Remember this is war
Heraklio — defence and evacuation 20–29 May 1941
‘This is the Bridge. We have been hit. Precious lives have been lost — but remember this is war. We are still in convoy and we have not lost speed. Thank you for your calmness. We will make it’.
[Ship’s captain, HMS Dido, 29 May 1941, quoted in White Over Green, p.176]
For XI Fliegerkorps the attempt to capture Heraklio and its airfield was a disaster. On 20 May 1941, as at Maleme and Rethymno, the paratroopers dropped after an intensive Luftwaffe bombardment:
For more than an hour the area was ceaselessly bombed and machine-gunned by aircraft which came so low that one flew below a strand of barbed wire which the troops had strung between the two Charlies [two rocky hills]. The noise was stunning; the bombs falling at intervals of a few seconds or less, made the ground quake; but again few men were hit.
[Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p.281]
At 5.00 pm 240 Junkers transports came into view. The aerial convoy stretched for eight kilometres, flying parallel with the coast and about 30 metres above the water. One Australian soldier was ‘spellbound by the futuristic nature and magnificence of the scene’. As they turned inland for the drop zones, the transports rose to 80 metres, dropped their paratroopers, then turned out to sea. As they came in over Heraklio, the slow-moving planes became targets for the 12 Bofors guns of the 7th Battery, 2/3rd Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, and the British 156 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. Norm Johnstone and Dick Parry, both of the 2/4th Battalion, later wrote of the dramatic scene as the gunners’ shells struck their targets:
Nine troop carriers came straight at us. There was a familiar series of explosions from the drome [airfield] and we watched red streaks of tracer shells carrying upwards. The first plane was hit squarely on the nose and, bursting into flames, crashed on the shore. The next plane also caught fire and crashed in front of us before any paratroops had succeeded in jumping. The third was hit and caught fire but blew up. The fourth plane burst into flames, the men jumped and most of their ‘chutes opened but the flames from the burning plane seemed to reach down and I saw puffs of smoke as each parachute burned and the poor devils hurtled to their deaths. The fifth plane had its tail shot off and crash-landed just to our left; the troops jumped at about fifty feet and all were killed. The sixth plane dropped its men but was hit and almost crashed on us, passing over our heads with a bare six feet to spare and crashed fifty yards away. The rest of the planes were brought down on our right, so not one escaped.
[Norm Johnstone and Dick Parry, quoted in White Over Green, p.157]
As they floated to earth, many Germans were killed by small arms and machine gun fire and those who did reach the ground among the British and Australian infantry positions were quickly dealt with. One transport crash-landed near C Company, 2/4th Battalion, and was attacked by three soldiers who threw hand grenades into the plane and machine gunned it. By the morning of 21 May it was clear that the German assault on Heraklio had failed. Enemy intelligence had underestimated the number of British troops in the area and the air-drop itself had been badly coordinated. Over 950 German dead were collected in the British defended areas and a further 300 in the town defended by Greek battalions.
A tragic aspect of the Heraklio fighting was the involvement of the local population. The Germans accused the Greeks and the military forces in the area of atrocities against their paratroopers and on 23 May leaflets outlining these accusations were dropped over Heraklio. In retaliation, the Germans threatened wholesale destruction of villages and reprisals. The historian of the 2/4th Battalion described the Australian soldiers’ reaction to these leaflets:
The leaflets fell in the battalion area in both languages [Greek and English]. The men were not impressed with their message. Some tried them as a substitute for cigarette papers, a very scarce commodity at the time, but the paper was porous and too thick. Others found a more obvious use for them and for which purpose they were found to be admirable. And others merely folded them and put them in their wallets as souvenirs.
[White Over Green, pp. 163–164]
Whatever the truth of the enemy allegations, between 23 and 29 May the Luftwaffe destroyed Heraklio, the largest town on Crete with a population of 36 000. A particularly severe air raid occurred on 23 May after the Greek garrison refused a German call to surrender. A chemical store near the harbour was hit and, in addition to the normal dust raised by bomb explosions, red smoke filled the skies. The civilians were now evacuated and a British unit garrisoned the town. Captain Paul Tomlinson, the 2/4th’s Regimental Medical Officer, provided a stark description of the ruins:
Heraklio was one large stretch of decomposing dead, debris from destroyed dwelling places, roads were wet and running from burst water pipes, hungry dogs were scavenging among the dead. There was a stench of sulphur, smouldering fires and pollution of broken sewers. Conditions were set for a major epidemic.
[Captain Tomlinson, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p.291]
After their initial failure to seize the airfield and the town, the Germans flew in more men and equipment, regrouped and began probing the defences preparatory to a major attack. This build up was partly delayed by a British naval battle group patrolling the seas north of Crete looking for German sea-borne reinforcements. On 22 May, the Perth sank a Greek caique with German troops heading for Heraklio. Later, a much larger force of reinforcement ships, also heading for Heraklio, was sighted. The British warships gave chase but abandoned the search as enemy air attacks increased. Perth was shaken by near-misses and two British ships were hit.
Even before the Germans were ready to mount a full-scale attack on Heraklio, the garrison had been given orders to evacuate. At 11.30 pm on 28 May a naval force consisting of the cruisers Orion and Dido, and six accompanying destroyers, arrived off Heraklio to embark the force. As the men of the 2/4th Battalion slid away in the darkness towards the awaiting destroyers, they deceived the enemy into thinking that their positions were still held. In much the same way as their forefathers had done on Gallipoli 26 years previously, they rigged up cans of water to pieces of string attached to the triggers of rifles which fired as the cans fell.
As the warships sped off into the night from Crete, the soldiers relaxed after weeks of tension and bombardment. They were not able to do so for long. At 4.00 am on 29 May, the steering gear of the destroyer Imperial broke down and her evacuees were transferred to the Hotspur. To prevent the ship falling into enemy hands, Hotspur torpedoed it. Unfortunately, one Australian, Private Alexander Webb of the 2/4th, had been asleep below decks on the Imperial and he was left on board. Webb, hearing the torpedoes strike, rushed on deck and, just before the ship sank, dived into the water. He was not observed and picked up but finding a piece of wreckage to cling to, he drifted back to Crete where he eventually fell into German hands and became a POW.
The convoy dashed on but at 6.00 am over 100 Stukas appeared. The destroyer Hereward was hit and Gunner William Morris Dellar, 2/3rd Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, described what happened:
Shortly afterwards though, there was another alarm, then a bomb, exploding in the water close to the destroyer, shook the plates against which I was resting. Another bomb landed amidships and apparently penetrated to the boiler room, bursting the pipes and causing some of the crew to be badly burned around the face and exposed parts of the body, by the escaping steam. The lights in our compartment faded and we were in complete darkness except for the meagre light from the manhole above. Most of us climbed or were pulled through the manhole to the upper deck.
It was a scene of confusion on deck, a petty officer was giving instructions to those left on board to leave the destroyer immediately. He said that it was a case of everyone for himself. The Hereward was making no leeway. The sea was dotted with soldiers and sailors, some clinging to Carley floats, others drifting on the surface. In the immediate neighbourhood of the Hereward, the surface of the water was covered with a film of oil and ropes fastened to the top rail dangled into the water supporting apparently those who could not swim and had no other means of support. Baff Burns, one of the members of my gun crew, and I decided to explore the ship for anything that might float. On entering a cabin, we found two blow-up type lifebelts hanging on a hook beside the cabin door. One was a good one but the other one was slightly damaged as the plug that kept the air in, was missing. However I blew it up, tied the rubber teat with a piece of cord, doubled the teat over and tied it again, as one would with a football bladder. No doubt it was mainly instrumental in saving me from drowning. We pulled the door off its hinges and souvenired a hammock from the cabin, then searched for a rope to lash the rolled up hammock to the door. One of the guncrews had been hit by a bomb. With guncrew members dead about the gun, one of them with half his head blown away, we had to move him to get the rope he was lying on.
I went down over the side on one of the ropes, into the water, then Baff threw our improvised raft down to me and came down the rope too. One on each side of it, we started to paddle it along the side of the destroyer. At each rope we came to, those holding on made a grab for our raft until eventually it sank from weight of numbers. I asked Baff what he was going to do. He said that he would go back on board, but I told him I would swim out to sea as I could see smoke rising from the destroyer and I decided that I would sooner drown than be burned to death. So some of those on board pulled Baff up on board whilst I swam away. Enemy planes were circling and I thought the quicker I got away from the ship the better. That was the last I saw of Baff. He went down with the Hereward when I was about half a mile from it.
[Gunner William Morris Dellar, 2/3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, MSS1254, AWM]
Those on the Hereward were lucky. Ships of the Italian navy rescued most of them, including Gunner Dellar.
The enemy was not finished with the convoy. Over the next few hours, most of the ships were hit. At 10.45 am, 160 kilometres from Crete, the Stukas struck Orion, which had over 1100 soldiers on board. One bomb passed through the bridge and exploded on a mess deck killing 260 and wounding 280 others. Next, the Dido was hit. Bill Andrews, 2/4th Battalion, was on board:
The scene was shocking. Most of the members of our particular section were dead. Those surviving, with a few exceptions, were shockingly burnt. The few survivors were removed and a naval fire control gang took over the clean up, which consisted mostly of stokers’ shovels along the red hot steel deck and the placement of the shovels’ contents into sandbags where any discs [personal identity discs] were extracted and placed in a heap.
[Andrews, quoted in White Over Green, p.176]
It was at this point that Private Kenneth Moses, 2/4th Battalion, remembered the words of the Dido’s captain coming over the ship’s public address system — ‘Precious lives have been lost — but remember this is war’. The convoy finally steamed into Alexandria at 8.00 pm that night and landed 3486 soldiers, some 600 having been killed or captured on passage from Crete. Among the dead were 48 members of the 2/4th Battalion and the 7th Battery of the 2/3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.
In the naval battles and evacuation convoys round Crete the British Mediterranean Fleet lost three cruisers and six destroyers. Over 2000 naval personnel were killed. It had been a battle not of warship against warship but of ships against bombers and dive bombers. In his summing up of the naval contribution to the battle for Crete, Admiral Cunningham wrote of the mental and physical exhaustion of his sailors and that by the end they had been near ‘breaking point’. There can be little doubt, however, that the sentiments of one Australian soldier rescued from Crete, about these same sailors would have been endorsed by all those rescued from ‘Adolf Hitler’s Isle of Doom’:
Once again the AIF is saying from the depths of its heart, thank God for the Navy, who have twice saved our lives and succoured us into safety.
[Unidentified Australian soldier, quoted in Gill, Royal Australian Navy, p.363]