TWENTY-SECOND TO NONE
The History of the 22nd (N.Z.) Battalion
By Terence Power Mclean
20 May, 1941
The morning of May 20 was fine and clear and promised a lovely day. The visibility was at least 20 miles. As with the night, so with the dawn: all was calm and peaceful. The mountains jutted into the silence and there was a soft stir of movement in the sea.
Soon after 0600 hours, the air raid sirens sounded and the “morning hate” began. Three flights of Dornier medium bombers made runs across the airfield and altogether dropped about 100 bombs on the perimeter. At 0700 hours, there was further bombing and strafing.
This normally was the end of the “hate” and the troops rose out of the slit trenches and moved about and made preparations for breakfast. But the unusual was betokened when the warning sound again and 24 heavy bombers, followed soon by larger formations with fighter escort, made runs over the 2 NZEF area.
It was plan enough that unusual was a mild word. For an hour and a half there was bombing and machine-gunning. The vines and trees over a wide area became torn and blackened. The stink of HE was prevalent. With booming and crashing and trembling of the earth, the fury of the assault mounted.
About 0900 hours, a number of gliders, each containing 10 or 12 men landed in the area of the river bed on the battalion’s left flank. About the same time, formations of JU 52 three-motored planes crossed the coast a mile or two west of the airfield and making a sweep thundered over the ridge between A and B Coys. From heights of 500 feet and less, they spilled what seemed to be unceasing streams of parachutists, black in the sunlight, intent upon war.
Now was the battle joined in violence. From their slit trenches, riflemen, Bren gunners and Tommy gunners engaged the enemy and in the fierce waves of fire the descending paratroopers died in number. But there were more planes and more paratroopers. From the river-bed, the glider-borne troops put up a stream of covering fire. Within a short time, the German fire-power, with its high proportion of automatic machine pistols and Spandau light machine-guns, mortars and 75mm pieces, was greater than that of the defence.
As the attack developed, it was seen that there were five targets. The first was on the flank of D Coy, in the river bed.. By 1000 hours, No. 18 platoon on the right was forced back from its forward posts to a tighter perimeter. By that time, the enemy was in possession of the RAF administrative building nearby.
The second drive was on C Coy from the area of D Coy and the RAF building. No. 15 platoon was exposed to fire from almost the rear and its left flank was penetrated with the aid of mortar and machine-gun fire from the Tavronitis. All posts of the platoon were overrun before noon and only one man escaped.
The third drive was against HQ Coy. Enemy dropped in the streets and on the roofs of houses in Maleme. At 1000 hours men were seen in the coy area, but there was no certainty that they were New Zealanders. The fourth drive was on the slopes east of the Tavronitis, near the bridge and behind Nos. 15 and 18 platoons. The fifth drive was along the ridge west of the Battalion area between D Coy to the east and A Coy to the north.
In all the attacks, the enemy fought well and with a high degree of efficient coordination.
At about 1000 hours there was a lull in the air bombardment. The sorties were soon renewed and the defence suffered from the efficient coordination of the air and ground forces.
The losses to the enemy in the initial attack were great and as the fighting developed they continued to be high. Reinforcements were put in by troop-carrying planes which landed on the beach soon after midday.
At 1330 hours, soon after receiving news that the forward posts of A Coy had been made untenable, Col Andrew asked for the services of the counter-attacking force. The fate of HQ Coy was uncertain. C and D Coys on the river flank were under heavy pressure. The situation was complicated generally by the unreliable communications. Contact with Brigade was faint by 1000 hours and as the fight developed messages to coys had in many cases to be taken by patrol.
At 1500 hours, a local counter-attack was made. Supported by two tanks, Lt Donald led a force of about 25 men down the road toward the western fringe of the airfield and the bridge across the Tavronitis. The enemy was clearly dismayed by the appearance of the tanks and the first reached the line of the riverbed with the second in support a short distance behind.
The events which followed were, in the circumstances, tragic. The motor of the first tank failed and could not be made to go. The crew later had to surrender. The second tank could not fire: the ammunition, at this late hour, was found to be too big. Moreover, the traversing mechanism in the turret broke down.
There was nothing that the infantry could do. A total of about 200 enemy had been counted in the area near the bridge. Withdrawal accordingly was made. Ten men of the counter-attack were killed or wounded. Lt Donald was wounded.
The fierce fighting continued. At 1800 hours, the situation was not food. Enemy forces were fairly thick in the valley between Battalion HQ and HQ Coy. C Coy appeared to have lost two platoons and D Coy one and the other two platoons of D Coy had suffered exhausting losses. The enemy were working round and over the ridge to the rear of Battalion HQ and A Coy and the coy was becoming badly pressed.
Among the supporting arms, the machine-gun section supporting D Coy had suffered severe casualties and the loss of one gun. The other section near Maleme was out of action. The 3”, 4” and Bofors guns had all been put out of action. The battalion’s two 3” mortars, after stout work were unserviceable.
It was calculated that 1800 enemy troops had been landed about the airfield. Many had been killed, but many still were fighting. The battalion itself had suffered heavy losses.
Because of the weak communications, the whereabouts of the counter-attacking battalion could not be discovered. After much consideration, Col Andrew decided upon withdrawal of he rest of he unit to B Coy’s lines. Col Andrew advised Brigade that unless orders to the contrary were received he intended to consolidate the rest of the unit with B Coy, the coy havinf suffered less that the four others. A reply was not received. At about 2100 hours, the time set for the move, a coy of 23 Battalion reached A Coy’s lines and the CO and a section went forward with Lt McAra on reconnaissance. Enemy were encountered and in a short fire-fight Lt McAra was killed. The OC then made contact with Battalion HQ and with his force withdrew.
Upon consolidation on B Coy’s ridge, Col Andrew discovered that the enemy’s push to the east was endangering the line of communication to 21 and 23 Battalions. If the push succeeded, the battalion would be surrounded. There were other momentous factors to weigh. With the withdrawal to the east ridge, the enemy was now in possession of the higher ground lately occupied by A Coy. It was certain that, upon the morrow that the enemy would apply saturation bombardment to the new, restricted area. The grave questions for Col Andrew to decide were whether to accept the certainty of many more casualties and probable surrounding and capture, or to withdraw.
The decision to withdraw was made. By dawn, the remnant of the battalion, of a force of 250 all ranks, was in 23 Battalion’s area. During withdrawal at 0100 hours, elements of the Maori Battalion reached the outskirts of Maleme.
The field had been given up – but not without honour. A section leader of C Coy, L/Cpl JT Mehaffey, died to save his men. When an enemy grenade landed in the trench occupied by his section, Mehaffey jumped upon it and stood his ground. He died in the evening from his wounds. He was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Lt Slade, badly wounded, asked for a tin of milk and ordered his men to leave him. They went, knowing his end was near, but reluctant not to leave a brave man.
Pte J Hayes, a signaller, was told as he set out from Battalion HQ for C Coy that it was believed that enemy occupied the olive grove of the Coy HQ. Hayes shrugged his roll of field cable higher on his shoulder. “That’s my bloody job to find out,” he said, and kept on his way.
Sjt Flashoff was badly wounded and not rescued until after dark. In spite of his pain, he broke his bayonet in two, dismantled his rifle down to the firing pin and threw the parts away.
As Pte Donoghue walked with his hands up into the RAP, he said to Sjt G Dillon, who was inside: “I am a prisoner.” Dillon looked at the German. “Any more about? No? Right.” With a bound he and Donoghue were at the enemy and in a trice they had taken him prisoner.
Of the coys, B suffered least; the term was relative, for no one took much pleasure in the bombing throughout the day.
A Coy took part in the general fire against the paratroopers and soon afterward felt the first pressure of the enemy thrust. This exploited the boundary with D Coy.
C Coy was under heavy pressure from the early morning and sustained so many casualties that only 27 men were left when withdrawal was made. By that time, the remnant was within a small defended area upon which the enemy made a successful assault just after the order for withdrawal had been given. As the enemy entered the area from the west, the coy withdrew to the east, each man in stockinged feet.
Like C Coy, D Coy made a number of tactical withdrawals to a tighter perimeter. It did not receive the order to withdraw, but on the order of Captain Campbell the coy was formed into three parties, each of which had instructions to move back to the 21-23 Battalion area. Capt Campbell with one party reached that area and rejoined the unit. 2/Lt JWC Craig and No. 17 platoon moved south along the river and by ill-luck encountered the enemy in force. Only four members of the platoon escaped capture. The third party was led by Sjt GE Sargeson and included mostly walking wounded. By moving south and east, it escaped the enemy and reached Sphakia in time to join the battalion before embarkation.
HQ Coy was soon isolated. Pte M Wan, a signaller, was despatched by Lt Clapham was a message for the CO. Wan could not get through and joined up eventually with a party of the coy which was making its way to Lt Wakey’s detachment at Xamoudokhori. Lt Wadey was cheerfulness itself when the party arrived. “We’ve enough ammo to carry on the fight and blow all Germany to hell,” and, in fact the detachment fought bravely to hold the post before casualties and the greatly-superior strength of the enemy caused capture. An odd consequence for Wan was that he managed to retain Lt Clapham’s signal, together with a map he had taken off a dead German, through four years of prison camp. Both were concealed at the end in the wooden sole of a boot. The map accurately detailed the battalion positions and described the methods for ground and air co-operation.
There were two instances, both connected with the push between A and D Coys, of the use of captured Allied personnel as shields for attacks. In the morning, a small party of RAF personnel was forced ahead of an enemy group. A party under Major Leggat killed a machine gunner supporting the advance and repulsed the attack. The loss of the RSM, WO I Purnell, was suffered in the skirmish. At midday, a larger force used a group of between 40 and 50 RAF and Royal Marine personnel as a shield Again the attack was broken and the Allied personnel were released.
Officers and men of British and Australian detachments gave notable help during the day. Three officers and 40 men of RAF Fleet Air Arm units joined the battalion soon after the attack began, but for lack of arms many had to withdraw. An English officer insisted on joining Lt Donald’s counter-attack and was wounded in the leg during the fight.
A multiplicity of commands tended to reduce the value of the supporting arms. For reasons which were not available, the 4” gun detachment found itself unable to engage targets in the river bed area. The 3” AA guns were unable to fire with full effect because of the low height at which the troop-carrying planes came into the target area. The MGs fought well, but the secs sustained heavy casualties in almost the first moments of the attack.
Of all the causes leading to the withdrawal from the airfield, the communication weaknesses were perhaps paramount. The “fog of war” descended as he main attack began. The glider-borne landings in the Tavronitis were an obvious target for the artillery, but from the beginning the FOO was out of touch with his guns. Contact forward to the coys and back to Brigade was haphazard. In such circumstances, direction of the battle became extremely difficult. Reliable radio sets down to platoon level might have made a great difference.
[This is an early version of the chapter, which Terry extensively edited.]
As with the night, so with the morning: All was calm and peaceful. Visibility was at least 20 miles. The mountains jutted into the silence. There was a soft stir of movement in the sea.
The prosaic tasks of the day began. These now included shelter from the morning hate. At 0600 hours, there flights of Dornier medium bombers made runs across the Maleme field and dropped about 100 bombs. At 0700 hours, there was further bombing. According to routine, this was the end of the enemy’s peculiar method of hailing the smiling morn. Preparations were made for breakfast and what one officer euphuistically described as matutinal tasks.
Then, out of the silence, came a throb, palpable in the air and earth. The ghastly wail of sirens sounded again. The noise grew greater, surging toward a crescendo. The ground pulsed as with an earthquake. The sound moved relentlessly forward and as it reached the field enveloped the tangible world. History said that in the first flight there were only 24 heavy machines. There could have been a hundred, a thousand. It made no difference. They were there. Their bomb doors opened. They spewed out their guts – and the slow, measureless, monstrous sound of bombing rolled over the plain and in the hills. There came more planes, fighters to strafe and bombers to harass and destroy. The dust and smoke rose from the protesting earth. Visibility was reduced to a few yards. The flash of an exploding bomb was seen dimly and the scream of shrapnel pieces sometimes seemed more pregnant of disaster than the explosion itself. And still there were more planes and dust clouds that rose higher and blackening vines and a constant trembling of the earth, almost imperceptible from a bomb a distance away and violent from one at hand. And then the bullets, unseen, but heard in whispers, or cracking directly overhead or in an eerie scream from a ricochet.
It was estimated that 3000 bombs, some of 250lb HE, mostly of an anti-personnel nature, were dropped in the main assault. No eye-witness was quite sure of time or sequence. But these things were not of much import. First there was the sketchy hate. Then the assault from the air. Then, toward 0900 hours, a swishing of motorless gliders slipping down to land, principally in the bed of the Tavronitis. Them, almost simultaneously, formations of tri-motored JU 52 planes which crossed the coast a mile or two to the west wheeled over the area and at heights of 300 to 500 feet spilled their contents, an apparently unceasing stream of parachutists.
Now was the battle of Maleme fairly formed. Men who had lain in slit trenches rose up and violently offered opposition to the invasion. Tommy and Bren guns chattered, rifles cracked, Vickers and Browning machine guns hammered out a greeting; men climbed olive trees so that they might better engage the targets. As each new wave of paratroopers descended, there swept out a merciless hail of small arms fire.
And as the dust and smoke filtered away, Germans died in numbers, in the air, as they touched the ground and tore at their harness, on the ground as they scurried for shelter. The dead sprawled grotesquely in the olive branches or slumped shapelessly upon the ground,. And the wounded sometimes cried out in their pain.
But always there seemed to be more parachutists or gliders swishing in with their loads of ten or 12 men. They were valorous, the enemy, and well-organised. And despite the drumming fire of opposition, they began to collect in groups and to offer fight from the ground. Their section-leaders, well-trained, made use of cover and deployment. Gradually, and then quite distinctly, the first phase of bombardment and landing gave way to the second, the assault upon he battalion perimeter.
The bombardment had cut what telephone lines there were and the poverty-stricken radio equipment was behaving with exasperating inefficiency. No one seemed to have an eye for visual signals. Runners became casualties and there were few cases of messages getting through. As the second phase began, then, the defensive situation was confused because of the unreliable or fragmentary reports. This steadily deepened throughout the day and finally became the decisive factor. Meantime, it was of much service to the enemy. There could be no proper coordination of the localised resistance offered by companies while comms were defective.
With the emergence of the second phase, it became clear that the enemy had landed a considerable force of gliders, estimated to number 45, in the area of the river bed. Other gliders came down more haphazardly, and though there were heavy casualties among their personnel, the remainder were well prepared to fight. Almost every man had a Schmeisser machine pistol or a Spandau light machine gun.
Estimates of the number of paratroopers for the most part were generous. HQ Coy considered that about 250 landed in its area. Whether or not that number was excessive, most were killed. The wave here, a force of about the eastern end of the Tavronitis bridge, another group on the northern and north eastern slopes of he ridges occupied by D Coy on the left and A Coy in the middle of the battalion zone and, finally a force to the south, in the area of Vlakheronitissa and extending to Xamoudokhori, seemed to absorb most of the paratroopers, apart from stragglers who fell into outlying areas and who were mostly shot.
The first push of consequence was at the junction of D Coy, south of the coastal road, and 15 Pl, which had the impossible perimeter of 1400 yards extending from north of the bridge toward the mouth of the river. North east of the eastern and of the bridge and not far distant from it was a concrete building used for administration purposes by the Royal Air Force detachment at the airfield. In the area of the building, just north of the coastal road, was a tented camp for the RAF personnel. It had been vexatiously apparent from the first that defence of this area would be made difficult by the camp and the building, firstly because fields of fire could not be laid across it and secondly because the RAF personnel, having little or no infantry experience, had only lately begun to receive instruction in small arms and were in no condition to act as experienced soldiers.
A second group landed south of the battalion area between Vlakheronitissa and Xamoudokhori and began to push at the flank on the landward side of the field. The largest group landed near or with the glider-borne troops and thrust against C and D Coys. The whole of the divisional area had been plastered in the bombing, but the saturation point…
The stress was soon upon the known communication weaknesses. The 18 set to Brigade HQ was functioning weakly but erratically. Because of the infiltration of the enemy, messages to coys had sometimes to be undertaken by patrols. The FOO was out of touch with his guns and at the suggestion of Col Andrew left for the gun line with the object of bringing down fire on the river bed. The section of machine guns on the ridge above the bridge was soon overwhelmed and the other section near Maleme was pinned down and fired little. The 4” guns did not fire. Three offices and 40 men of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm gallantly joined the defence, but there were few arms among them and most soon had to withdraw through the battalion lines.
As the paratroop attack developed, it was seen that there were five target areas. The first was the flank of D Coy, in the river bed. By 1000 hours, No 18 platoon on the right had to give up its forward posts and withdraw to a tighter perimeter. By that time, the enemy was in possession of the RAF administrative building close to the company area. The send was on C Coy from the area of D Coy and the building. No 15 Platoon was exposed to fire almost from the rear and the pl’s left flank was penetrated, the assaulting enemy being assisted by the fire of the mortars and machine guns from Tavronitis. By noon, all posts were overrun and only one man of the platoon escaped death, wounding or capture.
The third push was against HQ Coy at Maleme. Enemy dropped in the streets and on the roofs of houses in the village. At 1000 hours, men were seen in the coy area, but there was no certainty that they were New Zealanders. The fourth push was on the slopes east of the Tavronitis bridge between and behind Nos. 15 and 18 pls. The fifth was along the ridge west of the Battalion area between D Coy to the east and A Coy to the north. In all of these attacks, the enemy troops fought fiercely and well.
At about 1000 hours there was a lull in the air activity, but the sorties were soon renewed in strength. The air and ground co-operation of the enemy forces was exact. A new development was the landing of 75mm guns west of the river.
Lt Slade, badly wounded, asked for a tin of milk and ordered his men to leave him. They went, knowing his end was near, but reluctant not to leave a brave man.
Of dust and smoke raised by the enemy air bombardment. Within a distressingly short time of the opening of the enemy attack on May 20, the battalion’s air link with Brigade HQ became weak and, hours later, when the CO sought to apprise the Brigade Comd of the weakness of the battalion’s position, failed altogether. And, within the 24 hours which determined the fate of Crete, Major Leggat, bearing urgent messages of the battalion’s retirement from the airfield, had to rouse a sleeping brigadier who knew nothing of this vital step. In his absence, the important step was to restore the situation. So in the gathering light of a spring morning which might have been lovely but for the hellish implications of daylight, three commanders, a brigade major, and other officers in miserable conference tried to decide upon was and means. There were personal antagonisms, even animosities, among them. All were very tired. None cared to accept another as the loco brigadier. The obvious act, a gathering of forces to fight immediately for the Maleme positions, was apparent to all. And yet, for want of one decisive voice which by a word might - it is too much to say that it would – which might have changed the entire situation of the island, the forces remained static, were fiercely bombarded, had casualties and eventually, and not without bitterness, protestingly yielded ground until within a gruelling fortnight the Navy once more had come to the rescue. It seemed the final irony that the inadequacy, from being a mixture of extraneous things, at last reached into the heart of the defending force.