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Extract from WO 231/3 in PRO

Tony Trumble

Statement by Major Burckhardt

The third main area of attack was Heraklion with its port facilities and airfield, assigned to Group East under Colonel Bruno Brauer, an experienced paratroop commander.  This Group was the strongest of Student's forces, and was made up of the 1st Parachute Rifle Regiment, the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Parachute Rifle Regiment and an AA machine gun battalion.  Brauer had a strong force at his disposal, but it required that it should be deployed in a concentrated and coordinated fashion, with fighter escort.  Unfortunately the schedule for the turn round of aircraft on the Greek airfields had been over optimistic, as had been the estimates of transport aircraft that would return from earlier attack waves.  Consequently the transport of Group East was no longer running to plan.  Added to this, as at Rethymnon, the Germans had underestimated the strength of the defense.  While the Germans believed the garrison to be only some 400 strong, Brigadier Chappel had three British battalions (2nd Black Watch, 2nd York & Lancs, and the 2nd Leicester), an Australian battalion, an artillery regiment armed as infantry and three Greek battalions at his disposal.  

As with the rest of the island, there was no fighter cover from the RAF.  In WO 231/3 (Report on Operations, Heraklion Sector) in the National Archives, para 5 says; "The Preparatory Period 1 May to 19 May.  Our own air consisted of one Hurricane and three Gladiators who spent the nights in RETHYMO.  These performed some gallant deeds but were completely out numbered and were withdrawn about May 18th".

The following is from a report written after the events of May (WO 231/3 in National Archives):-  

"Heraklion Sector The problem was to protect the town and harbour of HERAKLION, the aerodrome which lay about three miles to the east of the town, and the beach on which seaborne landings or crash landings by aircraft might be attempted.

Ten Bofors guns of which six were static and four mobile were located around the aerodrome.  Two sections each of two field guns were sited to the west and south west of the aerodrome to cover the aerodrome and harbour.  Two companies of the Black Watch, with one platoon and a section of carriers dug in, were located for the close defence of the aerodrome.  Two 'I' tanks were also concealed nearby.  The remainder of the Black Watch were dug in covering level ground adjacent to the aerodrome, and one company was given a counter attack role.  Nine 100 mm. and four 75 mm. guns, together with six light tanks were located south west of the aerodrome.

The remainder of the brigade occupied areas facing outwards about 2,000 yards from the aerodrome.  The town was defended by one trained Greek battalion and two battalions of Greek recruits.

The Brigade Commander imposed no restrictions on opening fire by AA guns but all else was to be concealed until the preliminary bombardment was over.  Each unit was made responsible for immediate counter attack against parachutists in its own area.  Tanks and reserves as ordered by the Brigade Commander were to emerge and deal with parachute landings and troop carriers.  The field guns were not to open fire on the aerodrome until ordered.  The intention of the Brigade Commander was to give this order only if troop carriers landed in numbers or the anti aircraft guns were knocked out.

Rations for five days were issued to each unit and detachments were told to hold water on the scale of one gallon for six days."

One of those who died on the first day of the fighting was Private Joe Miller of the 2nd Black Watch.  (Info was in an email from Hank Paterson who knows Joe Miller's relatives, they recently paid a visit to Crete and Athens.)

From the information on the Argylls, these forces were disposed as follows; Black Watch on the extreme left, 2/4 Australian battalion left centre, the Leicesters right centre, and the York & Lancs on the right.  The Greek troops extended the York & Lancs right flank to the coast.  Added to this were six light tanks and two (I) tanks.  During the night of the 24/25th May they were joined by a battalion of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders who been landed at Tymbaki on the night of the 18th May.

Keeping 'tabs' on the tanks during the action, in all three sectors, is not easy from the books I have been using.  In WO 231/3 there is mention of two 'I' tanks going from Heraklion sector to Suda Bay; "Diary of major events.  23rd May.  Two 'I' tanks arrived from TYMBAKI about midday.  They had forced their way through the enemy position on the TYMBAKI road..... These two 'I' tanks with the one remaining mobile in the sector, were sent after dark by lighter with two 75mm guns to SUDA."

Like Campbell at Rethymnon, Chappel assigned the defense of the town to the Greek forces, around this he positioned his other troops.  The defensive perimeter was a semi-circle with the artillery in their infantry role to the west, along with the Leicesters and the York and Lancs.  In the centre of the perimeter were two hills called the Charlies occupied by the Australians and overlooking the airfield.  East Hill overlooked the airfield from the east, and was defended by the Black Watch.  The Bofors guns were dug into gun pits around the perimeter while the field guns at his disposal were positioned close to the "Charlies", and ranged on the airfield.  Chappel also had two "I" tanks, one at each end of the airfield, and six light tanks by East Hill.  The strategy was not to give away their positions until the Germans had landed in strength, then hit them with concentrated fire.

The airfield with the "Two Charlies" and East Hill (to the east of them) .  

The Ju52 transport aircraft over Heraklion, one of them on fire.  On the left of the photo is a triple 'chute which is presumably for supplies of some sort.

As with the other attacks further west, the troop transports were preceded by an air attack on the airfield by Stukas from Scarpanto.  As at Rethymnon the JU52s came in low, starting their drops at around 17:00, many of the German attackers died on their way to the ground, or before they could recover their weapons from the containers.  Burckhardt's 2nd Battalion of German paratroops was almost wiped out.  In Heraklion itself the Germans were having an equally bad time.  The Cretans and the Greek battalions were not giving up the town without a hard fight.  Major Shultz and his men were involved in intense street fighting until they were forced to withdraw.

From WO 231/3 in the PRO; "Meanwhile the defences at HERAKLION had been subjected to a heavy bombardment from 16.00 hrs to 17.00 hrs. and it is estimated that about four battalions of parachutists were then dropped on the areas west and south of the town, north and south of the road leading along the aerodrome, and in the valley east of the aerodrome.  In accordance with the Brigade Commander's plan, immediate counter attacks were launched by all, including Sector Headquarters, tanks, and Greeks.  All areas inside the British perimeter were clear of the enemy by 2130 hrs. and extremely heavy casualties had been inflicted on the enemy.  Fighting continued in the town and on the outskirts throughout the night."

Colonel Brauer, Commander of Group East, with the 1st Battalion, landed around 8 p.m., and with little knowledge of the tactical situation, made an optimistic report back to HQ, just as Group West had done earlier regarding Maleme.  He was surprised to find that his forces did not in fact hold the airfield, and so he decided to hold fast until the morning when he could call on air support.

As at Rethymnon, the Germans around Heraklion were not successful on the 21st, when they tried to take the town and airfield.  For the next week they kept the German forces at bay.  Unfortunately their ascendancy over their attackers was not put to good use by Creforce HQ.  At Heraklion and Rethymnon the German attacks had been beaten off, but there was no attempt to join these Allied groups and clear the Germans from the area between these two towns.  Everything was hinging on events around Maleme.

By the 25th the Germans believed that they needed to send in more troops to Heraklion, especially as they were aware that some Hurricane fighters had been flown in to the airfield (they might not have been aware that they were damaged).  For the action on the 25th and the involvement of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, see the separate page.
The report on Heraklion raised on 4th June 1941 contained some comments from Brigadier Chappel, especially on the issue of the lack of air cover; 

"Nearly all commanding officers commented to me on the difficulty of making the soldier understand why he was left unsupported by the air, when the BBC, and Press, talk so freely of the large number of additional aircraft which have been received.  Troops actually round the aerodrome felt this particularly."  And in another section of the report; "RAF.  It is submitted for serious consideration that the soldier will not stand indefinitely under continuous enemy air action with no sight of his own air support. ... The men were asking why we had no air; this it was possible to answer by saying that needs elsewhere were greater, but I feel that regrettable incidents may occur if Bns. [sic] are called on to sit under continuous air attack with no hope of support from our own air."  These views were similar to those expressed all over the island, and many had been heard previously in Greece.

Brigadier Chappel had some comments in the report in WO 231/3 on the events at the end of the action.  "The Greeks and Cretans, after their gallant performance, will be treated hard and will feel that we have left them in the lurch.  A great majority, particularly of Cretans, will continue fighting, but food is going to be a problem: will it be possible for us to help them in this respect?"

And a comment on the end game; "The general result of German operations was that on May 28 our perimeter was intact.  We were hemmed in on West, South & East but the harbour and town were in our hands.  The roads to the west could have been opened with our existing forces, but only at the expense of the weak bn. [sic] in reserve, which would have had to be retained in that area where parachute landings were common.  The road to the south could not be opened without reinforcement, and the commanding ground to the south and east were definitely in enemy hands with gun positions prepared and a force of at least 4 bns. (estimated) ready for an attack on our position.

It is my considered opinion that that attack would have been delivered on May 29th and that it would have been directed on the eastern defences of the aerodrome.  These would have been over run."

In June 2004 the Times Newspaper ran an obituary for Group Captain Tony Trumble, OBE.  He was a Squadron Leader during the invasion of Crete., having flown Skuas from carriers, as well as Hurricanes.  He had been C.O. of 261 on Malta.  "In 1941 Trumble was posted to Cairo, and then to Crete, where he became station commander at RAF Heraklion just as the Germans invaded the island in May.  When the station was overrun by airborne troops, he was captured.

He then spent the next four years in captivity, at first in Crete and latterly at Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Silesia.  As a wing commander he was for a time the senior camp officer, responsible for the welfare of Allied prisoners, and after his return to Britain he was appointed OBE in December 1945 for his inspiring leadership among the prisoners of war.  he went on to fly Meteors after the war."
The following is a statement by Major Burckhardt, a paratrooper, who was later captured on the Alamein front, but fought at Heraklion.  The statement is from WO 231/3 in the National Archives.

Major BURCKHARDT of the Luftwaffenjagerbrigade 1 was captured on the Alamein front on Nov. 5th '42.

He stated he was in command of a Bn. of the Air Division which in company with two other Bns. made the parachute landing at Heraklion.

For some days beforehand he had studied air photographs and intelligence reports of the objective he had to take, and he had come to the conclusion that there were no tanks, carriers or A/A guns to be reckoned with.  For this reason he took no A/Tk weapons.

It had been intended that the parachute attack should be immediately preceeded by a heavy Stuka raid, in order to stun the defenders, but according to BURCKHARDT bad staff work crept in and the Stukas arrived far too early - at all events the defenders were not stunned.  [see comment below J Dillon] He maintains that owing to this the Bren gunners were ready for him, and he lost two of his JU 52s before the men could jump.

When the Bn. landed they found not only half a dozen tanks waiting for them but also sixteen Bren carriers. "The camouflage of these A.F.Vs had been perfect.  I had been sure when we jumped that we should have only infantry to deal with.  That was my first surprise.  The second was when I discovered who the Infantry were."

No sooner had the parachutists landed than the infantry were upon them, and many of them were killed before they could get to the containers in which their arms had been dropped.  As soon as he could get a wireless set going BURCKHARDT asked for A/Tk weapons to be sent, but although these arrived they were once again unable to reach the containers, and few if any, of the A/Tk weapons ever came into action.  "The Jocks quickly grasped the importance of these little cylinders, and seldom allowed us to come near them."

The battle continued with great ferocity for two days and the Bn. suffered very heavy casualties.  "I had never expected such bitter fighting and we began to despair of ever gaining our objective, or indeed of surviving at all.  The Bren carriers were particularly dangerous to us, for they were not so blind as the tanks, and faster, and we had no armour piercing weapons.  The only thing to do was to ambush and storm each one separately, jumping on them and killing the crew with machine pistols.  They never surrendered.  In this way we destroyed twelve carriers, but for each one I lost at least twenty men, sometimes more.  Had it been any other regiment but the Black Watch - any other - all would have been well.  Eventually we were at our wits end.  I had but 80 men left of my original 800, no food, little ammunition, and was no nearer success.  The Jocks were eating our food.  Next morning I received the biggest surprise of an astonishing battle.  They had all gone in the night."

The above statement was received on 13.12.42 from Brig. N. McMicking, D.S.O.  O.B.E., 13th Corps, Libya.

The above comments reinforce comments elsewhere on the site that the intelligence briefings given to the German troops was wide of the mark in terms of numbers to expect on the ground, and the strength of the defence they would meet.

Burckhardt comments that the transports arrived after the Stukas and blames this on poor staff work.  In the 'German Report Series' that covers the action on Crete it says; "Because of a delay in the refueling, these planes [transports] arrived too late over the designated drop points and the paratroops were therefore without direct fighter and bomber support."  Part of the problem had been the dust at the airfields in Greece which had disrupted all the flight schedules.

Also from the German Report Series is a comment on the action around Heraklion on the 28th & 29th.  "While the struggle for western Crete was raging, German reconnaissance planes reported that a few British planes had returned to Heraklion airfield on 23 May and that reinforcements were arriving by sea in the eastern part of the island.  If complete air superiority over Crete was to be maintained by the Luftwaffe, the return of British planes en masse had to be prevented by all means.  It was therefore decided the reinforce the German troops in the Heraklion pocket by dropping hastily assembled parachute units.  They were to take possession of the airfield and, until relieved by approaching ground forces, prevent the landing of British planes.  Four companies of parachute troops were formed at Maleme and dropped in the vicinity of the Heraklion pocket west of the town.  Immediately after landing on 28 May, the parachute units contacted the embattled pocket force and launched a concerted attack against the British positions, eliminating several enemy strongholds with the support of dive bombers.  After regrouping his forces during the night the German commander at Heraklion set out to capture the town and the airfield early on the next morning.  At daybreak the German troops closed in on the British positions.  Not a shot was fired.  British naval vessels had evacuated the Heraklion garrison during the preceding night."