the south and two 4-inch coastal-defence type guns on a slope nearer the southern edge of he airfield; artillery tree miles eastward comprising 3.7 howitzers and French 75mm and Italian 75/27 guns’ a section (two guns) of Vickers MG with each HQ and D Coys.
The AA and field artillery were under different command which were finally responsible to Major-General Weston, RM, whose headquarters was several miles east. A detachment with the two 4-inch guns had five Lewis guns and 15 Don Five telephone sets with several miles of cable, but these valuable pieces of equipment were not available to the co-ordinated defence of the field.
There was peace and quiet in the battalion area on the night of 19 May.
[This is a section of the original text that Terry cut from the edited version.]
On the day before the battle, the defensive situation of which the battalion was a part was as follows.
Each rifleman had 100 rounds of SAA. Each coy had six Brens and six Thompson sub-machine guns. Eight Browning HMGs had been converted from unserviceable aircraft. HQ Coy was grouped to the east of and about the village of Maleme. B Coy was sited on high ground overlooking a road running south from Maleme. To a village Vlakheronitissa, lying behind a ridge overlooking the field. No company position was closer to the nearest edge of the airfield than 1000 or 1200 yards. A Coy lay west of B Coy on higher ground and its northern front was within about 600 yards of the airfield. D Coy, to the left of A, had positions extending from a bridge over the Tavronitis river at the south-west corner of the airfield and along the riverbed southwards for 1000 yards. C Coy covered the airfield proper, No 14 platoon covering the southern edge, No. 15 platoon the western edge and No. 13 the coastal sector at the mouth of the Tavronitis. A section listening post was established on the Tavronitis 500 yards south of D Coy, and on high ground. Lt M Wadey and elements of HQ Coy were on guard at the RAF RDF station at a village, Xamoudokhori, 1000 yards south-east of Vlakheronitissa and 600 or 700 yards south of B Coy’s nearest position. Battalion HQ was sited in A Coy’s area, in the forward slope overlooking the airfield. To the south was Point 107. Covered by A Coy and tactically the most important of the various features in immediate proximity to the airfield. It was on this point that the 4” coastal defence guns were sited.
In the brigade dispositions, 21 Battalion, much weakened from its disasters in Greece, covered high ground extending from about 500 yards east of Xamoudokhori to a larger village, Kondomari, which lay about 1500 yards south of he main cosatal road. To the north, between Kondomari and the road, lay 23 Battalion, with detachments of HQ and D Coy about 500 yards south-east of Maleme and covering the road or track leading southwest from the coastal road to Xamoudokhori. Other coys lay a few hundred yards east covering a track leading south to the village of Dhaskaliana, a collection of houses 500 yards to the couth of the coastal road and on he track to Kondomari. 23 Battalion HQ and other elements lay between Dhaskaliana and Kondomari. About 1000 yards to the east, the 7 Fd Coy, NZE, were extended to cover a wadi, or gulch crossed by the road. The Field Punishment Centre - in which members of the battalion happened to be guests – was a few yards south of he Engineer Coy and a detachment of the 19th Army Troops Coy covered across bridge another dry gulch, and the road junction leading to the considerable village of Modion 1000 yards south of the road. 5 FD Amb was located in Modion. Still further to the east lay D Coy, 28 Maori Battalion, covering another bridge and the forward element, by several hundred yards, of the Battalion itself, part of which was grouped about Platanias, a village built about the coast road itself, and part about 5 Brigade HQ, somewhat to the south of the road. The already attenuated brigade was stretched over about 8000 yards from the Tavronitis river to Platanias and at the deepest point, between the coast and Xamoudokhori, the depth was about 4000 yards. The coastal road was within 400 or 500 yards of the sea at all parts of the defenced area except the Maleme airfield itself, where the road was about 800 yards from the sea.
Four thousand yards east of Platanias lay Galatos, a substantial village 1500 yards south of the main road and overlooked by various ;points – Red Hill, Tuin Hill, Wheat Hill, Pink Hill, Cemetery Hill, Church Hill – which came to be important in later, tigerish fighting. This for the time being was the preserve of a Composite Battalion of Oakes Force, a force some Arty, some ASC and stragglers, commanded for some time after its inception by Major RF Oakes. A mile or more to the south, covering the Aghya valley road, lay a Greek Regt and three miles west of this 8 Greek Regt had detachments grouped about the road and particularly sited to defend Aghya reservoir. This, to the north, was also the concern of Div Cav. And finally, five miles east of Galatos, lay Canea, the city of Crete, a frequent target for enemy bombardment and the concern for some time being of 4 Brigade. Maleme lay some 16 or 17 miles west of Canea. Suda Bay, Retima, Heraklion and the area east of Canea were defended by British or Australian forces. 5 Brigade, and the 22 Battalion particularly, was the westernmost of the defending forces, except that a Greek regt which had included NZ officers and NCOs defended Kisamos Kastelli, on the tip of the island 15 miles to the west.
Almost the whole of this defended area was torn by the rugged foothills and steep, deep wadis of the mountainous heart of Crete. Over the generations, terraced vineyards and groves of olives had been planted to win the scant fruit of this barren land. Tactically, the advantage was with the attacking force. Cover was ample. Defensive preparations could be remarked without difficulty – as early as 7 May, Col Andrew was much disturbed by the tracks and earthworks he saw in an aerial reconnaissance – and the 26,000 defenders of the island were so thin on the ground that the establishment of a firm base by the attackers was inevitable. The coastal road, the one good road, lay open to bombardment. There was little transport and some of it was not in first-class condition. The men had been fed well, but Suda Port had been bombed with such vigour and efficiency that the provision of ration dumps had been hindered.
The area of immediate concern to the battalion likewise favoured the attacking force. To the immediate west, the narrow Tavronitis River meandered through a wide shingle bed to the sea. To the east, there were foothills and gullies. To the south, the land rose steeply toward the mountains. The rising ground was freely terraced and even from high ground it was difficult to see clearly. The landing strip measured 1100 yards by 150 yards and at its south-western corner contained an administration building erected for the Royal Air Force. Slightly to the east of the crest of Pt 107 were sited two 3” AA guns. Forward of the feature and between A and D Coy areas were sited the two 4” guns.
On 1 May, the battalion strength was 27 officers and 597 other ranks. By 19 May, there had been reductions because of casualties and sickness. A and C Coys and B and D Coys had changed places with each other. Consequent upon the evacuation to hospital of Captains Laws and Bourke and Lt Laurence, changes were made in the officer appointments, Major Hanton was in command of A Coy, Captain K Crarer of B Coy, Captain R Johnson of C, Captain Campbell of D and Lt GG Beaven of HQ. Lt McAra was transferred temporarily from the mortar platoon to a platoon of A Coy and two officers, Lts Wadey and Forster, were detached to command a force supplied by the unit for the guarding of the RAF radar station at Xamoudokhori. The signals, anti-aircraft, mortar and six rifle platoons were commanded by NCOs. There were no company 2 i/cs.
One officer, Lt G Slade, of B Coy, had not managed to escape with the unit from Greece and there was rejoicing when he returned after a most adventurous journey in a Greek caique. None of the party in the vessel had a knowledge of marine navigation and Lt Slade was principally responsible for the steering by the sun and stars to Crete. It was sad that, after performing the soldierly act of returning at the first opportunity to his unit, he should have failed to survive the battle. He was wounded and captured and the German plane bearing him to Greece was shot down.
At this fateful hour of 19 May, the men of the battalion, as of the whole of the force, were apprehensive of the immediate future. They had gathered a good conceit of themselves from the fighting in Greece, but shortages of men and material were everywhere apparent and were accentuated by the intelligence reports of the enemy intentions. Moreover, memories of harassing times at the hands of the Luftwaffe were recent and bitter and with each new day in Crete there had been increasingly hostile enemy air activity. Man for man, the Allied troops might know themselves better than the German; but when the enemy joined more and superior machines to men, the disparity was plain and disturbing. The pickets who stood duty in the battalion on the night of 19-20 May relished the silence and the soft air and the sweet peace of Mediterranean night. The darkness relieved the tension which was the inevitable concomitant of each succeeding day in Crete.