Brigadier Vasey’s 19th Australian Infantry Brigade held the twenty-five miles of the Commonwealth’s central or Rethymno sector on the north coast, covering the potential landing beaches of the Almiros Bay at Georgioupoli, in the west and the air strip at Rethymno to the east. This required the Brigade to be split into two. Brigadier Vasey set up his command post at Georgioupoli, with two battalions, while Lieutenant Colonel Campbell was responsible for another two Australian Battalions, 2/1st and 2/11th, and 4th and 5th Greek Regiments along with a Battalion of Greek Gendarmerie at Rethymno.
6th Division of the Australians’ Imperial Force, made up entirely of volunteers started to arrive in the Middle East in January 1940 and fought under General O’Connor, against the Italians, in North Africa during his spectacular advance that culminated at Cyrenaica. At this point 6th Australian Division, including 19 Brigade was transferred to General Wilson’s Force W in Greece. Here, as a part of I Anzac Corps, they fought well but outnumbered by a more mobile German force that constantly threatened their flanks, they were forced to withdraw to the south for evacuation. Some 8,500 Australians were evacuated to Crete and all but 2,500 who had been transported onwards to Egypt, were on the island when the invasion began. The Australians were concentrated at Georgioupoli and Rethymno but composite units and units of both field and anti-aircraft artillery, were deployed elsewhere, where most needed.
Mention should be made here of the crucial part played by the Australian engineers of Major Torr’s 2/2 Field Regiment, who were chief amongst the volunteers who laboured in conditions of extreme danger to unload the vital ships in Souda Bay, when other lesser bodies of men had failed to do their duty. Their labours, as the ferocity of the bombardment built up over the period from the beginning of May, have become almost legendary, as they strove to get the vital stores ashore. The Australian official history records:
These carried on unloading except when aircraft were directly attacking the ships they were working on. One of their best achievements was to retrieve a number of Bren carriers from a sunken ship with its upper deck several feet under water.
Their efforts in unloading 15,000 tons of stores from fifteen ships, eight of which were partly sunk or damaged, helped ensure that their comrades at Rethymno had both equipment and ammunition. An allocation, however, of 3,200 rounds per Vickers gun of the two platoons of 2/1 MG Battalion in the Rethymno area and a total of 420 mortar bombs, could not be described as generous. And there was no re-supply available.
Lieutenant Colonel Campbell, alerted by intelligence on 16 May that he was likely to be attacked, had three tasks; firstly, the defence of the harbour of Rethymno, secondly, to hold the airstrip some five miles to the east and finally, to prevent a landing across the gravel beaches in his area. The airfield was a narrow strip about 1,300 yards long, designed by the RAF for light aircraft but was more than capable of taking the robust Ju 52 aircraft. The port, though small, would have facilitated the off loading of heavy equipment and stores from the amphibious force.
Rethymno was to be held by eight hundred well armed and well disciplined Greek gendarmes, while the remainder of the Australian force would be concentrated three miles further east between Platanias and the airfield. Deployed on a three mile front Campbell’s force of 1,250 Australians and 2,300 Greeks of whom the latter were described as ‘conscripts of about three weeks training’, made use of the range of low hills that overlooked the main Coast Road and the airfield on the coastal plain, which varied between 100 and 800 yards wide. The ridge and the coastal plain were cut by water courses, which, following their service in North Africa, the Australians referred to as wadis. The most significant of these were Wadi Pigi, which flowed from a village of that name, and a wadi unnamed on the map that was named Wadi Bardia, after an Australian victory in Libya earlier in the year. Other wadis were identified by a single letter. The most significant hills were also given nick names; Hills A to D (see accompanying map). These terraced hills were favourable for defence, with vineyards and the ubiquitous olive groves giving cover against air recce. Where forced to dig in more exposed positions, the Australians dug trenches in the shadows at the back of terraces, even tunnelling into them for extra protection.
Lieutenant Colonel Campbell.
RETHYMNO – AUSTRALIAN POSITIONS AND GERMAN DZS
The two Australian battalions with the strongest of the Greek regiments, the 4th Regiment, in between, lined these hills, while in depth, each Australian battalion maintained a company in reserve. 5th Greek Regiment was Campbell’s force reserve, located in the village of Adhele, in a valley that separated the coastal ridge from the hills, which rose up to the mountains further to the south. The two 7 RTR Matildas allocated to the Rethymno sector were concealed in a wadi under olive trees, ready to counter-attack onto the airstrip.
Positioned amongst the forward troops were the machine guns of 2/1 MG Battalion and a battery of 2/3 Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery, equipped with some eight guns of mixed types and calibres (100mm and 75mm). Also able to engage the enemy, with indirect fire, were two 3-inch mortars per battalion. There were no anti-aircraft guns at Rethymno.
Few defence stores were available to strengthen their position but the airfield had been earlier surrounded by barbed wire. In May there was only barbed wire sufficient to wire parts of Hills Aand B. Despite the evacuation from Greece, the lack of defence stores and a less than generous allocation of ammunition, Lieutenant Colonel Campbell recorded that his veteran soldiers’ ‘morale was high and they were eager for a fight’.
Enemy Forces and Plans
The Germans experienced similar problems, as elsewhere, in locating the Commonwealth positions at Rethymno. For example, an air photo taken from 10,000 feet, dated 8 May, was recovered from a crashed Luftwaffe aircraft, on which a single company position was marked. The position was promptly abandoned and the company redeployed. By the time of the last enemy recce flight on 18 May, little had been added to the intelligence picture. Consequently, the Germans believed that there would be negligible opposition to the drop of the second half of Gruppe Mitte on the afternoon of X-Day. The force destined for Rethymno was the smallest of the four drops, consisting of two battalions of Oberst Alfred Sturm’s Fallschirmjägerregiment 2 (FJR 2), who were supported by a 2 Machine Gun Kompanie and a Heavy Weapons Detachment equipped with mortars, light howitzers, and anti-tank guns. In all, Sturm’s force numbered about 1,600 troops. It is probable that FJR 2 had been selected for this ‘easy task’ as they had suffered heavy casualties in the Corinth operation only a month earlier. FJR 2’s II Battalion was attached to Gruppe Ost at Iraklio in a flanking role.
Fallschirmjäger of FJR 2 muster with life jackets in Greece.
Expecting little serious opposition, Oberst Sturm’s plan was simple; I Battalion, reinforced by the machine gun company, would jump east of the airstrip and capture it. III Battalion with artillery, would land well to the west, between the Platanes River and Perivolia, and seize Rethymno. Sturm with his HQ staff and a reserve rifle company would drop in the centre, to the west of the airstrip, and act as a reserve. Having taken their initial objectives, FJR 2 was to leave a force to secure both port and airstrip and to advance west on Souda Bay, where the remainder of Gruppe Mitte would be in action.
The Second Wave Arrives
Although Colonel Campbell did not receive notice that the invasion had begun, he and the rest of the Australians at Rethymno saw fourteen ‘German aircraft, each towing a glider, passed over us flying from east to west towards Souda Bay at 3,000 feet’. This force was almost certainly Altmann’s Kompanie of the LLSR (see Chapter 5) who had made a navigational error. Alerted that the invasion was on and hearing the distant rumble of battle, all they could do was wait.
Meanwhile, in Athens, with indications that all was not well with the first lift at Maleme and in Prison Valley, Student at his HQ in the Hotel Grande Bretagne, was not yet ready to change his plans. However, there was a problem closer to him that he was not yet aware of. The difficulties of dust experienced during the initial take off were now multiplying, as aircraft returned for refuelling and repair. Also many were damaged and some crashed on landing blocking the strips. Other factors now came into play to further disrupt a process that was already drifting away from schedule. The time allocated for maintenance and refuelling was always optimistic but aircrew casualties, battle damage repairs and the time needed to refill aircraft from large oil drums further slowed the turn around. Attempts were made to warn Student and von Richthofen’s fighter bombers about the delay but again, the overloaded Greek telecoms circuits failed and the messages did not get through. As a result the second lift was to be dropped without the benefit of a coordinated stunning, aerial bombardment.
On schedule the fighter bombers appeared. Colonel Campbell recorded that ‘… this occurred at 1600 hours, when ten [sic twenty] aircraft bombed and strafed the airstrip and vicinity … because of the excellent concealment and cover, the German attack did negligible damage’ in their fifteen minute attack. The raw recruits of 4th Greek Regiment, however, started to abandon their positions, even though they were not directly attacked. The Australian official history records:
Australian NCOs were sent from the left of the 2/1st and right of the 2/11th, and they steadied the Greeks, led them forward to their original front line and stayed with them there. One of these N.C.Os, Corporal Smallwood, not only led the Greeks back to their positions but later took forward a large patrol of them to the main road capturing some twenty prisoners.
The first of the 161 Ju-52s bearing the Fallschirmjäger, however, were not seen approaching from seaward until 1700 hours, having been delayed by the clouds of dust that shrouded the Greek airfields, which could not even be damped down by the best efforts of the fire tenders. The delay and ineffectual bombing meant that the Australians were fully prepared to receive the Fallschirmjäger. They count the approaching aircraft:
…twenty-four troop-carrying aircraft appeared. They came from the north towards Refuge Point, some miles to the east, then turned west, flying parallel to the coast, slowly, at about 400 feet. Other groups of troop carriers followed until 161 had been counted.
As the aircraft approached steady and straight, heading for their drop zones, the Australians opened fire with rifles, as they lacked anti-aircraft guns. The German pilots found themselves in cones of rising small-arms fire. Rudolf Adler, a member of HQ FJR 2, described the experience of being aboard one of the leading aircraft:
We spotted the island and the aircraft went down [to dropping height]. AA fire started. Events rushed by. Bullets were ripping through the body of the aircraft at head height. The first three jumpers fell on the floor of the aircraft. We approached the door; it was blocked by the bodies of the dead and our bundles. Everybody was shouting ‘Out! Out!’
The engine started coughing; there was black smoke. Impossible to think but the instinct for survival was there… I don’t remember how I left the aircraft.
37mm anti-tank gun being secured under the belly of a Ju 52.
Ju-52s of the second lift heading south.
Private Lofty McKie manning a battle trench on Hill A wrote:
I turned the Bren on the men coming down, they landed all round our position right on top of us… I got many of the first wave, as they were so close you couldn’t miss!
The Australians, however, were not having it all their own way, Lew Lind recalled that the Fallschirmjäger had, ‘…their knees hunched up close to their chins and they were firing Tommy guns clamped between their knees’. On the receiving end of the return fire, Karl Schuldt of III Battalioncommented that ‘It was hell! We hadn’t even touched down before suffering our first casualties’.
Of the Ju-52s that took part in the drop, seven and two other ground attack aircraft were shot down, most of them crashing in flames near Perivolia at the western end of their run. ‘Other aircraft were on fire as they flew homewards.’ The drop was again dispersed and many of the 1,380 Fallschirmjäger who were dropped found themselves in the wrong place. Rudolf Adler explains:
Because of the enemy fire, the Fallschirmjäger left their aircraft earlier than planned and missed their drop zone, the weapon containers dropped into enemy-held territory and we jumped directly over their lines. Hours later, I found the first three of my surviving comrades.
Most serious miss drop was experienced by Major Kroh, commander of III Battalion who was mis-dropped, with a complete company, three miles to the east of his objective; the airfield, ‘on ground so rocky that many men were disabled while landing’.
Drop of Fallschirmjägerregiment 2
Fallschirmjäger descending on Rethymno in the late afternoon of 20 May.
The Battle for Hill A
On Hill A, the battle began as the enemy dropped amongst the Australians. From his vantage point to the rear on Hill D Colonel Campbell saw that ‘Troops from both sides were inextricably mingled in many places’. Lieutenant Dieppe was on Hill A:
I saw one of our 2/1 MG Battalion machine guns being enveloped by a parachute. At the same time one parachutist landed almost on top of me, and immediately surrendered. He was shaking like a leaf… I saw a parachutist throwing a stick grenade while still in the air.
There followed, what the Australian official history describes as ‘a bitter series of fights between sections or platoons of Australians on the one hand and, on the other, such groups of paratroops who survived long enough to organise and go into action’. The ground cover provided by vines and terraces gave the Fallschirmjäger the chance to regroup and attack. Meanwhile, Major Kroh had dashed west with his company from the area of Refuge Point, and, on the way, collected the remnants of 2 Kompanie MGBattalion 7 along with elements of 10 and 12 Kompanies of III Battalion who had been mis-dropped east of the airfield. Assembling his force, Major Kroh joined his men in the attack with a bare minimum of orders to the troops he had collected en route. The official historian describes the attack by I Battalion on the guns of D Troop sited on the forward edge of Hill A:
On the east of the line paratroops landed on top of one platoon of infantry [7 Platoon], the 75mm guns, and the two Vickers guns, under Lieutenant Cleaver. Crew after crew of the Vickers guns were shot down, and the guns were finally put out of action by a German mortar bomb. The surviving gunners of the 75s, who had no small arms except three pistols, withdrew to the battery headquarters farther up the ridge, carrying their breech-blocks with them. There they fought on; using some captured weapons, and held their positions until a concerted German attack about nine P.M.
This German attack, despite its unpromising beginnings in the shambles of the drop, succeeded in partly taking Hill A; the Australians’ vital ground. But 9 Platoon held its ground and the remainder of A Company was able to withdraw and establish a line just to the rear of their old positions.
Another group of Australian gunners, 2nd Field Troop, behind the crest of Hill A, were at an unaccustomed close proximity to the enemy. Gunner Snowy Wilson recalled that, as the Germans approached to within a yard or two of their position:
As one paratrooper leapt forward to fire his machine gun into the gun pit, the Australians, having little else to defend themselves with, fired the 100mm gun at point blank range, the man vanished in a puff of smoke and flame.
A Company 2/1 Battalion’s Positions on Hill A
Present-day photograph of Hill A viewed from the west.
The cost of taking Hill Ahad however been high, as explained in an official German account: ‘These elements found themselves among strongly occupied enemy positions and, fighting in small groups against superior forces, were mostly destroyed.’
Rather than awaiting events like so many commanders elsewhere, Colonel Campbell deployed two platoons, via Wadi Bardia, from his central company, which was not engaged, in order to prevent a German advance east from Hill A, down onto the airfield. Also dispatched were Lieutenant George Simpson’s two 7 RTR Matildas. Motoring out from their hide in Wadi Pigi with the task of advancing around Hill A to its east side to support A Company, the tanks approached the airfield. The leading Matilda promptly bellied on the edge of a drainage ditch on the north side of the airfield. Lieutenant Simpson dismounted but was promptly killed by a burst of Spandau fire. The second Matilda succeeded in getting around to the east of Hill Aand after firing a few shots, slid into Wadi ‘K’, which was eight to ten feet deep. The surviving tank crewmen remained with their immobile vehicles but were unable to provide support for the rest of the day.
In order to contain the Germans on Hill A, Colonel Campbell also regrouped a platoon with A Company, with the task of clearing the vineyards on the north-west side of the feature. According to the official historian ‘This platoon reached Captain Channell’s headquarters about 6.30 but was unable to advance across the north-west slopes, where paratroops were now firing from excellent cover among the vines and terraces’.
Meanwhile, in the Australian centre, the few Fallschirmjäger who landed in front of 4th Greek Regiment were soon dead or taken prisoner.
In the left part of the Rethymno Sector Major Sandover’s 2/11th Battalion immediately dealt with the Fallschirmjäger who dropped within the perimeter of their barbed wire surrounded defensive position. One member of the battalion who wished to remain anonymous, showed the author where he was in action.
I had been shooting at Germans coming down within a hundred yards of us. Easy stuff but as they landed, the survivors, more than I expected, were like sheep on their backs. Some of us got out of our trenches, bayonets fixed, and went for them. The first I stuck with fear and revenge for Greece. With that done, we waited as more came down. One paratrooper coming straight down on us, shot a pistol at me, and my cobber shot back but he missed. I was waiting with my bayonet when the bastard landed.
Later when they were all down, we cleared our area, cornered an officer and a couple of men. We had a brief fire fight but having left our trenches with just the spare ammunition in my pocket, we were out of ammunition. They had their opportunity to run and they took it, running down hill towards our wire. We followed and with them unable to go any further, we finished them off, trapped against our wire.
I felt good for a while but that was the first and last time I used my bayonet in five years of war.
Fallschirmjäger attacking uphill using the rocky terraces as cover.
Looking east from Hill B towards the forward positions of 4 Greek Regiment.
Hill B from the area where many Fallschirmjäger landed.
With his position cleared of enemy, Major Sandover went over to the offensive to deal with isolated groups of enemy below him. The majority of his battalion were ordered to sweep forward and by nightfall the line of the coast road was almost clear but in places, the Fallschirmjäger were still holding out. In growing darkness Australian casualties started to increase, as the balance of advantage swung to the concealed Germans. Consequently, Major Sandover ordered his men back to their position with the wired perimeter. He, however, deployed patrols to dominate his area and try and prevent the Germans who were reported to be moving west from reaching Rethymno.
By dark, 2/11 Bn had captured eighty-four Fallschirmjäger and were busy redistributing a ‘mass of captured arms’ to his equipment starved infantrymen. Major Sandover, a German speaker, was busy questioning the prisoners, who in the shock of capture, told him that no more Fallschirmjäger would be dropped at Rethymno. Later, he translated a document detailing the arrangement of coloured air panels designed for the Fallschirmjäger to communicate with aircraft. The following day 2/11 Battalion laid out the signal requesting a re-supply of mortar bombs. Most satisfyingly, a Ju 52 duly delivered the bombs, which were soon in use in captured mortars. Throughout the battle the Australians were supplied with a variety of weapons and equipment by the Germans!
See translated order on next page.
As night fell at Rethymno, another element of Operation MERCURE had failed badly. Asmall force had dropped expecting little opposition and found themselves against veteran Australian infantry led by an active commander who was willing to take the battle to the enemy. The operation had failed so badly that the normally ebullient and active Oberst Sturm, according to Rudolf Adler ‘… was tired and incapable of giving orders’. Sturm was also unable to report his failure to Student, who drew his own conclusions from the ominous silence. Colonel Campbell, however, without any knowledge of the situation elsewhere, was eventually able to get through on the radio to HQ CREFORCE, with a request for reinforcement. About midnight, a reply was received from Freyberg regretting his inability to send reinforcements and wishing Campbell luck.
The Second Day
During the night, the Germans had overwhelmed one of A Company’s remaining isolated outposts forward on Hill A and had pushed down onto the airfield where they captured the crews of the two stranded tanks. However, ‘…most of these Germans withdrew by dawn, but about forty remained behind the bank at the back of the beach’.
Overnight the Australians prepared counter-attacks that were to begin at dawn. 2/11 Battalion were to complete the clearance of the area in front of their positions and those of the Greeks, while 2/1 were to retake Hill A. The battalions would be supported by Greek troops from 5th and 4th Regiments respectively.
Captain Channell’s plan was for platoons to advance around the flanks of the hill while the main attack, in the centre, was to be delivered on to Hill A. Lieutenant Dieppe described how on the crest of the feature:
At 0525 sharp we moved out silently in one straight line, at walking pace, towards the enemy positions. After an advance of approximately 90 metres, the darkness was broken by heavy enemy machine gun fire… the enemy started using mortars.
Low altitude resupply flights by Ju 52s.
Hill A – The Second Day.
It appeared that, expecting the attack, the Germans promptly engaged the Australians advancing along the crest of the ridge with well registered mortar fire. Elsewhere the attackers and defenders were soon locked in a confused battle amongst the terraces and the vines. Private Lofty McKie wrote:
As I was snaking through the vineyard, I turned to see who was snaking along behind me. It was a Jerry! They must have been trying to reinforce along the same line we were attacking on. The German had a Tommy gun but he didn’t seem able to pull the trigger. I was…
The Australian’s attack ground to a halt despite Captain Channell personally leading the attack, in which he, as recorded in his MC citation, ‘was wounded but continued to lead his men against heavy opposing fire; finally destroying a German MG Post…’ A Company, however, now had a toe hold on the south west corner of Hill A.
Back at his HQ on Hill D, Colonel Campbell received a telephone message that ‘Position on Hill A very desperate’. With line communication tenuous, Campbell knew that to influence the battle he had to be at the front. Collecting Captain Moriarty’s D Company as he passed, he headed for Hill A. At HQ A Company, he found Captain Channell lying wounded and that his right (east) flank was ‘hanging in the air’.
B Company was immediately redeployed from its position near the airfield, up Wadi Baria, and across to the right rear on the ridge. The Greeks would be deployed further south on the right flank. With the immediate situation under control, Colonel Campbell returned to his HQ, which had found to have been forced by mortar fire to move south by 200 yards onto the rear slope of Hill D.
The German 81mm mortar, as used by both sides at Rethymno.
Colonel Campbell now collected all the men he could find; cooks, signallers, gunners, etc., for a counterattack with D Company and returned with them to Hill A, arriving in time to witness a Dornier drop six bombs on the Fallschirmjäger on the neck of Hill A. This act of fratricide killed sixteen men and the Australians seized the opportunity to exploit the confusion. Sergeant Roffey recorded that:
One or two [ bombs] dropped on the particular gun we were interested in. In the ensuing confusion in went my platoon. What a sight presented to us. Three or four half-dead Germans were making feeble motions of begging us for cigarettes.
At approximately 0800 hours, Captain Moriarty, with his own company, the remains of A Company and the ‘cooks and bottle washers’, launched the counter-attack on to Hill A. Organised into four groups who, making use of their detailed knowledge of the ground, their aim was to outflank the enemy by first moving down Wadi K. Lieutenant Rogers with four platoons (including the pioneers and the carrier crews) made good progress, clearing successive Fallschirmjäger positions as they went taking twenty-five prisoners. Rogers’ main body ‘… then turned east … and moved on to the hill east of A, while one of his platoons under Lieutenant Savage advanced north to the road’. Meanwhile, on the other flank Lieutenant Craig had started to clear down Wadi Bardia, where going was slower but ‘he took a good bag of prisoners’.
With the enemy outflanked and only too aware of this, the remainder of Captain Moriarty’s force, pressing home their advantage, cleared the vine clad terraces. Four platoons delivered the attack, two each under Lieutenants Whittle and Gilmour-Walsh, supported by a fifth on their left flank, commanded by Lieutenant Mann. The attack progressed well and the Germans fell back abandoning their wounded. Lieutenant Mann’s group alone took thirty-four prisoners. The number of prisoners was actually becoming a problem for the Australians by mid morning on 21 May.
To add to colonel Camphell’s administrative woes, the withdrawing Germans, perforce, left behind their medical officers, staff and patients, who were all taken prisoner, but as recorded by Campbell, ‘were at once treated as equal to our own wounded and ambulance staff’. The German medics and patients were moved to join a company of 2/7 Field Ambulance at Adhele, where during the next nine days the medics of the opposing armies worked together. ‘The Germans were well supplied with medical equipment and medicines, and the cooperative arrangement benefited the wounded from both sides.’
The German MERCURE report records that on 21 May Major Kroh had been ‘attacked again, his flank was enveloped and he was forced to retire east to the Olive Oil Factory where he reorganised and beat off repeated attacks’. The Olive Oil Factory, which the Fallschirmjäger proceeded to fortify, was about a mile east of Hill A, near Stavromenos and was the focus of the action on this flank during the remainder of the battle. Asupply drop zone was established by the Fallschirmjäger near another factory on a hill five miles to the east and a detachment was deployed to defend it against ‘Greek troops and guerrillas’ who were active there and wherever else the Germans ventured inland.
With the Germans withdrawing from the coastal strip in front of 2/1 Battalion and the Reserve Greek Battalion being in position south of Stavromenos as arranged, Colonel Campbell concluded that at this stage the ‘the crisis on Hill A seemed to be over along with the immediate threat to the airstrip’.
Operations by 2/11 Battalion, on 21 May, from their positions on Hill B, concentrated on dealing with the remaining pockets of resistance by III Battalion down on the coastal plain. Sweeps through the vines and olive groves, often with the help of local Cretans, increased the New Zealanders’ haul of prisoners. Amongst them was Oberst Sturm, along with his headquarters. Staff officer Rudolf Adler recalled that day:
It was dawn and tanks [carriers] were advancing slowly followed by infantry in light khaki. We stayed in our shelter. The group leader, a Feldwebel from the Staff who was unknown to us took up position with his MG and I took up position with my rifle at the window of the hut. The enemy was attacking from the mountains. The machine gun started firing, only a few bursts as we did not have a lot of ammunition. The tanks and infantry retreated. A few more bursts from our MG. The enemy was 300 metres away.
Two hours later; the mortars started again. We looked for shelter in a little house and behind some walls. There were many inside the vineyards and they saved my life several times… The mortar fire lasted two hours without doing us any damage, a miracle! We could hear the Tommies advancing rapidly with their tanks and infantry, imagine 15 men against 500. Our courageous machine gunners were firing at point-blank range. The enemy was firing at us from all sides. Our gunner got a bullet right in the head and died immediately. My friend Siegfried was wounded by a bullet which passed through his pelvis. I took off my shirt and tied it to my rifle. I left my position and surrendered.
The Tommies approached us with their weapons in their hands. They took our weapons and an officer invited us to sit down on the ground, took out cigarettes and offered them to us. I can still see today his hand trembling when he lit our cigarettes.
The view west from Hill B.
As the prisoners were marched to the rear it was observed,
Many of our comrades were dead still hanging from their parachutes. They were all black and swollen because of the heat. It was the worst thing I have ever seen.
The grotesque condition of the bodies, the fact that they had been looted by both soldiers and locals, all capped by the work of the crows, led to persistent accusations of the barbaric mutilation of the dead.
Amongst the prisoners was the shocked Oberst Sturm. He was taken for questioning by Major Sandover which was:
… a very unpleasant interview … He was far older than I was and he couldn’t speak English but I could talk German and I had his operation order which he didn’t like and he’d lost his brush and comb set and he was a very frightened man! And he didn’t like me at all. He wasn’t very cooperative. He wanted to see whose Operation Order I had and I wouldn’t show him. Because of course you are not allowed to take an Operation Order into battle …[and] one of his officers had disobeyed this rule.
By the end of day two of the invasion, the remnants of the III Battalion had withdrawn west until they came into contact with the Greek Gendarmes probing out from Rethymno and, stuck between the two forces, went into defences in the village of Perivolia. With I Battalion similarly confined in the Olive Oil Factory, FJR 2 was fighting for its survival in two separate locations.
Subsequent Days – Perevolia
Space does not permit a blow by blow account of all that happened at Perivolia and the area around the Church of St. George where the Fallschirmjäger established well sited strongpoints, in the surrounding buildings. From these positions, they had good fields of fire over ground across which the Australians and Greeks would have to attack. 2/11 Battalion, however, lacked the combat power to overcome the Germans in Perevolia.
On 22 May, Colonel Campbell aimed to destroy the Fallschirmjäger to his west and open the road to Souda Bay. Consequently, he ordered the 2/11 Battalion to attack Perivolia. In the absence of artillery that was effective against enemy in buildings, a part of the plan included an attempt to use enemy ground signals to call for German aircraft to bomb their own infantry around St George’s! Captain Honner laid out the panels and enemy aircraft soon obliged. The German report reveals that Wiedemann’s Battalion ‘was severely bombed by our own aircraft …but repulsed enemy counter-attacks and shock troop operations’.
Captain Hornner’s has been ordered to advance astride the road to the wadi west of the road fork at Perivolia. Despite covering fire from a 3-inch mortar and a German 81mm equivalent that was well supplied with bombs, the attack came to a halt a thousand yards from the objective, with a fire-swept, ‘horribly open’, slope down to the wadi in front of them.
Late in the afternoon word arrived that Captain Jackson’s company was moving forward to support him; Captain Honner elected:
…to make a leap-frogging attack in the darkness with both companies between the road and the coast, where three parallel ditches spaced at intervals of a few hundred yards and about two feet deep offered some cover.
Fallschirmjäger medics unloading a stores container.
As the light faded, Jackson’s Company advanced to the second ditch ‘without difficulty’. Honner was following with his own company but, with the Germans now alert the growing volume of German fire made it ‘appear doubtful whether a frontal attack would succeed across the open ground ahead’. When Major Sandover arrived with information that the Greeks were about to attack the Church of St. George and anxious to avoid a ‘Blue on Blue’ clash with the Greeks, he ordered his two companies to remain where they were and dig in. From the noise and shooting around Perivolia, it was apparent that the Greeks did attack; ‘advancing, capturing some prisoners, and withdrawing’.
On 23 May, the unsupported Greeks were again unable to make much headway against the enemy positions in Perivolia from the west but a company of 1 Rangers was on its way from Force Reserve. Equally, progress from the east was limited but 2/11 Battalion, under cover of a machine gun barrage, managed to get across the open ground to the third drainage ditch, 200 yards from Wadi Perivolia and the enemy positions. Casualties were heavy and a major attack was not made. The Germans, however, were driven from vantage points in the church when the 2/11 Battalion engaged the tower with high explosive from Hill B and solid shot from a captured anti-tank gun. But the German position in the village was still strongly held.
By dawn on 24 May, the company of 1 Rangers had arrived from the west and prepared their attack on Perivolia. Thinking that the enemy were only seventy strong, the hundred plus Rangers were in fact heavily outnumbered by the 300 Fallschirmjäger and the attack predictably failed. The company was then called back to the Hania front where pressure was mounting.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Mason, an RAOC equipment specialist, was directed the recovery of the Matilda stuck in the drainage ditch. Due to the lack of any recovery equipment and the absence of the tank crews, this proved to be more difficult than anticipated. Once out of the ditch, the tank was moved to the rear of Hill A. Here a crew from the Carrier Platoon of 2/1st Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Lawry, worked out how to drive the Matilda and to use its weapons. Meanwhile, B Company had the more difficult task of digging and dragging the second Matilda out of Wadi K. On 24 May, the first Matilda was deployed east to assist the 2/11 Battalion’s dawn attack on Perivolia, scheduled for the following morning (25 May). However, the tank, with its amateur crew, became stuck again in one of the ditches, while moving up to the start line and the attack was postponed.
Things did not work out any better for the Matilda crew the following morning (26 May). The post operational report recorded:
At dawn 2/11 Battalion began its attack on the Germans. The Besa [machine gun] of the tank, however, jammed almost as soon as it got into action, and the improvised crew being unable to remedy the defect, the tank withdrew and 2/11 Battalion, meeting MG fire from well-dug positions to the east of the village as well as from the houses, was forced to halt its attack.
Another twenty-four hours would pass before further attack could be launched and Colonel Campbell’s command suffered yet another setback when a rare RAF supply drop scheduled for the night of 26/27 May could not locate the drop zone due to a lack of flares.
By dawn on 27 May, both tanks had been repaired or recovered and were ready for battle in support of 2/11 Battalion’s next attack on Perivolia. Once again, the tanks were both put out of action, one by a lucky mortar round that broke a track and the other by an anti-tank gun that set the other on fire. The two companies (Gook’s and Honner’s) that had fought their way forward to the German Forward Defence Line spent an unpleasant day, pinned down under fire from ground and air. They were only able to withdraw under cover of darkness during the night of 27/28 May.
Meanwhile, unbeknown to Colonel Campbell, with the withdrawal of the main force in the Hania/Souda area, to the south coast, getting under way, yet another attack was ordered to be launched on Perivolia during the night of 27/28 May. The Australians were to attack, with the two companies that had not been engaged the previous night, astride the road from the high ground to the south-east, while the Greeks were to assault from the direction of Rethymno. The post operational report of July 1941 records that leading the attack, Captains Jackson and Wood set off with their companies into Perivolia ‘at 0320 hours on the 28th but the Greeks opened up during the approach and surprise was lost’. The head of the Australian column came under fire at short range. According to the Australian Official History:
However, the company pressed on, gained the crossroads and penetrated along the wadi towards the sea. Wood’s company advanced and bombed the houses on the main road, but ran into heavy grenade and mortar fire which wounded Wood, and two platoon commanders …The responsibility had been placed on Wood of deciding whether the attack could continue or not. At 4.33 Lieutenant Scott, the only unwounded officer, on orders of Wood, who lay mortally wounded fired two green Very lights – the signal that the company was withdrawing, and repeated the signal a few minutes later.
Some eighty casualties were inflicted upon the Germans. However, the official after action report, with many of the Australians still at large on the island or in PW camps, recorded the view that: ‘The village was virtually taken and should have been held … D Company then fought its way out of the village, leaving B Company in an impossible position.’ The withdrawing troops ‘were caught in a dreadful fire’ and D Company came back with only forty-three survivors. The majority of B Company remained stranded in Perivolia in strongly built houses, which was just as well, as the enemy exerted every effort to destroy them.
On the evening of 28 May, Captain Jackson initially tried to break out to the east but the enemy were expecting this and blocked him. Consequently, he took his men on a long route to the west and then south of the enemy position. Meanwhile, with the failure to overpower the Germans, Campbell, with his force now so badly reduced and with Captain Jackson’s Company missing, decided to abandon further offensive action at Perivolia and concentrate on his main task; the defence of the airfield.
With the Fallschirmjäger cleared from Hill A on the morning of 21 May, and driven east to where they were confined to the Olive Oil Factory, astride the Iraklio Road, at Stavromenos. By dawn on 22 May, Colonel Campbell was ready to launch 2/1 Battalion against them. The attack started with a fifteen minute bombardment but the few small field guns that the Australians had and limited stocks of ammunition, it proved to be largely ineffective against the stout brick building. Another factor was that whenever the artillerymen in their exposed gun pits on Hill A opened fire on the Germans, the Fallschirmjäger’s mortars replied with ‘deadly accuracy’, discouraging prolonged on accurate bombardment.
The main attack was to be delivered by two companies of Australians, each minus a platoon left to guard their positions on Hill A. They were to be joined from the south by Greek troops. The initial attack at 1000 hours should have been mounted by Captain Moriarty’s company but he was killed by rifle fire on a recce of the approaches to the objective and the only other officer was also killed. ‘The attack did not start’ but half of 2/1 Battalion had deployed from the crest of Hill A to positions near Stavromenos.
The Greeks and Colonel Campbell were keen to attack and another attempt to destroy the enemy in the factory was prepared for 1800 hours. The plan was:
… after artillery and mortar bombardment: 200 Greeks would move secretly down one wadi and forty Australians would crawl down another, and then charge, while the remaining troops of Captain Traver’s company fired down into the factory from the heights overlooking it 100 to 200 yards away.
In the event the Greeks failed to attack to around a spur just east of the factory on time but A Company, commanded by Captain Dick Mann, assaulted from a narrow wadi to the south of the factory, ‘with a yell’.
Many Australians fell, and survivors took shelter behind a bank about 40 yards from the factory. Campbell was nearby, and called to Mann not to move until the Greeks attacked. Captain Mann had, however, been seriously wounded and Corporal Thompson was now in command of the remnants. Colonel Campbell decided to withdraw the remnant of A Company after dark, with the Greeks giving covering fire. The Australians were sent back to their positions on Hill A, leaving the Greeks to contain the Fallschirmjägerin the Olive Oil Factory.
On 23 May, Colonel Campbell received a message from General Freyberg that ‘You have done magnificently’ but the main event of the day was a truce between 1000 and 1300 hours to enable the clearance of casualties both German and Australian, from the area around the Olive Oil Factory and evacuate them to the joint field Ambulance at Adhel. There were now so many casualties, approximately 200 Fallschirmjäger and 100 Australian, that even the generous supply of German medical equipment was stretched and all those prisoners who could be categorised as ‘walking wounded’ were transferred to a section in the PW cage.
At the conclusion of the truce a Fallschirmjäger officer appeared from the Olive Oil Factory, with a white flag; not, however, to offer the German surrender as had been hoped but to invite Colonel Campbell’s force to surrender. ‘He alleged that the attacks on the other sectors had succeeded.’ The offer was declined and to make the point the German positions were shelled. Also recovered during the truce and buried were 300 German dead from Hill A and a further 200 from Hill B.
During the morning of 25 May, a captured 81mm mortar, now with plenty of ammunition thanks to efficient but erroneous German re-supply, was used to very good effect against an isolated building (Mortar House) on the extreme right of the Fallschirmjägerposition. About forty Germans withdrew west to Refuge Point. This withdrawal was covered by German mortar fire from the enemy in the Olive Oil Factory against Hill A, which continued to be a dangerous place to be seen above ground level. Lacking proper or in some cases any sights and having to rely on direct laying of their guns, the gunners suffered badly from this fire. The party from Mortar House were joined at Refuge Point by Major Kroh who, at 0300 hours the following night, also withdrew with about thirty men from the Olive Oil Factory, leaving approximately forty Germans guarding their few prisoners, which included the RTR tank crew.
One of the Australian-crewed Matildas was back in action east of Hill A on the morning of 26 May, when what started out as a recce by the tank, ended in capture of the Olive Oil Factory. Captain Embrey (B Company) and one of his platoons were approaching the Stavromenos area ‘covered by the tank and fire from the 75mm guns on Hill A’ but received little fire from the Germans. With the exhausted Germans taking cover Captain Embrey seized the opportunity to attack. Charging forward with his small band of men, he jumped the factory wall and burst into the factory where he took the surrender of the forty Fallschirmjäger and a similar number of wounded Germans. The number of PWs and wounded were now becoming a serious problem as they needed treatment and guarding, as well as feeding.
The capture of the factory ended the immediate threat to Colonel Campbell’s eastern flank. Captain Embrey wrote: ‘the capture of Stavromenos practically ended offensive action by us, as the CO refused to be drawn away from his objective to deny the use of the aerodrome by the enemy.’
On the night of 28 May, while the night battle was going on in Perevolia, two days’ worth of rations had been delivered by a lighter from Souda Bay captained by Lieutenant Haig RN. They left before dawn, telling Colonel Campbell that they had been ordered to abandon their craft and make their way across country to Hora Safakion on the south coast. This was the first that the isolated Rethymno Garrison had heard of the evacuation. The always intermittent and tenuous communications had been finally thwarted because of Campbell’s lack of CREFORCE ciphers. Consequently, orders for the evacuation were not passed and only able to guess what was going on outside Rethymno, Campbell elected in the absence of orders to continue to hold the airfield. Attempts over the next few days to drop messages by aircraft failed for a variety of reasons. The Australians finally accepted that things elsewhere were going badly when they heard on the BBC that ‘the situation in Crete is extremely precarious’.
The joint Australian/German medical facility at Adhel working on German prisoners.
Following the failure of the latest attack on Perivolia, most of the 29th was spent quietly between air raids, which were apparently, and unsuccessfully, designed to draw Australian fire.
With little official information from the outside world and indications from the BBC that the situation was bad, there was little surprise when it was reported by the Greeks, on the evening of 29 May, that a large enemy force was approaching from the west. ‘300 motorcyclists had entered Rethymno.’ This was Kampfgruppe Whittman which was leading the advance of 5th Gebergs Division from the Souda area. The Australian official history recorded:
Next morning at 6 o’clock Honner’s company [2/11 Battalion], again on the left flank watching Perivolia, reported that they could hear what sounded like many motorcycles, warming up beyond Perivolia, and that the ridge they held was under artillery and mortar fire. About 9.30 three tanks appeared on the left of the 2/11th followed by a procession of about thirty German motorcyclists, accompanied by some light field guns. A little later Campbell was informed that German tanks were behind the 2/11th and in the valley behind Hill ‘D’.
These were Panzer IIs and IIIs from Panzer Regiment 31 who had eventually been landed in the west near Kastelli once the Royal Navy had been driven from the sea of Crete with heavy losses.
As Germans streamed through Perivolia and heavy fire was being directed at Captain Honner’s company blocking the road from the east, it was clear to Colonel Campbell that he could not hope to defend the airstrip against such a powerful and numerous force but for the men, ‘defeat seemed inconceivable’ after maintaining the initiative over the previous days. Lew Lind summed it up when he said ‘Oh Jesus. I don’t bloody well believe it’.
Royal Navy officer, Lieutenant Haig, had told of his orders that suggested Sfakia was the evacuation point but it was three days’ journey away and Colonel Campbell’s force ‘had been on half rations for three days and now had food only for that day’. He later wrote of his controversial decision to surrender:
The only hope, would be every sub-unit for itself, which would, I knew, result in many being shot down, because, though olive trees are excellent cover from aerial observation, their widely dispersed bare trunks offer little protection against ground observation. I considered that the loss of many brave men was to be expected from any attempt to escape now, and the dangers and penalties to which we must expose the Cretan civilians, were not warranted by the remote chance we now had of being evacuated from the south coast.
General Student talks to the Crew of a Panzer II on the road to Rethymono.
Campbell then telephoned 2/11 Battalion and told Major Sandover ‘that further resistance would result in useless waste of lives’ and asked his opinion. Sandover said that he would not surrender and that ‘he proposed to tell his men to destroy their arms and make for the hills’.
Consequently, forward elements of 1/11 Battalion fought their way back with the Germans shouting ‘The game’s up Aussies’ amidst clouds of dust thrown up by the increasingly heavy air and artillery bombardment. Lieutenant Cunnington fought his way back to the remainder of his company by ‘leap-frogging in perfect tactical style, one group blazing at the Germans (who were held on the hill south of the road) while another streaked past to the next patch of shrubbery’. Thirteen officers and thirtynine other ranks of 1/11 Battalion eventually escaped to Egypt.
Meanwhile, Colonel Campbell on Hill D ordered a white flag to be made and to be flown visibly:
At the same time he sent messages by telephone or by runner to all units and sub-units informing them of the surrender and telling them to display white flags and assemble at the north-west corner of the airfield. A quarter of an hour later, as the German fire continued, he himself tied a towel to a stick and walked down the track towards the airfield.
A single Fallschirmjäger NCO guards the prisoners.
Captain Embrey wrote that Colonel Campbell ‘instructed the QM and myself to accompany him with a white flag, as further fighting was useless’.
At the time of the surrender about 500 German prisoners, including Oberst Sturm, were held by the Australians, of whom the non-injured were immediately released. ‘The Australians had lost about 120 killed but some 550 Germans had been buried and it was believed that their total loss considerably exceeded that number.’