Maleme 20 May
Home Up Maleme 20 May 21 - 25th May Stuka Ju87 Tom Atherton


Maleme map
Meindl evacuated
A Kiwi view


The airfield at Maleme was the main target for the first wave of the attack on the morning of the 20th May, 1941.  It was assigned to Group West commanded by General Eugen Meindl.
The Germans began that day as they had begun the previous ones, with bombing and strafing attacks early in the morning, so making the defenders believe that this day would be no different, although intelligence reports said otherwise.  When the expected lull came the troops set about breakfast, as they had done previously, but today the attacks renewed with much greater ferocity and then at about 8.15 the gliders started arriving, coming in for about an hour.  The attack started with the gliders coming in first, followed by the JU52 transports with the parachutists and their equipment, all coming down on different coloured parachutes to denote the cargo.  Behind the glider borne troops would come the paratroopers in their tri-motor JU52 transport aircraft.  A number of problems are faced by paratroop forces; if they drop from too great a height they risk missing the aiming point for the drop; if they drop too low they risk their parachute failing to open; they are vulnerable to ground fire from defending forces if they are dropped over a defensive position; their main weapons are dropped separately in weapons containers as a man and all his equipment is too heavy for the parachute and he would fall too quickly. 

The following is a description of the attack from the history of 20 Battalion.  "The blitz began again with a thoroughness that seemed a preliminary to the expected invasion.  From Maleme to Suda Bay flights of planes attacked with deliberate precision.  For almost an hour all life and communication was paralysed by the roar of aircraft engines and the blast of bombs, cannon and machine-gun fire.  In C Company's area bombs dropped by a lone enemy plane fatally wounded Sergeant Selwyn Musson and wounded three others.  With dramatic suddenness the blitz ceased and in the uncanny silence that followed heads peeped out from slit trenches to see the result of this vicious attack.  Suddenly a sonorous drone, gradually increasing in volume, was heard to the west.  Into the vision of the spellbound troops, coming in increasing numbers from beyond the sea, swept a tremendous air armada, hundreds of planes steadily approaching through the clear morning sky.  The invasion had begun.  As the watchers realised the significance of this amazing sight the aircraft began to disgorge hundreds of paratroops, their olive-green, white, brown, and red parachutes swaying to earth in a gradually descending shower.  At the same time groups of short-bodied, broad-winged planes of a different type were noticed moving noiselessly through the air.  These were the gliders, towed in batched of six by three-engined Junkers [I don't believe there were six pulled by one aircraft.  J Dillon] which turned back at the coast.  The first paratroops seen were about nine miles away at Maleme airfield.  For a short period the sky in that area was full of them; no one who saw it is ever likely to forget the sight.

[I have included the recollection of one soldier fighting the paratroops as they landed]

The parachutists who dropped east of Maleme, in the area of 23rd Battalion, met stiff opposition as they had not expected troops to be there, while those who dropped west of the Tavronitis or on the Aghya Plain had the chance to form up into their fighting units.

The positions of 21, 22, 23 & 28 Battalions can be seen on the map.

Glider borne troops were planned to land at the mouth of the Tavronitis river to attack the western edge of the airfield, a force under Major Koch (who would be severely wounded in the head) would land and assault the south-western and north-eastern slopes of Hill 107, and Major Braun would land and lead his glider troops to capture the iron bridge over the river.  Although the nine gliders carrying Braun's detachment of III Battalion group landed where they were intended to, they were raked by small arms fire from the New Zealanders of D Company, 22 Battalion on the east of the river and just south of the airfield.  

An ULTRA transcript of a German message showed that they felt it had at least started to plan; "At nought nine nought nought GMT today Tuesday (20th May) eighteen and twenty eight Junker eight seven aircraft reported bombed ac ac Maleme and Canea respectively obtaining many hits.  No aircraft seen on either aerodrome.  First wave of storm regiment and third parachute regiment dropped at both places according to plan and towed gliders also used."

Braun, the commander, was killed while still in his glider.  [Anyone visiting the area today cannot help but wonder how anyone could have contemplated glider landings in that hilly, stony, olive tree covered countryside.   No wonder so many died.]  The photo below shows Maleme, the rough area on the left of the photo is the area of the Tavronitis river and Braun's gliders would have landed at the bottom of this.  Hill 107 is the bottom centre of the photo.  [Photo from Karlheinz Schlaweck]

The parachutists from II Battalion who landed west of the Tavronitis met little opposition as the New Zealanders did not have sufficient men to cover that, but those who landed still further west at Kastelli were pretty well slaughtered.  This group was led by Lieutenant Murbe and were met by the 1st Greek Regiment, and the local villagers.  Very few survived that drop, including Muerbe.  At 08:15 74 paratroops had dropped on Kastelli, by 11:00 there were only 17 alive, and all were captured. The Cretan villagers proved that they would not stand by and see their island invaded without taking their own dreadful revenge.  Although they had very few weapons, they fought with anything to hand.  However, as a result the Germans would later raze villages to the ground, and murder hundreds of civilians as reprisals for their show of defiance.
The German intelligence staff under a Major Reinhardt had given General Student and his team an incorrect appreciation of the resistance the invasion would meet on Crete.  On the evening before the battle they stated that the British garrison on Crete was no more than 5,000 strong, 400 of them at Iraklion and none at Rethymnon.  All the New Zealanders and Australians, according to the intelligence brief, had been removed to Egypt and their were no Greek forces on the island.  

The German assault had met a much sterner defense around Maleme than they had been led to expect.  The German parachute training manual had been captured, without their knowledge, during their attack on Ypenbourg aerodrome in Holland, May 1940.  This allowed British commanders to plan for defense against paratroop attacks.  However, by mid morning groups to the west of the Tavronitis had started to link up with some of those on the slopes of Hill 107.  At this point they should have been supported by the 3rd Battalion under Major Scherber, but the dropping plan for this group had had to be changed at the last moment.  Their take-off from Greece had been delayed because of the dust clouds over the runways created by all the previous aircraft, and to avoid the possibility of their dropping over the sea at Maleme they were dropped in scattered groups over the hills to the south which were expected to be unoccupied.  

One German pilot said of the dust; "The clouds of dust whipped up by the first take-offs blinded the other pilots, with the result that by the time the transports reached their destination, our fighters and bombers providing the air cover had to dash back to refuel."

In fact they were now dropped onto the New Zealand 21st and 23rd Battalions, who killed many of them as they hung from their parachutes.  Scherber himself being killed before he reached the ground.  The attack at this point was not going well.  The intended pincer attack on the airfield would now have to become an assault from one direction only, the west bank of the Tavronitis.  Meindl needed to exploit the advantage at the bridge and reinforce Koch's efforts against Hill 107.

The map on the left shows the position of the New Zealand 21st, 22nd and 23rd Battalions on the 20th May.  "3 & 21 Battalions are to the east (right of the map) of 22, and the disposition of the Companies within 22 Battalion are shown, as is Hill 107 on which A Company were stationed.  The green ring shows Braun's assaulting move between C and D Companies.  The red ring shows the forward position of a platoon from 21 Battalion.  The blue lines show the movement of Stentzler's companies and the mauve lines show the second platoon from 21 Battalion.  
It is worth giving a little detail on the disposition of 22 Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew in command,  who were given the task of holding the airfield at Maleme, altogether he had some 20 officers and 600 other ranks and two 'I' tanks.  'A' Company under Captain Hanton was on Hill 107; 'B' Company under Captain Crarer held a ridge east of Hill 107; 'C' Company under Captain Johnson held the airfield perimeter, mainly the western boundary and the northern coastal perimeter; 'D' Company under Captain Campbell held the east bank of the Tavronitis; Battalion HQ was under Andrew between 'A' and 'C' companies.  Andrew's only reserve was 14 Platoon in 'C' Companies area, and the two 'I' tanks.
As the day went on D Coy. held its area but was concerned about its right flank, under threat from Braun's men whose gliders came in close to the bridge and were attempting to drive a wedge between D and C companies (see map above).  Campbell's other major problem which would plague all the companies and commanders was the poor state of the communications.  This problem went right through the whole defence of Crete.

C Coy. to the north of D was holding on but was stretched, they had the role of airfield defence which gave them a large perimeter to defend, they were also concerned about Braun's strong position at the bridge and his attempt to get between D & C companies.  Captain Johnson, concerned that there was an attempt by the enemy to get between 13 platoon defending the beach and 15 platoon defending the western perimeter, requested Colonel Andrew for the use of the two 'I' tanks for a counter-attack, but the request was denied.  Andrew felt he could only use these once, and wanted to hold them back.  East of C Coy. and also near the beach was HQ Coy., and like the others they were finding themselves pretty well cut off because of poor communications and the inability for runners to get through.  Their problem was made worse because gliders and parachutists had landed in the space between C and HQ Companies.

The area around Maleme, in fact most of Crete, is covered in olive groves with low walls made of the sharp local rocks.  This would have been a dreadful place to land a glider, or come down by parachute.  the terrain made movement and force concentration difficult.  it was also hot and dry, which would take its toll of both side.

Photo:  J Dillon

'B' & 'A' Companies along with Battalion HQ initially were not seeing too much of the action, other than the heavy bombing that preceded the airborne assault, but Lt. Col. Andrew was experiencing the communication problems that were affecting all his units, indeed at one point he was contacting 23 Battalion and asking them to contact his own HQ Coy. as he was unable to do so!  As the day wore on Andrew had expected 23 Battalion , who were designated as his support, to move forward in their counter-attack role, but this had not happened, although the 22nd had been firing off the flare signals requesting assistance.  These were not seen by 23 Battalion.  Lt. Col. Leckie commanding 23 Battalion believed from his observations that the 22nd was holding its own, that the Germans were having problems and that he was ready to counter-attack should he be ordered to do so.  However, there was confusion.  Leckie received a signal at 2.25pm which confirmed for him that he should not counter-attack; "Glad of your message of 11.40 hours. Will NOT call on you for counter-attacking unless position very serious. So far everything is in hand and reports from other units satisfactory."

The other possible source of relief for Andrew was 21 Battalion.  They had a platoon well forward on the east bank of the Tavronitis (see map above) so that they would get warning of attacks from west of the river.  From 21 Battalion positions they could see the landings towards Maleme and they saw no movement by 23 Battalion to relieve the 22nd.  Accordingly Lt. Col. Allen decided his role was to hold his position  but push out another platoon at 11.30am towards the Tavronitis (mauve line on map above).  At various points on the site I have indicated that one factor in events on Crete was the poor communications and again 21 Battalion found that early in the battle their line to Brigade HQ was cut and that they were reliant on runners to 23 Battalion.  Allen was not in communication with his platoon near the Tavronitis and the second platoon he sent that way returned after encountering Major Stentzler and his two companies around Vlakheronitissa.  Their movements are in blue on the map above.  War is full of 'ifs'.  Lt. Col. Allen might have read the fact that his second platoon had encountered Stentzler's companies as a need to move his Battalion forward and assist Andrew, but he didn't.

When Andrew requested Brigadier Hargest at 5pm to have 23 Battalion carry out the counter attack he was told that they were unable to do this as they were themselves engaged against parachutists.  One has to question Hargest's decision here, holding the airfield was fundamental to Freyberg's plan for the defence of the island.  Not counter-attacking at this point when the Germans were still coming to grips with their situation and had lost a lot of men, including commanders, was a serious mistake.  Andrew decided he now had to use his two 'I' tanks.

The light tanks were small vehicles, hardly the sort of machine that the word 'tank' conjures up in the mind after seeing units in the Gulf War.  These small tanks were easily immobilized.

Photo; J Dillon from Tank Museum.

Andrew decided to use his reserve, 14 Platoon, together with the two tanks.  Unfortunately this counter-attack failed.  One tank could not use its ammunition and the turret would not traverse correctly, the other got stuck.  14 Platoon, going forward with the tanks came under serious fire and when the tanks were immobilized they also had to withdraw.  By around 5.30, the counter-attack having failed, Capt. Johnson, O.C. 'C' Company, was asking Andrew for reinforcements as 14 platoon had been badly mauled going forward with the tanks; 15 platoon was overrun as was part of 13 platoon.  Johnson said he would have to withdraw that night but Colonel Andrew told him to hold on.

[The following is a comment by Capt. Johnson on the problem of communicating with the tanks.  "I asked how we on foot would communicate with the tank.  He told me to press a bell at the back of the tank, and the tank commander would open the turret and talk.  When the counter attack started, contact was attempted with the tank crews.  Nobody answered the bell. ...  Throughout the entire war, no tank man ever seemed to answer the bell, and the exposed infantryman had to hammer vigorously on the tank with rifle, tommy-gun, or metal helmet before the turret would open suspiciously.]

Andrew now had to decide what he would do as the night came on, he told Hargest that if he did not have support from 23 Battalion then he would need to withdraw to the ridge held by 'B' Company.  Andrew understood from the conversation that Hargest would be sending him 'A' Company from 23 Battalion and 'B' Company from 28 Battalion and that they would arrive shortly.  This was an unfortunate misunderstanding.

There is a lot of confusion in the various books over 'Light' tanks and 'I' tanks.  On the left is a Mathilda and Lt. Farran in his book mentions two Mathildas being put out of action on the 20th.  Davin refers to these as 'I' tanks
Andrew needs to withdraw.  Because of the lack of communications Andrew, by the evening, felt that he now had a poor position; the two 'I' tanks and infantry reserve (14 Platoon) were gone, 'C' Coy. mostly overrun; he was out of touch with 'D' Coy; Braun was driving in between 'D' & 'C' company positions and he believed HQ Company had been overrun by the Germans.  He believed he only had two of five companies left, 'A' and 'B', so he desperately needed the two he believed he had been promised by Hargest.  He believed he needed to use the darkness to adjust his positions to be able to meet the Germans who by the morning would have been able to reform themselves.  By 9 pm the two companies had not arrived and by 9.30 Andrew was telling Hargest, via a poor radio connection, that he was to withdraw to the 'B' company ridge.
Around 10 pm 'A' Coy. from 23 Battalion (C.O. Captain Watson) arrived in the 'B' Coy. ridge area but the company from 28 Battalion had not arrived.  There was then a period of confusion.  Colonel Andrew believed 'D' Coy. was lost and 'A' had been told to pull back to the 'B' Coy. ridge, this would leave Hill 107 unoccupied so Watson's company from 23 Battalion was told to occupy 107.  However this would now mean that if 'D' were in fact wiped out, point 107 would now be an outpost rather than being within the Battalion defensive area.  This gave Andrew a problem.  He believed that as an outpost 107 would be overrun in the morning and if this happened then the Germans on 107 would overlook the exposed position of his men on 'B' Company ridge.  He decided that 22 Battalion had to withdraw into the area held by 23 Battalion, who should have been supporting him.  All of the preceding raise the question of whether or not Hargest really understood what he was agreeing to by not fully supporting 22 Battalion with 23, and by allowing Colonel Andrew to withdraw.
Andrew's situation.  From this point on following the withdrawal of Andrew's 22 Battalion, the loss of Crete was only a matter of time provided that the Germans could hold on and there were no quick and well executed counter-attacks by the Allies.  Andrew's decision then was something of a decisive one for the course of events.  At the time that he made his decision he was not able to contact 'D' & 'C' companies and so decided that they were 'lost' to him, also the two companies promised to him by Hargest had not arrived, but that was not to say that they would not get there.  His presumption was, with hindsight, too quick.  With 'A' & 'b' companies and the two promised to him he could have made a good fist of holding Hill 107, although he would have come under severe pressure on the 21st May from dawn onwards.  What Andrew did not know was that the Germans were themselves pretty exhausted, many were dead, and those who were not were very short of water.  They were also vulnerable to a well executed counter-attack if one was launched.  His move to the 'B' company ridge was never going to be a best choice, and a full pull back to 21 and 23 Battalions was necessary once he gave up Hill 107.
Given the importance, with hindsight, of Andrew's decision to withdraw it is worth restating the conditions in which he found himself; his men had suffered a severe bombardment, there had been an initial breach of his perimeter by those forces who landed near the Tavronitis bridge, he had not received the expected support from 21 or 23 Battalions, his communications were totally inadequate, his counter-attack with 14 platoon and the two 'I' tanks had failed and Hargest did not seem to realize the real predicament in which Andrew found himself.  When Andrew told his commander of his intended withdrawal Hargest should have seen the significance of losing Maleme and the high point of Hill 107, apparently he didn't. 
While 'A' Company sent by Hargest from 23 Battalion had arrived at the 'B' Company ridge at 10 pm, 'B' Company from 28 Battalion had not started its move until 7 pm with an eight and a half mile march ahead of them.  They might have been expected to also arrive around 10 pm, but en-route they had to dispose of two machine-gun posts and then later got lost.  When they got to Xamoudhokhori about half a mile S.W. of 'B' Company ridge they took a right turn and ended up at Pirgos close to the coast.  Moving west they came upon the Maleme perimeter area and the Germans.  Moving back they met Lt. Col. Andrew around Xamoudhokhori as he was pulling back from the ridge to 23 Battalion.  They were too late.
The sad things was that because of the lack of decent communications Lt. Col. Andrew was unaware that 'D' & 'C' companies were still pretty much in their positions and their morale was still high, they would have had problems in the morning when the enemy attacks resumed, but for now they were still capable units.  However, as their C.O.'s tried to get news of Andrew and the rest of their Battalion they separately came to the conclusion these had withdrawn and that they should  do the same, which they duly did.  They joined 21 Battalion around the time of the enemy air attacks on the 21st.
It is worth expanding a little on Hargest's decision as commander of 5 Brigade, in his HQ just outside Platanias. He had intermittent land and wireless communication with his battalions, he was aware of the landings on Maleme and the parachute drops on the other battalions, and by 10am was reporting to Division that he had the 'situation well in hand.'  By 13.45 he had received the late morning report from 23 Battalion to say they had their area under control and a similar report from 21 Battalion that they had dealt with the paratroops in their area.  Hargest felt fairly comfortable by early afternoon, causing him to issue his message to 23 Battalion (at 14.25) that they would not be counter-attacking.  By late afternoon the situation for Hargest had changed; Andrew had requested a counter-attack to be told 23 Battalion were already engaged, Andrew then counter-attacked with his two 'I' tanks but this failed.  By 17.15 Hargest was informing Division that he was sending two companies to assist Andrew.
Given the importance of the airfield at Maleme to the defence of Crete, Hargest's reaction to events is one of the puzzles of the whole battle, and a large factor in its outcome.  At 21.45 he sent a situation report to Division where his view was that the situation was 'quite satisfactory.'  This was despite the fact that by then he was aware that Andrew's counter-attack with the 'I' tanks had failed, that Andrew had indicated he may need to withdraw, that the 22nd Battalion had suffered severe casualties, but he was only sending one company from 23 Battalion and one from 28 Battalion, in support.  He was in great danger of losing the airfield.
Brigadier Hargest was misreading the situation.  All the indications should have told him, particularly by late afternoon, that he needed to follow the battle plan and support Andrew.  He may have been holding 23 Battalion in case they needed to defend against an attack from the sea, General Freyberg had interpreted an important ULTRA signal as meaning that the seaborne landing would be the biggest threat, but Maleme was the vital point.  Lt. Col. Andrew was now unable to hold his position, at least one of the two battalions (21 or 23) should have been moved forward to support him.  Although Hargest did not know it the Germans felt that they would not have been able to withstand a battalion counter-attack if it had come at that time.  At an important phase of the battle and in a vital geographic area Brigadier Hargest was unfortunately demonstrating not only a poor understanding of the tactical situation, but also poor or weak command.  Lt. Col. Allen was left to choose which of his roles his battalion would assume depending on Allen's assessment of the situation, Hargest did not keep his staff appraised of the thinking behind his decisions, he did not go forward himself to assess the situation when it was obviously going wrong and he failed to inform Division at 21.45 of Andrew's possible need to withdraw.
At the end of the 20th May the Germans around Maleme were in an exhausted state.  They could not have withstood a determined counter attack by the New Zealand forces.  Unfortunately Hargest and Puttick (took command of NZ Division when Freyberg took command of all forces on Crete) played a cautious hand, when movement and initiative were called for.  Both these commanders operated from their Headquarters, without visiting the forward areas that were under pressure.   Maleme was central to Freyberg's defense plan, as well as to the German plan of invasion.  Freyberg's plan called for strong counter attacks to prevent the seizure of the airfields, in the afternoon and evening of the 20th caution destroyed the plan, and Freyberg had failed to ensure that his subordinates aggressively deployed the reserves he had released to them.
[Added, 18 June 2008]  In the No. 16 edition of 'Everyone's War', the journal of the 'Second World War Experience Centre', there was an article by Dr. Christopher Pugsley on the battle for Crete.  This article had some good material from German paratroops, but I cannot agree with his comment on the withdrawal by Andrew.  "Lt Col Andrew .... took counsel of his fears and without consulting his company commanders, withdrew his battalion.  His men had won their battle and defeated the enemy, but Andrew, outwardly strong, had wilted under the pressure of the day.  He gave up the vital ground to the surprise of his supporting battalions and 5th Brigade Headquarters who would learn of his withdrawal the next morning and then fatally not act immediately to retake what had been surrendered".  I believe that Pugsley's conclusion does not square with the Official History, which sees Brigadier Hargest as failing to assist Andrew who had made his position known to Hargest's HQ.

Official History; "he at the least failed to appreciate the significance of the failure of the counter-attack with tanks and greatly overrated the power of two extra companies to alter the situation.  And, finally, he had missed the most important fact of all, that now was the time to strike with all the force he had.  In short, Brigadier Hargest misread the situation.  That he did so can be partly blamed on the fact that he was still tired from the campaign in Greece. .... But the conclusion is inevitable that he began with a battle plan which gave his battalion commanders too much choice of role with too little guidance on which roles were prior, that in the battle itself he failed to give his commanders firm directions, that he would have been better able to deal with the breakdown of communications had he taken up beforehand an advanced HQ much closer to Maleme, the vital point, and that once things had begun to go wrong his wisest course would have been to go forward as far as possible to see for himself what the situation was".  [Reference Davin, p.138]

[4 July 2008]  Since adding the comments above Mark McGuire (New Zealand) has sent me an article from a newspaper, written by Chris Pugsley, outlining his view on Andrew's withdrawal.  The topic is worthy of a section on it's own, rather than a short article; maybe someone will take up the challenge.  Suffice to say that neither Mark nor myself find Pugsley's argument convincing, not least because he puts forward almost no evidence to support the argument, and ignores, apparently, the actions, or lack of, by Hargest and Freyberg.  On that note I will sign-off on the topic and leave individuals to find their own evidence and draw their own conclusions.

By the late evening of the first day Student became aware  that none of the airfields on Crete were in German hands, Groups Centre and East had both failed to take their objectives, and the whole attack was not going to plan.  Of his commanders on the ground Sussman, Scherber, Braun and Plessen were dead, Meindl (follow this link for an account of Meindl's evacuation) and Derpa were severely wounded.  

The death of Sussman (Suessmann) was read by the Allies in an Ultra transcript: OL 383 in DEFE 3/686 at Kew; "It was reported at one three nought nought hours that the aerodrome and ac ac position at Maleme were in German hands, although it was not yet possible to land there.  Communications established between western and the central groups.  General Suessmann was killed with complete crew in a towed glider."

Student said at his trial after the war; "If the enemy had made a united all-out effort in counter-attacking during the night from the 20th to the 21st or in the morning of the 21st, then the very tired remnants of the Sturm [Assault] Regiment suffering from lack of ammunition could have been wiped out."  It was imperative that he should capture one of the landing fields and commit his mountain troops.  Colonel Ramke was assigned the task of capturing Maleme, but for him to succeed Meindl must hold out until the relieving forces arrived.  While Student could see failure looming before him General Freyberg was cautiously optimistic.  He believed he still held all three airfields and the ports at Suda and Heraklion, but communications on the island were poor and would continue in that state throughout the battle, he was unaware of the situation facing Andrew and 22 Battalion.  The operation order of 3 Parachute Regiment had fallen into the Allies hands, so he was aware of their objectives, but was still overly concerned by the possible threat of a sea invasion.  His perception of his defensive position was based on his assumption that having released some of his reserves to Brigadiers Puttick and Hargest, that these commanders were using them to good effect.  In fact both had been over cautious, and the effects of this were to be particularly serious around Maleme and the high point, Hill 107, both at risk because of Andrew's need to withdraw.  Freyberg may have held a different view at the end of Day 1 had he realised Andrew was withdrawing from Maleme, the most important of the airfields to the Germans and the Allies.  But the battle would continue on the 21st.

The minutes of the Cabinet meeting for the 22nd May show a slightly confused view of events; The enemy had made lodgments at different points, but it was believed, had not obtained control over any large areas, and had suffered heavy casualties in the process.  Little definite news was available owing to the destruction of ciphers on security grounds.  Our losses so far had been light.  No sea-borne landing had yet been reported."