The place is alive with parachutists
Maleme airfield and the evacuation from Sfakia 20–29 May 1941
One chap stood up in the trench and said ‘The place is alive with parachutists.’
[Lance Corporal Lindsay Negus, personal account of his time in Greece and Crete, 3DRL/4052, AWM, hereafter Negus letter]
On the morning of 20 May 1941 Lance Corporal Lindsay Negus was a patient in a British military hospital south of Hania. He got out of bed at 7.00 am, washed and was getting ready for breakfast at about 8.00 am when he heard aircraft overhead. For what seemed like two hours, Negus and others sheltered in a slit trench as the hospital area was bombed and machine gunned by the Germans. As the bombing stopped, Negus looked skyward and saw:
About 500 planes of all sizes, fighters, bombers, gliders and troop carriers. We said quietly ‘a bloody invasion!’ One chap stood up in the trench and said ‘The place is alive with parachutists.’
That morning General Student’s XI Fliegerkorps landed parachute and glider-borne troops in a number of locations along the coast to the west and south west of the Cretan capital, Hania. At many places the parachutists came under heavy small arms fire from the ground and many were killed.
The landing ground most crucial to the Germans was around the airfield at Maleme. Here they met the defence of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion which battled throughout the day to deny the paratroopers this vital position. However, by the evening of 20 May Student’s men had secured a toehold on the western end of the airfield and during the next two days they stoutly defended this position despite counter-attacks by the New Zealanders. Ominously for the defenders of Maleme, at 8.10 am on 21 May a German transport plane was able to land and take off under artillery fire and by late afternoon enemy transports were landing in a steady stream. A last New Zealand counter-attack on 22 May failed to make progress and that night it was decided that a withdrawal would take place from the airfield area back towards Hania. As Gavin Long records in the Australian official history of the events:
This decision, made about 10 pm on the 22nd, was an acceptance that Crete had been lost. Thenceforward the enemy could use the airfield without hindrance.
[Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, pp.237–238]
That same night, the King of Greece and his government were taken off Crete in two British destroyers.
As the German assault from Maleme airfield developed, the Australian 2/7th Battalion was brought eastwards from Rethymno to reinforce the New Zealanders. Brigadier Vasey moved to Hania where he now had two battalions — the 2/7th and 2/8th. There were also other Australian units in in the area such as the 2/2nd Field Regiment (minus its guns and acting as infantry), the 16th and 17th Australian Composite Brigades and various other units made up of artillerymen, engineers and base troops. Reg Burgoyne, a 2/2nd Battalion soldier in the 16th Composite Brigade had little faith in the battalion’s fighting capacity:
It was a horrible thing. We were only a depleted battalion made up of odds and sods. Cooks, clerks you name it and they were all there. Some could shoot, some couldn’t. And all we had was out-of-date equipment … We had a Hotchkiss gun from World War I with a strip magazine but we had no strips for it. We had a Vickers machine gun but had no tripod mounting for it. We had a 3-inch mortar but had no base plate for it and that was our armaments.
[Reg Burgoyne, quoted in Barter, Far Above Battle, p.108]
By 26 May the British force at Hania was in severe difficulty. Hunger, tiredness and constant unopposed German air attack had taken its toll. General Freyberg sent a message to General Wavell in Cairo which began:
I regret to have to inform you that the limit of endurance has been reached by the troops under my command here at Suda Bay … A small ill-equipped and immobile force such as ours cannot stand up against the concentrated bombing that we have been faced with over the last seven days.
[Freyberg, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p.247]
Permission to evacuate Crete came through on 27 May, but even before this many men had been told to begin making their way south over the mountains to the little coastal village of Sfakia.
As the force withdrew, the 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions formed part of the rearguard, along with a force of British Royal Marine Commandos and New Zealand infantry. On 27 May, strung out from north to south along a road known as 42nd Street, they met the Germans advancing eastwards from Hania. Here the commander of the Maori 28th Battalion, Colonel Dittmer, informed the Australian battalion commanders that if the Germans came to ‘close quarters’ with his battalion then he would order his men to rush them. The Australians agreed to cooperate and there followed one of the minor epics of the 2/7th Battalion’s war history — the charge at 42nd Street. At 11.00 am, 400 of the enemy were sighted moving astride the Suda Bay road. Tension among the men of the 2/7th was high. For days they had been pulling back under heavy enemy aerial bombardment unable to really engage the German infantry. Now they were being given the order to attack:
When this order went out it seemed to lift the tension that had been hanging over us for the past few days. The time had come when we were going to show Jerry a few tricks.
[Walker, Fiery Phoenix, p.90]
A patrol now worked its way to within 200 metres of a group of Germans who were raiding an abandoned depot. They charged and drove off the startled Germans. Soon two companies of the 2/7th were rushing forward:
Nelson [Captain E D Nelson], shot in the shoulder, was bowled over. Lieut. Bernard took over, leading the headlong rush, even after being wounded himself. Mick Baxter [Private B A Baxter] was pelting towards a group of Germans … As he came closer, the well-protected Germans climbed out of the wadi [gully] and, throwing away their arms, fled literally for their lives. Many of the ditched weapons were automatic and the Australians … seized them and turned them on the Germans. At such close range they were devastating.
[Walker, Fiery Phoenix, p.91]
By 12 noon the German line was in full retreat. The 19th, 21st and 28th New Zealand Battalions were also prominent in this action but there was uncertainty as to whether it was the New Zealanders or the Australians who charged first. After the war Colonel Dittmer graciously wrote:
The 28th Battalion thought the 2/7th Australian Battalion a really great unit and does not wish to deprive the 2/7 of any credit that is its due.
[Dittmer, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p.252]
The battle of 42nd Street did little more than delay the Germans who worked their way to the south of the British rearguard and forced it back. By the night of 27 May the British force was in full retreat over the mountains. While the rearguard and some others maintained discipline, among other units there was a desperate scramble to get away from the Germans and towards possible evacuation:
I knew I was taking part in a retreat; in fact I wondered if it should not be called more correctly a rout as, on all sides, men were hurrying along in disorder. Most of them had thrown away their rifles and a number had even discarded their tunics, as it was a hot day … Nearly every side of the road and of the ditches on either side was strewn with abandoned arms and accoutrements, blankets, gas masks, packs, kit-bags, sun helmets, cases and containers of all shapes and sizes, tinned provisions, and boxes of cartridges and hand grenades; now and then one ran across officers’ valises and burst-open suitcases.
[Lieutenant Stephanides, from ‘Climax in Greece’, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, pp.253–254]
As he made his way up the narrow zig-zag road into the mountains, Charles Robinson, 2/2nd Field Ambulance, came upon an awful sight. A number of infantrymen who had been fighting hard for days at Maleme had fallen asleep by the roadside and had been run over by a truck which failed to stop. There were broken thighs, a fractured pelvis and broken ankles. The Australian medical team did what it could, then pressed on hoping that the advancing Germans would give proper care to their suffering comrades.
The fate of a large part of the British force on Crete was now, once again, in the hands of a fighting rearguard and the sailors of the Mediterranean Fleet. Between 28 and 31 May approximately 14 500 men made their way over the mountains of Crete and assembled around the end of the tarred road near Sfakia. From there a narrow goat track wound its way down to the small fishing village with its narrow beach. As the rearguard did its best to hold up the Germans, the embarkations began. On the night of 28–29 May four destroyers, including HMAS Napier and HMAS Nizam, embarked 744 evacuees. Official figures for Napier that night were 36 officers, 260 other ranks, three women, one Chinaman, one Greek, 10 merchant seaman and one dog. Over the next three nights a further 8703 were taken off by groups of warships among which were Perth, Napier and Nizam. Approximately 5000 men were left behind to become prisoners-of-war. Lance Corporal Lindsay Negus was one of the lucky ones:
It took us from the 27th to the night of the 30th May to reach our embarkation point. I was knocked over by a lorry, fell down the hill-side twice, and had no sleep for a week, frightened to go to sleep, legs and hands cut and full of thorns, but we all kept going, — anything to beat our ruthless enemy. I was on board H.M.A.S. Perth and slept for a couple of hours after a cup of hot cocoa and biscuits. You have no idea of what it feels like to be safe, just going from hell to heaven. I shall never go to sleep before thanking God for bringing us out. Our arrival at port [Alexandria, Egypt] was greeted by the Red Cross with steaming hot tea and cocoa and biscuits, fruit and chocolates … All I have at present is one pair of shorts and a shirt plus my razor and pay-book. Everything that you gave me [his mother] is gone, my souvenirs and things I bought to send home to you all, but never mind, I still have my life, thanks to our lads who fought rear-guards to keep the Hun back while most of us escaped … I know what it is like to be hungry and thirsty.
As the Perth sailed towards Egypt in the daylight hours of 30 May with Corporal Negus and 1187 other soldiers and refugees on board, it was attacked by dive-bombers. Perth took a direct hit behind the bridge. The bomb penetrated to the ‘A’ boiler room where it exploded, killing two cooks, two stokers, two Royal Marines and seven soldiers. Warrant Officer Henry Hill and Stoker Petty Officer William Reece stayed in a boiler room full of scalding steam as they tried to rescue another sailor. They brought him out but he died and they were both badly scalded. For their courage Hill received the DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) and Reece the DSM (Distinguished Service Medal). Both men were lost in the sinking of the Perth in action against the Japanese on 1 March 1942.
Perhaps one of the saddest stories of the Sfakia evacuation is that of the 2/7th Battalion and its colonel, Theo Walker. The unit fought its way as part of the rearguard along the road leading to Sfakia from the north of Crete. On 29 May the men were informed that ‘they had lost the toss’ and were to hold the last rearguard position with other units in the hills above Sfakia. They struggled against the long queues of soldiers on the approaches to Sfakia and took up their positions many kilometres from the village. During 30 May the sun beat down and the 2/7th came under fairly constant enemy shell-fire. Ammunition, food and water were all low. Twelve men worked for eight hours to carry 110 litres of water to the 2/7th and a Maori Battalion. By 31 May the Germans were close and directed machine gun fire from higher up upon the 2/7th positions. The Australians found their return fire was not reaching the enemy and they were anxious to attack to break the unending strain of this fairly inactive defence. Then, at 9.00 pm, came the order to withdraw to the beach.
For kilometre after kilometre, most of it downhill over very rough ground, the 2/7th made its way to what all hoped was evacuation and blessed rest. As Major Henry Marshall recalled, they were exhausted:
I could have no mercy on them and I had to haze them and threaten them and push them into a faster speed … Falls were numerous … one of the A Company men fell and refused to get up, wanting to be left where he fell, and not caring if he was captured or not … I pulled him up and supported him for the next eight kilometres; every time we stopped he sagged and pleaded to be left.
[Marshall, quoted in Walker, Fiery Phoenix, p.97]
In the blackness of the early hours of 1 June 1941, various parties of the 2/7th managed to make their way to the Sfakia beach. On the tortuous path leading down to the beach Colonel Theo Walker kept them together by having each man grab hold of the belt of the man in front as they made their way through a mass of disorganised troops. Finally, the 2/7th assembled in ranks on the beach as the last naval barge left for the awaiting destroyers. A naval officer on this barge watched the battalion standing there ‘quiet and orderly in its ranks’. Colonel Walker was on this barge and he realised that his men were not going to make it:
So Walker said ‘Alright. Well if you can’t get my men off put me back on shore’. And him and his offsider went back on shore again. And I remember seeing them in POW camp. He used to walk round in a pair of pyjamas. And he was CO of the battalion. He said ‘If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me.’ He was safe, he was home, and he went back to his men.
[Reg Burgoyne, quoted Barter, Far Above Battle, p.121]
The 2/7th sailed for Greece on 10 April 1941 with 33 officers and 726 other ranks. In Greece the battalion lost seven dead and 73 became POWs. From Crete, just 16 men made it back to Alexandria. For the 2/7th, Crete had proved to be an ‘Isle of Doom’.