TWENTY-SECOND TO NONE
The History of the 22nd (N.Z.) Battalion
By Terence Power Mclean
21 May – 1 Jun
Retreat to Spharkia
Col Andrew reported to HQ 5 Brigade at 0500 hours on 21 May and returned immediately with the Brigade Major to co-ordinate the defence plan of 21, 22 and 23 Battalions. Battalion HQ was established at Kondimari and the unit was divided into two coys, these for a short time being placed under command 21 and 23 Battalions respectively.
The sporadic fighting of the night grew again in volume with the dawn when the enemy air bombardment was violently renewed. The detachment guarding the radar station was heavily attacked with dive bombers and ME 110s and Lt Wadey was wounded. Troop-carrying planes began to land on the airfield. Charges for the defending artillery had been blown up in strafing and the field could not be effectively engaged. Nor could much be done to stop the enemy MGs and mortars set up near Maleme bringing down effective harassing fire.
At midday, there was a welcome sound and sight when eight RAF planes appeared over the field and dropped bombs, but there were no planes when the enemy, all through the afternoon, relentlessly probed and pushed against the Allied force.
With the darkness, a divisional counter-attack by 20 and 28 Battalions was to be made. Before it occurred, flashes of light and rolls of gunfire spoke of a naval battle. This was the intended seaborne invasion; but only in dribs and drabs was the tale pieced together of how the Navy had broken the invasion with fearful casualties to the German force.
The counter-attack was not put in at midnight, the intended time, and it was nealt dawn when 28 Battalion crossed the start line. The Maoris swept forward and, ignoring terrible casualties, reached the edge of the field. When 20 Battalion made its move, it was almost day and the advantage was with the defence. The heavy losses suffered and the difficulty of movement in the daylight made the situations reached untenable and the attackers fell back to 21 and 23 Battalions, with 20 Battalion on the right of 23 and 28 between 21 and 23.
Support for the main trust was given on the left flank at 0630 hours when Captain Campbell commanded one part of a force and Captain Truesdale, of 21 Battalion, the other, in a counter attack which swept forward with bayonet past the radar station at Xamoudokhori, past Vlakheronitissa, to the valley of the Tavronitis. Here too, the position became untenable with a flank exposed and the force had to fall back. This was the period of crisis and the resolution in favour of the enemy decided the trend of all of the subsequent fighting.
The enemy now had placed his forces in two groups, the first operating along the flat coastal strip and the second among the foothills. Reserves were built up by landings of troop-carrying planes on the field. Advances were generally preceded by localised strafing. In the afternoon, the attacks in the two sectors increased in weight and there was infiltration in the hills toward Ay Marina, five miles toward Suda Bay.
At 0445 hours on 23 May, the two coys of 22 Battalion having reverted to comd, orders to withdraw towards Platanias were received. The intention was that 21 and 22 Battalions would occupy high ground facing towards Ay Marina, the right flank being 4 Brigade and the left 23 Battalion. The move was not completed in darkness because of the late arrival of the order, but casualties suffered from strafing were few in spite of observation planes.
The enemy, rapidly following up, continued to exert heavy pressure. 5 Brigade had now become reduced to about 600 effective troops 1700 hours a Divisional order directed that it should move to a rest area to the rear of 4 Brigade which in turn ordered to hold a line running from the coast through Galatos to the Aghya Valley Road. 19 Australian Brigade was now on the right flank.
From Platanias, the Battalion was ordered to continue withdrawal on the ride south west of the junction of the Canea-Maleme-Galatos roads. The tasks were the defence of the Divisional HQ from paratroop attacks, the defence of the line of the ridge and counter-attack as required. The move to the rear was made in daylight in small parties moving in single file on the sides of the road, and the enemy air force did not discover it until most of the troops were in the new position.
The battalion strength was now just over 200. The ADMS estimated that in the first three days of the fighting divisional casualties amounted to 300 killed, 700 wounded and 300 missing, the total being 20% of the divisional forces of 6700 troops. After operating under the most difficult conditions with remarkable efficiency, the medical services were now gravely handicapped by the exhaustion of supplies of medical dressings.
Throughout 24 May, the battalion was in reserve. There was a heavy bombardment of Canea nearby. The next day, 25 May, was the first Sunday after Maleme. On the right of the Allied front, there was intense fighting and the in the evening was fought one of the bloodiest and bravest fights of the war when 18 and 23 Battalions counterattacked and took Galatos. This was one of the few instances of the fighting in Crete where the enemy, in spite of his superiority of arms and numbers, was put to flight. The men of the two battalions went into the village with teeth bared.
A penalty of the withdrawal from the airfield had been the loss of about 25,000 rations held in a reserve dump. As a consequence, ration supplies from the rear, hindered in any case by the air arm, were now made with difficulty. To some extent, there was lack of food; and this, combined with fighting and weariness, had induced a strange quality, not far short of somnolence. Men resting during the march became almost comatose and had to make a great effort of will to move.
On 26 May, Force HQ directed that the defence iof the front was now the joint responsibility of Major-General Weston and Brigadier Puttick. Before a common plan could be agreed upon by the two commanders, the enemy penetrated the right flank of 5 Brigade and began probing at the left flank of 19 Australian Brigade. About 1600 hours, penetration of the boundary between the Australians and the Greeks was reported. At 1430 hours, the Battalion received orders to prepare to counter-attack along the coast and a move was made to take up position. A Coy was heavily strafed while on the march and the move was cancelled when about half completed.
Brigadier Puttick recommended that English troops hold a line west of Suda Bay to allow the New Zealands to pass through and reform. Major-General Weston regarded the approval of Force HQ as essential before he would agree and when, at 2200 hours, no information or orders had been received from Force, Brigadier Puttick ordered withdrawal to a line west of Suda. The line, running roughly north and South, was called 42nd Street. 19 Aus Brigade was on the right, 5 Brigade on the left and 4 Brigade in reserve.
The withdrawal began at 2215 hours. The Battalion guarded the bridge at the junction of the coast and valley roads until other units had passed through and reached an area south west of Suda Bay about 0400 hours on 27 May. Half of the Battalion marched straight on to Stylos. In the new position, 19 Battalion was on the right of the Battalion with 28 Battalion beyond it, the Battalion being on the left flank.
At 1030 hours, the Germans put in fresh troops and attacked. The fighting grew fierce. The Brigade counter-attacked and men of the Battalion took part in another of the fierce thrusts against the enemy. This, too, was successful; not until the enemy had been pushed back 1½ miles was the advance stopped. The German reaction was heavy mortaring all along the front, but the thin line held.
In the afternoon, enemy with mule transport could be seen moving, unhindered by artillery fire, across the foothills towards Stylos, seven or eight miles to the east. The force was estimated at 800 and the objective of the drive seemed plainly to be the road leading over the mountains to Sphakia on the south coast. To check the danger, withdrawal to Stylos was ordered for 2200 hours and then put back to 2230. Silently, the defending force disengaged and marched through the night. Stylos was reached at 0400 hours. There was little rest. At 0630 hours, the enemy brought down fire and the position became so serious that at 0800 Division was asked for means to cover a withdrawal by day. None was available and the risk of movement by day was taken. The Battalion occupied defensive positions until 1100 hours and then moved as the rearguard force until 1230 hours, when it passed through Layforce, a commando battalion, which had taken up another defensive line with 2/8 Australian Battalion and personnel of 5 Brigade HQ.
From 1500 until 1800 hours, the Battalion rested. Then it began the march over the mountain road to Sphakia. The troops moved in single file on either side of the road. They were hungry and utterly weary. There seemed no end to the road as it wound steeply onward and upward to an unattainable crest name, with extreme aptness, Phantom Hill. Of all of the tests of Crete, this was perhaps the severest. These men, all men of the fight, were at the point of exhaustion. The wish to lie down, to rest, to sleep, regardless of fate, was maddeningly strong. Yet on and on they trudged, higher and higher; and, somehow, the strange strength which adversity breeds in a community carried them on. “The discipline on the march was a credit to the Brigade,” the 5 Brigade War Diary commented.
About 0200 hours on 29 May, the Battalion gained the crest of the pass and after marching ion for a couple of hours crawled into shelter by the roadside and spent the clock around. 23 Battalion remained at the crest on guard.
A correspondent of the time laconically noted that the enemy air force now did not do much more than occasional strafing, the main effort having been turned against shipping. To confound him, a force of 60 machines appeared at 1800 hours and bombed Sphakia.
Not to be immediately in the zone of such an attack was cause for some rejoicing. There was even better news. Col Andrew returned from a conference at Brigade with the information that the Battalion was to be evacuated on the following night, 31-21 May.
Escape! There was sweetness in the thought. Crete long since had lost its charm.
All day of 30 May, the Battalion was under cover of clumps of pines on the rocky hillside not far from Sphakia. The rest of the Brigade was nearby, 19 Australian Brigade and Layforce being to the rear in position. The enemy had grimly followed up each successive withdrawal and once more he was barking at the heels of the withdrawing force. At 1400 hours, SA [small arms] and mortar fire began coming over the crest of the pass and in the Battalion area men instinctively took cover as a mortar bomb came whistling in. It failed to explode and for some reason there were no others.
One “dud” was bad. A second momentarily seemed calamitous. Col Andrew went off again to another conference and returned. Soon his words spread about. The evacuation of the Battalion was to be cancelled. 4 Brigade was to go instead. There was no assurance that there would be ships to take the Brigade away after 4 Brigade had gone.
The Battalion really had not been long enough in Egypt to use with authority that invaluable word, “Maaleesh” (“Never mind – no matter”), with which the Arabs suffered ailings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Yet this was the situation for it. Men shrugged and laughed and uttered he unconquerable battle cry of the Division. “Maaleesh, Dig,” they said. “She’ll be right.”
Such a reaction was made the apter when, as it turned out, the news proved not half as bad as it seemed. At 0500 hours on 31 May, the Battalion was on the march into Sphakia, past the lone dead Kiwi lying by his truck on the winding track; within a short time, in association with the 28 Battalion, it was clearing the village of stragglers and picketing the approaches. Three detachments of platoon strength took up positions to the north and north west of the port and the Battalion held the perimeter while 21 and 23 Battalions, the Australians, some Royal Marines and Layforce passed through.
The day of anxious waiting slowly passed. Just half an hour before this momentous May passed into June, in an atmosphere of confusion, the evacuation of the Brigade and the remaining Allied elements was begun. With Col Andrew acting as Beach Marshal, whalers and auxiliary landing craft which had been hidden along the coast took troops to the light cruiser Phoebe, the destroyers Jackal, Kimberley and Hotspur, and the minelayer Abdil. By 0230 hours, the last of the Battalion was aboard the Phoebe. Half an hour later, the convoy was on its way to Alexandria.
Other things might change. The more they changed, the more the Navy remained the same. Those sandwiches, those cups of tea and cocoa, those bowls of stew, the ineffable kindness, out peace into men who had suffered harshly and made them worshippers for all time of the Service,
The official 2 NZEF chronicle said: “The loss of the island may be attributable to two immediate causes – Firstly, to the ability of the enemy with a large number of aerodromes near the coast to maintain an uninterrupted air offensive against our troops, ground strafing during the day and bombing during the night; secondly, to our inability to recapture Maleme aerodrome in the face of the box barrage laid around it by the German air force. In the longer view, the loss may be attributable to our inability properly to reinforce and supply the island in the face of complete air superiority.”