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


Lt. Farran


This section covers the period after the 20th May, as it affected the New Zealand troops around Maleme airfield and Galatas.  This section will be further split as I expand it based on Davin's Official History.

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21st May

Signal, Freyberg to Wavell, 22 May

Allied counter attack 22nd May

Attack starts 03.30
Reconnaissance photo of Maleme
5th brigade withdraws

21st May  Student's plan for day 2 was summarized by Davin as "..to fly in ammunition for the troops already at Maleme, to land the remainder of the available paratroops and attack with them, and as soon as the airfield was taken to fly in a battalion of 5 Mountain Division.  In case this should not be possible, III Battalion 100 Mountain Regiment of 5 Mountain Division was to go with 1 Motor Sailing Flotilla.

The aircraft with the ammunition supply for the beleaguered paratroops landed at Maleme around 07:00 on the 21st.  Although the flight had proved that it was possible to fly into Maleme, the decision was taken to consolidate the German position around the airfield before sending in any more troops.  Ramke and the rest of his men made their landings in the late afternoon and early evening, and as with all the other drops and landings, many died before they had any chance to be effective.  Ramke now had some 1800 men under his command, and anticipated more reinforcements from the sea.  He hoped soon to go onto the offensive.

Troops of the Mountain Division boarding for the flight to Crete.

Photo came from Macdonald's book, copyright is with IWM.

A summary of messages from Naval Sources  (WO106/3241)

"Message from SNO (Senior Naval Officer) Suda Bay.  Situation at 08:00 hours BST 21st May.  A night of alarms of sea-borne landings in which the fear was father to the thought and the presence of our own naval forces forgotten."

Meanwhile, in Athens and Germany, politics and the needs of Barbarossa came together to see the active command of the invasion of Crete taken from General Student and given over to General Ringel.  The slippage in the timetable for the successful taking of objectives on Crete, and the continued need for the involvement of the Luftwaffe were causing concern that they may impact the timetable for the invasion of Russia.  It had always been a requirement that the invasion of Crete must not impact Barbarossa.

As has been previously detailed, Andrew's 22 Battalion had withdrawn from their positions on and around Maleme airfield and around 3 a.m. on the 21st there was a conference between Andrew, Lt. Col. Allen (21 Battn.) and Lt. Col. Leckie (23 Battn.) to decide what to do next.  At this point an officer had been sent to update Hargest on the 22 Battalion situation, and they were the only battalion of the three who had seen any serious action.  However, the decision of the meeting was to 'hold our positions next day'.  This was a crucial decision; the Germans had expected a counter-attack, that would have been the 'right' thing to do and fitted in with Freyberg's initial plan of defence for strong and rapid counter-attacks, and the opportunity for launching these attacks was diminishing.
One of the failings of Hargest's command had been his failure or reluctance to position his HQ in the area of 23 Battalion, close to the critical Maleme airfield.  This would have put him closer to the action and allowed him to make a timely assessment of the situation on the ground.  One would like to think that had that been the situation he would have seen the need for a counter-attack, as it was these crucial decisions were left to his juniors.  They in turn were closer to the action, they had seen  that 22 Battalion had been forced to withdraw, they were impressed by the speed of the German assault, and had forgotten that the defence was predicated on immediate counter-attack and the importance of holding Maleme.  Hargest's unwillingness to go forward continued when Andrew's officer/messenger arrived to appraise him of the situation, instead of returning with him Hargest sent his Brigade Major, Captain Dawson, to join Andrew and the other battalion commanders.
As the morning of the 21st wore on Hargest came to realize the importance and need for the counter-attack and made this view known to Division in a message at 11.15 that morning.  However, Hargest gave it as his view that the attack would need only two battalions, 28 and one other.  The need to commit heavily when contemplating a counter-attack was missing from Hargest's assessment.  The most important of the island's airfields was in German hands, 22 Battalion had been forced to withdraw, the planned counter-attack would be at night because of the problem of German fighter cover, yet it was not to be an all-out attack.  Why did Puttick and Freyberg concur, the reason may be that the threat of a sea invasion was still considered by Freyberg to be the major threat to the island, and that invasion had not arrived.

Freyberg needed to regain control of the airfield at Maleme if he was to be able to stop the German invasion.  To do this he agreed to the risky strategy above.  He would attack with only two battalions, at night, and one of these battalions, the 20th New Zealand (the other was the Maori 28th Battalion), had to come from the western side of Chania.  The transport needed for this move would not be available until the New Zealanders were relieved by an Australian battalion coming from Georgioupoli, the New Zealanders would then take over the transport from the Australians.  As this handover was not expected to happen until around midnight, it would be quite late before they could arrive for the planned attack.  An additional problem was the start line for the assault.  The forces currently in place around Maleme had German units on their right flank along the coastal area from Maleme to Platanias.  This meant that the new forces would need to traverse an area held or covered by the Germans before they could come up with those units they were supporting.

Signal from Freyberg to Wavell, 22 May.  "The position at Heraklion is that the enemy appears to have penetrated the town but, as far as can be ascertained, the aerodrome holds.  At Retimo we are still in a position to deny the enemy the use of the landing ground but the garrison is being attacked from the east.  A successful counter-attack was carried out this morning.  At Suda we are occupying a perimeter defence and are in fill possession of all our base organisation.

The position at Maleme is less secure.  the enemy has made tremendous efforts to knock us out and I am bringing in help from Georgiopolis.  Owing to severe bombing and heavy casualties one battalion withdrew from the defences in the immediate vicinity of Maleme aerodrome during the night of 20-21 May.  Early in the day we still commanded the landing area with machine-gun, trench mortar, and artillery fire.  However, at 9:15 a.m. the enemy dropped approximately 500 parachutists just west of the aerodrome, also another lot in the vicinity of the enemy's main concentration at the prison and on the road five miles south west of Canea.  At 4:15 p.m. 500 parachutists dropped behind the aerodrome defences and our field guns were put out of action by air action.  At 5 p.m. thirty planes landed on the aerodrome and others on the beaches.  I am hoping to reinforce Maleme tonight but the situation is now obscure and, I feel, perhaps precarious.  Everybody here is determined to fight hard.  Do all you can to damage the surface of the aerodrome."

Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mätauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

German AA gun-crew at Maleme airfield while transport Ju52s continue to come in.

Allied counter attack, 22 May

The move of the 20th NZ did not go to plan.  The Australian battalion had suffered air attacks and delay on their way to Chania, so the New Zealanders did not reach their start point for the attack until nearly 03:00.  The Maoris had been at their start point for some 3 hours, and the slow movement of the Australians to hand over their transport to the New Zealanders would result in the attack going ahead with only two companies (C & D) of the 20th Battalion.  While the hand over had been taking place in Chania between the two battalions, the flotilla of sea borne reinforcements for Von der Heydte at Maleme was intercepted and destroyed by the British fleet.  

The following is a quote from Sandy Thomas's book, 'Dare to be Free'; he was with 23 Battalion.  "We waited all that day, and all the next night for the expected orders to execute our planned role of the counter-attack on the aerodrome at Maleme.  We knew te 22nd Battalion was in grave peril there and that the main weight of the attack had come in against them.  But, even when two companies, sent up for reinforcements, returned to report the position confused, no orders were forthcoming.  It was not until early the next morning, when the men of the 22nd Battalion began to stream into our lines, that I realised the order never would be given.  Yet, without any doubt, the initiative up to that time was ours for the asking.  From that time the tide of battle began to swing in favour of the side with enterprise, and as that side was building up each hour and had such aerial supremacy as was never to be seen again, I began to see that the Battle of Crete might go against us.  I felt very bitter."

It is worth expanding a little on these delays.  Freyberg had all along been troubled by the threatened sea invasion which he believed to be the main thrust rather than the air drops.  After the war he said "We for our part were mostly preoccupied by seaborne landings, not by the threat of air landings".  Because of this concern he was not prepared to allow 20 Battalion to leave their position around Canea until they were relieved by the Australians (2/7 Battalion) from Georeoupolis, and he ordered Puttick (C.O. NZ Division) accordingly.  Unfortunately as mentioned above the Australians were delayed en-route by bombing and the result was the five companies became spread out.  According to Major Burrows (C.O. 20 Battalion) it was around 1 a.m. on the 22nd before the Australians had all arrived and completed the relief of his battalion.  Meanwhile Hargest at 5 brigade HQ was concerned that 20 Battalion were not arriving, his original plan had been for the advance of the two battalions to start at 1 a.m. (the time at which 20 were being relieved by the Australians).  Hargest was not aware of Freyberg's requirement for the full relief of 20 Battalion before they could move; "I did not know that the 20th had to be relieved by Australians, then embus and come 6 miles to me.  I was not told till very late."

The frustration of those involved in the counter-attack was made worse by the fact that they could see and hear the flashes of gunshot out to sea that were the obvious hallmarks of the Royal Navy preventing the expected sea invasion.  Requests to Puttick to move the 20th forward before their relief by 2/7 because of the events at sea, were turned down.  It is a pity that Freyberg did not have more faith in the Navy's ability to deal with any seaborne force.  They had destroyed the Italians at Matapan and evacuated Freyberg's men from Greece; they had a track record.

[Note: Von der Heydte was a Colonel on D-Day and would be part of the force defending behind Utah Beach.  He appears again at Arnhem where he commands one of the units facing 101st Airborne.  He was also at Eban Emael]

From SBNO Suda Bay  (WO106/3241)

Several further heavy raids on Suda Bay.  GSLK (Logician) hit.  Military holding defensive position east of Maleme.  Field guns have been lost.  Retimo no change.  Heraklion further enemy landings.  Blenheims gave great encouragement.

The upshot of the delay was that at 2.45 a.m. two companies of 20 Battalion had arrived at the start line, with no sign of the rest of the battalion, dawn would be coming up soon.  Hargest could see his plan falling apart somewhat by now; "I rang Div HQ and asked must the attack go on - "It must" was the reply, and so on it went - Too late."  The Official NZ History makes the point that Hargest, in making his request, did not seem to appreciate the importance of holding Maleme.  "In making this suggestion Hargest was probably looking at the situation solely from the point of view in his own sector.  He does not seem to have realised that Maleme was now the vital point for the defence of the whole island; and indeed it may be that Creforce and Division are to blame for not having made this clear to him."

The history also takes a view on Freyberg's decision not to release the 20th earlier.  "The only real point for argument, therefore, is whether or not Freyberg and Puttick should have released 20 Battalion before the relief.  As events turned out it was disastrous not to do so.  But in a fair view it will be remembered how much importance naturally attached itself to the invasion by sea, and how difficult it must have been for a commander responsible for the defence of the coast to assume confidently that the Navy would be able to find and destroy the convoys sneaking across in the dark from the mainland."

While accepting the point that it must have been difficult for Freyberg it is also fair (but I admit hindsight is a wonderful thing) to suggest that if the vital importance of regaining Maleme was not so apparent to Freyberg, then his whole defence of Crete was at risk.  With no real naval force available to them, the Germans were reliant on the airfields, Maleme especially, for support and re-supply.  Even if the sea invasion had succeeded it would have been sorely knocked about, as Freyberg could see and hear, so the ground forces who were landed would also need re-supply and support via the airfield.

At 03:30 the attack went ahead.  [See the account by a New Zealander, Tom Beel.] The 20th, under Brigadier Burrows, advanced on the seaward side of the road, and  were tasked to clear the airfield, while the Maori Battalion (28th), under Colonel Dittmer, was to retake Hill 107.  The attack was supported by three light tanks led by Lt. Farran.  The 20th met stiff resistance but did make slow progress.  The Maoris on their left made better progress as many of the Germans they had expected to meet had earlier withdrawn to the north, and were now hindering the 20th in their advance.  When the two forces of Burrow and Dittmer met it was starting to get light.  They decided that C Company (of 20th) would go for the north of Pirgos village, while D Company would attack the eastern edge of the airfield.  The Maoris would make their direct assault on Hill 107.  The tanks would go pretty much through the centre towards Pirgos, unfortunately they were quickly disabled making the C Company advance into the village very difficult.  Although the forces were advancing the failure of Hargest and Puttick to commit all available forces in the area to the attack was now causing the gains to be squandered.  Dittmer tried to get Leckie and Andrews with their 23rd and 22nd Battalions to support him and Burrows.  They declined, preferring to hold the ground they had.  The counter attack had come to a halt.  During the time that all this was going on Brigadier Hargest was signaling Division that he thought the Germans might be withdrawing!  Despite bitter fighting, the advance of the 20th turned into a withdrawal.  It would be a similar scenario for the 21st.  Although they initially made good progress towards Hill 107, by the afternoon they were forced to withdraw to Vineyard Ridge.  

'Sandy' Thomas comments in his book that the men of the 23rd Battalion "ex-farmers, ex-miners, ex-bank clerks who had come so far to do the job, felt sullenly critical of the powers that were withdrawing them."

All through these actions the troops had been suffering from the poor communications that were to plague them on Crete.  Companies could not stay in touch with themselves, or their Battalion HQ, and similarly, battalion could not stay in touch with Brigade.  This poor communication, and Hargest's optimistic nature must have been the cause of the signals he sent that morning which did not reflect the situation on the ground;

"Steady flow of enemy planes landing and taking off.  May be trying to take troops off.  Investigating."

"From general quietness and because eleven fires have been lit on drome it appears as though enemy might be preparing evacuation. .... Do any other reports from other sources show further evidence of this?"   

"Reliable reports state aerodrome occupied by own troops line now held EAST side of drome."

He would later that day take a different tone;

"Recent messages make position confused.  ....  Officers on ground believe enemy preparing for attack and take serious view.  I disagree but of course they have closer view."

With our mobile phones, internet, CNN etc we forget that communications were not always so easy and direct.  There is a telling comment in the 20 Battalion history.  "...The message should have been delivered at 10pm the night before.  We were lucky to get it at all.  Here was a case where we suffered through lack of modern equipment.  A battalion fully equipped should carry portable wireless sets.  We had none.  The Germans had swags of them."

At the same time as the Germans were fighting off the counter attack at Maleme, they were attacking strongly at Galatas, South West of Chania, and threatening to cut the Chania-Maleme coast road.  The attacks came from forces under Colonel Heidrich as cover for some of his forces who were trying to make contact with those under Ramcke.  These attacks met stiff opposition from poorly armed Greek forces.  However, during 23rd May Heidrich's forces were able to join up with those on the coast road.

All through the day Ramcke's reinforcements were being flown into Maleme, despite the attack on the airfield.  However, a large number of the transports were destroyed on the ground.  With the strengthening of the German forces, General Ringel was flown into Maleme on the evening of the 22nd.  Control of the Battle for Crete had now definitely moved from General Student, who had lost the confidence of the German High Command.

The two photos below are reconnaissance photos taken on the 26th May, they are from file AIR 40/1402 in the National Archives in Kew.  There is another photo in the file from 23 May and a comparison shows the build up of aircraft on the ground at Maleme.  Unfortunately I did not copy that from the 23rd.  The second of the two photos is a blow up of the southern corner of the airfield.  Some of them will be glidrs while others will be JU52 transports.  Although they do not show well in this reproduction, there are also some in the river valley to the west of the airfield.

5th Brigade withdrawn.  By early evening on the 22 May Freyberg had decided that he wanted a second counter attack to be made by 5 Brigade, who would be strengthened by two battalions from 4th Brigade.  Circumstances would prevent this.  Hargest, who had not yet visited his troops at the front was pessimistic about the chances of this second attack succeeding, he sent a message to Division; "... troops had been severely attacked, were considerably exhausted, and certainly not fit to make a further attack".  Also, Puttick was less in favour of moving two battalions from 4th Brigade as he was concerned about German activity in Prison Valley and around Galatas and that it might cut off 5th Brigade from 4th Brigade.  Freyberg allowed himself to be persuaded and 5th Brigade were pulled back from Maleme towards 4th Brigade, completing the move during the night of the 23/24th.  Ringel could now consolidate his hold on Maleme, and the Maleme/Chania coast road, and join up with the forces in the Galatas are.  Freyberg had always said that control of the airfields was crucial to the control of Crete.  By allowing the counter attack to go ahead without committing his troops in sufficient strength, and then canceling the second attack, he had allowed that control to go to the Germans.  This effectively lost the island.

From H.Q. RAF M.E.  11:16  25/5  (WO106/3241)
5 South African Marylands bombed Maleme on 23/5
23/5  7 Hurricanes were sent to Crete of which one was destroyed on Heraklion aerodrome by ME109s.  2 Hurricanes machine gunned enemy MG post near Heraklion.  In early morning 24/5 1 Hurricane returned Egypt with 1 pilot of destroyed Hurricane on board.  Remaining 5 Hurricanes after machine gunning enemy MG posts near Heraklion and carrying out offensive patrol over Canea departed for Egypt.  1 Hurricane crashed near Ras El Kenaiys pilot safe.  Further 2 Hurricanes missing.
Night May 23/24......9 Wellingtons bombed enemy aircraft on beach and aerodrome at Maleme destroying 1 large aircraft and starting large fire on aerodrome....3 Wellingtons missing.
Night 24/25 1 Wellington dropped medical stores for our forces in Retimo area.

From SBNO Suda Bay 09:11 24/5  (WO106/3241)

...situation Heraklion Greeks hold town very short of ammunition.  Town heavily bombed yesterday.

By the 25th the signal traffic between Wavell (C-in-C Middle East) and London were indicating that things were not going too well;

1. Suda Bay is our main base.  It is also essential to the enemy.  Our immediate objective is to prevent the enemy from securing Suda Bay, he may have upwards of 10,000 men in contact with our troops holding Canea and Suda.

2. At Retimo and Heraklion parachutists having failed to clear the way for air transports have cut the northern coast road but it is hoped to open the road Heraklion-Suda for passage of reinforcements to Suda though our efforts have so far failed.  Although the enemy is making his main effort between Maleme and Suda there is still a danger of sea or airborne landings at Retimo and Heraklion which cannot therefore be altogether denuded of garrison even were the road open to reinforce Suda.

3. Our forces at Canea and Suda are approx. equal in numbers to the enemy but he has the very considerable advantage of air supremacy and can support his attacks by continuous and heavy bombardments. (WO 106/3243)

After the success at Galatas Inglis believed it had to be followed up by a strong counter attack.  For this he needed additional troops.  He called a conference during the night of the 25th, and invited Puttick as he needed him to release the additional forces he required.  Again Puttick did not attend but sent one of his staff, Colonel Gentry.  Gentry vetoed the counter attack as they felt they had no more reserves if they were used in the attack.  So Galatas had to be abandoned after it had been so hard won.  The sad fact was that while Puttick's New Zealand Brigades only had the 28th Battalion as a reserve, the British under General Weston around Suda bay certainly had some.  These British forces were kept under the command of British officers.  On the 26th Freyberg did assign some of Weston's forces to Inglis to relieve 5th Brigade, but by then it was too late.  Puttick had already decided for himself that withdrawal was necessary, and went to discuss this with Freyberg.  The command situation became further confused when Puttick arrived at HQ and was told that Weston was now in command of the forward area, and Puttick reported to Weston.

H.Q.  RAF  M.E.  (WO106/3241)
May 25 Hurricane and fighter Blenheims operating from Egypt endeavoured to machine gun Maleme aerodrome at dawn but prevented by mist.  One Hurricane force landed Heraklion.  During morning three squadrons of Blenheims one of Marylands and a number of Hurricanes heavily bombed and machine gunned enemy aircraft on Maleme aerodrome and neighbouring fields destroying estimated total 24 including JU52s and fighters.
.....three Blenheims which left to bomb Maleme in afternoon did not return.  Further six Blenheims bombed Maleme in evening.
Reports of RAF operations reported to have encouraged Imperial troops enormously.

By the morning of the 26th Freyberg had decided that all was lost, it was all down to retreat and evacuation now.  In the early hours of the 27th May orders went out to retreat to the south coast, to the little fishing village of Sfakia.

C-in-C Middle East to War Office 15:30 26/5  Sitrep 262 (WO106/3241)

Crete 25 May  ......our line was forced to yield somewhat and attempts are now being made to stabilise position.  Situation remains obscure but causes anxiety.