Retreat
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Lew Lind
Official History
The retreat to Chora Sfakion 

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On the 27th May General Freyberg knew that the situation on Crete was such that a retreat and evacuation was inevitable.

[See separate page for some maps of the retreat from the Official History.]

Evelyn Waugh's book treats his time with the commandos and the exploits of Layforce on Crete with some humour in his novel "Officers and gentlemen".  This was the second volume of his trilogy, "Sword of Honour". Officers and Gentlemen

Amongst those retreating from Rethymnon was Lew Lind, a 19 year old Australian soldier.  He later wrote a book, Flowers of Rethymnon, describing some of his experiences once the withdrawal started.

On the 25th there was an over optimistic signal to London; "Provided we can prevent enemy from exploiting his one success by further large sea and airborne landings and can reinforce and maintain our forces we should be able to hold him, and eventually defeat him." (WO 106/3243)

On the morning of the 26th May Freyberg knew that the situation was collapsing around him.  The Allies held the Daratsos ridge a little S.W. of Hania, but this could not be held for long.  He wired to Wavell

"I regret to have to report that in my opinion the limit of endurance has been reached by troops under my command here at Suda Bay."

This was then followed by a wire from Wavell to Churchill on 27th May

"Fear we must recognize that Crete is no longer tenable and that troops must be withdrawn as far as possible.  It has been impossible to withstand weight of enemy air attack, which has been on unprecedented scale and has been through force of circumstances practically unopposed."

The mountains that form the backbone of Crete.  

This was taken from Megala Chorafia, just south of Suda Bay.

 

Photo J Dillon

 

While the Allied situation in Crete was deteriorating, a force of two commando battalions (some 500 men) under Colonel Robert Laycock was landed in Suda Bay between the 24th & 26th of May.  The Intelligence Officer was Captain Evelyn Waugh who wrote the 'Sword of Honour' trilogy, the second book 'Officers and Gentlemen' includes his time on Crete, though loosely fictionalized.  The force had set off for Crete believing that all was 'well in hand'.  

'Off again,' he said to Guy. 'They've laid on another destroyer.  here's the latest intelligence.  Everything in Crete is under control.  The navy broke up the sea landings and sunk the lot.  The enemy only hold two pockets and the New Zealanders have got them completely contained.  reinforcements are rolling in every night for the counter-attack.  The BGS from Cairo says it's in the bag.  We've got a very nice role, raiding lines of communications on the Greek mainland.' [Officers & Gentlemen]

As the commandos came ashore they were walking into a confused situation and discovered that many of the troops were not only dispirited, but had heard the rumour of an intended evacuation from Sphakia on the south coast.

There was a 1200 man Force Reserve, the 1st Welch, the Rangers and the Northumberland Hussars who were intended to relieve the New Zealanders west of Hania.  This force was under the command of Brigadier Inglis, but to add to the confusion General Weston kept control for himself.  In the confusion Weston ordered Force Reserve to replace 5th New Zealand Brigade west of Hania, and Brigadier Puttick ordered the exposed Australian Brigade south of Hania to withdraw to 42nd street, just west of Suda.  Force Reserve were now advancing alone against a far superior enemy force.  While some attempts were made to alert the Force to their predicament, it was dawn on the 27th, with firing in their rear, when they realised what had happened.

Force Reserve was cut off by Ramcke's paratroops and the 100th Mountain Regiment to their front, 3rd Parachute Regiment to their south in Prison Valley and the 141st Mountain Regiment in their rear.  While some escaped the encirclement, the majority were cut off.  Captain von der Heydte with the remaining force of 3rd Parachute Regiment swung round south of Hania to enter the town from the east through Halepa on the neck of the Akrotiri peninsula.  

The retreat of Freyberg's forces to Sphakia was disorganized mainly because of communication problems but also because many commanders were unaware of the whereabouts of General Weston who was supposed to be coordinating the whole move.  As well as the soldiers there were also "..thousands of unarmed troops including the Cypriots and Palestinians."  Freyberg described it as a "disorganised rabble making its way doggedly and painfully to the South. ... Never shall I forget the disorganisation and almost complete lack of control of the masses on the move as we made our way slowly through that endless stream of trudging men." [Quoted in O.H.]
That day was a difficult one for Freyberg, he knew he had to withdraw and evacuate, but so far he had no authority from Wavell to do this, and he had no communication with Lt. Col. Campbell at Rethymnon.  At 11 a.m. he signaled Wavell that he felt the withdrawal was the only option, and urged this decision on his commander.  General Wavell in his turn was awaiting orders from Churchill, to whom he had signaled that morning to say that defence of the island was no longer possible "..it would now have to be accepted that Crete could be held no longer and that the troops would have to be withdrawn in so far as that was possible."  The response was sent by London at 7.30 p.m. to evacuate but by then Wavell had already, by mid afternoon, ordered the withdrawal.
While the forces involved in the retreat from Maleme, Canea and Suda Bay were making their way east and south those at Rethymnon and Heraklion were still holding on, but with diminishing supplies and no effective communication with Freyberg.  Lt. Col. Campbell was not aware of the withdrawal and Brigadier Chappel received his order to be ready to pull out from H.Q. Middle East, not from Freyberg.  On receiving the authority to withdraw from Wavell Freyberg tried to get a message to Campbell at Rethymnon, a message that Campbell did not receive, but he realised that he and his men would need to leave.  Had the message got through he would have read that he should embark at Plaka Bay and that; "Most regrettable we can do nothing to help in this matter. ... We will be on move tonight. ... You and your chaps have done splendidly.  Evacuation is due to overwhelming air superiority in this section.  Cheerio and good luck to you."  Freyberg believed that the message had got through.
While Laycock's 'Layforce' provided the rearguard the rest of the men set out on the difficult trek across the mountains, the Askifou Plain and the tricky descent to Sphakia.  Water was in short supply, the men were not in organised groups and they were under air attack.  But many made it.
One of the members of Layforce was Dennis 'Haggis' Ford whose obituary was in the Daily Telegraph on 7th August 2006.  Ford became a Lieutenant Colonel and earned the MC and the MBE.  The section of his obituary relating to Crete is reproduced below.

After training in Scotland he was posted to 7 Commando, part of Layforce, and took part in a number of raids, including one on the port of Bardia, Libya, in April 1941.  He was in action again in the defence of Crete, when he fell down a hole in a cliff during an enemy attack.  He was found by his batman and, after the island fell, was fortunate to be one of the survivors who were evacuated by the Royal Navy.  After training in the Jungle Warfare School in India, Ford served with Force 136, part of SOE, in Burma.  [It was here he earned the MC.]

   This view was taken in September, 1999.  We have just come over the first range of hills south of Suda Bay.  In front is the Askifou plain and then the next mountain range en-route to Chora Sfakion.  There is a little local museum in the village in the middle of the photo.  It is run by a little old lady who was in the Cretan Resistance during the war.  The museum is full of items that she and her son have recovered from the plain.  This whole area was littered with weapons and equipment cast aside by the retreating troops in those hot days in May.

Photo J Dillon

 

The evacuation from Heraklion is covered on a separate page; as they were taken from that port by the navy they did not need to cross the mountains to the south coast.  At Rethymnon Colonel Campbell would not retreat to Sphakia until he received orders to that effect.  Although Freyberg had sent an officer with orders to that effect, he arrived without them in all the confusion, but told Campbell what was happening, Campbell did not see that information as an order.  General Ringel was advancing to Rethymnon with a view to continuing to Heraklion, this would be an overwhelming force against Campbell, but because Ringel only sent the 100th Mountain Regiment south towards Sfakion, the retreating Allied forces got away lightly.  By the 29th the British force had been evacuated from Heraklion, so allowing German forces to advance on Campbell from the east as well as Ringel's force to the west.  While some men escaped to the hills to be helped by the Resistance, Campbell surrendered the rest to the Germans.

As at Dunkirk, a retreating force requires some luck.  Ringel did not give hot pursuit to the forces evacuating southwards.  He concentrated on moving east along the coast to prevent Freyberg's troops falling back on their force in Heraklion.  As well as this decision by Ringel, Freyberg was also assisted by the re-allocation of much of Richtofen's VIII Fliegerkorps to Barbarossa, so reducing the air bombardment on the retreating forces.

 

As the German forces pushed their way east, the Allied troops made their way towards Chora Sfakion.  

Those who have been on holiday in Crete may well have driven this road, it climbs steeply up the mountains towards the Askifou plain at about 3,000 ft.  The country is extremely rough, covered in sharp rocks and thorn bushes (like the one on the right).  In the heat of late May, low on water and demoralized, it must have been a severe test of the troops.  On their way men discarded weapons and equipment to make the journey easier.  Today there is a small museum mentioned above, full of this discarded equipment.  

Photo J Dillon

The route for the retreating men was across the Askifou Plain, to the Imbross Gorge, then a steep descent to the little fishing village of Sphakia (Sfakion, Chora Sfakion depending on your map).  The evacuation from the beaches would take place at night from the 29th May to the 1st June.  Freyberg was one of the first to leave by Sunderland flying boat.  While some have felt he should have stayed longer, the British could not afford to lose an officer of his rank to the Germans, and even more important, could not risk his 'Ultra' knowledge falling to the enemy.

The scene on the beaches was not inspiring.  Many of the first to arrive had been base personnel rather than fighting troops.  They were raiding food stores, lacked discipline and were not part of 'formed units'.  Brigadier Hargest was determined that as the fighting units had borne the brunt of the burden the last few days, they should get priority when it came to leaving the beaches.  But deciding who left and who stayed was not so simple.  In the end the Navy rescued some 17,000 but had to leave about 5,000 at Sfakion.  There was to be an understandable feeling of unfairness on the part of the men, as so many of the officers had ensured that they got away, leaving their men on the beaches.

Colonel Laycock is one who has come in for criticism, he was supposed to command the rear guard and had been told by Freyberg "you were the last to come so you will be the last to go".  That is not how it worked out and Laycock was one who was evacuated.  General Weston, before he also left by flying boat, wrote a note to Lt. Col. Colvin instructing him to surrender the remaining troops to the Germans.

On the final evacuation night of 31 May/1st June Laycock gathered together some of the men of Layforce and moved them to the beaches, the rest were at the head of the Sfakion ravine under Lt. Co. Young.  At 11p.m. Laycock had a runner take a message to Young to bring the troops to the beach for embarkation.  This was too late, Young could not pull them out that quickly.  Because Colvin had left the beach rather than stay and surrender the forces, this was left to Young to carry out.  While looking for a German officer to whom he could surrender Young came across Lt. Col. Walker, commanding 2/7 Australians.  As Walker was senior to Young, the job of offering the surrender fell to Walker.

"The ghosts of an army teemed everywhere.  Some were quite apathetic, too weary to eat; others were smashing their rifles on the stones, taking a fierce relish in this symbolic farewell to their arms; an officer stamped on his binoculars; a motor bicycle was burning; there was a small group under command of a sapper Captain doing something to a seedy-looking fishing-boat that lay on its side, out of the water, on the beach.  One man sat on the sea-wall methodically stripping down his Bren and throwing the parts separately far into the scum.  A very short man was moving from group to group saying; 'Me surrender?  Not bloody likely, I'm for the hills.  Who's coming with me?'"  [Officers & Gentlemen]

Laycock later claimed that all fighting forces were in position for embarkation.  That was not correct as the Marines and 2/7 Australian Battalion had not arrived and the final orders for Layforce, as recorded in their war diary, required Layforce "to embark after other fighting forces but before stragglers".  

For those captured at Sfakion there was the prospect of the march back to Hania over the road they had used for their retreat, and the rest of the war as a prisoner of war.

The following is a section from PRO file AIR 23/6751 and gives some views on Leadership failings during the retreat.

"Leadership.  Lessons & Experiences.

Officers and NCOs must maintain command at all times; they must take command and re-organize all leaderless troops in their vicinity; men must be taught in such circumstances immediately to place themselves under command of the nearest Officer or NCO.  All movements of troops must be properly under command and the slightest tendency to straggling prevented.  All leaders must be prepared to set an example of courage and coolness to steady their men in a crisis.

Areas in which men are dispersed must be under continuous watch and control by Officers and NCOs and any tendency on the part of the men themselves to control such areas as by calling out to transport to move on, or to individuals to stop moving or to take cover, must be rigidly suppressed."

In January 2003 I was contacted by Christine Dickens with the following snippet about her father.  It would seem that he had been one of the unlucky ones who did not get away.  As the 89 HAA were in the Souda Bay/Canea area, and with the reference to the long walk, I am assuming that he was one of those who made for Sfakia.  "In doing some family history recently I have learned that my father Gunner Ernest William Payne 89th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment was posted to Crete and reported missing in June 1941. He returned from a German Prisoner of War Camp in May 1945. He could never really talk about his experiences but I can remember his saying that they had to walk a long way to try and get onto a boat and the chap he was with had flat feet and couldn't walk well and by the time they got there it was too late. I found your site very interesting and informative."
The landing stage today at Chora Sfakion.  It is still a tiny village.

Photo J Dillon

I was sent the following sonnet by Pete Turpie.  He wrote it while on holiday at Chora Sfakion.  He has a site with more of his poems, and some more photos of the village.   www.alanwickes.org 

Hora Sfakion
In memory of Allied soldiers killed during the evacuation of
Crete , May 1941.

And as today, did dove-grey islands float
like wisps of smoke smudging the horizon;
at anchor, rows of blue-stemmed fishing boats
knock and nudge in harbour? By dawn they’d gone,
the dark destroyers - those fickle saviours.
Some soldiers wept, laid down their arms and sat
awaiting death amongst the bougainvilleas.
Instead, they found an eerie peace: a cat
curled-up beneath a shadowy veranda,
a myriad of lemon butterflies,
shimmering amongst the oleander.
Oblivious to our forebear's sacrifice
we eat our lunch. What violence was done
so we might feast beneath the Cretan sun?

 

The photo of the plaque on the left was taken by Tomas Chatzopoulos who was on holiday on Crete.  He surprised me when he emailed me from the island to say that he had been viewing the site on his mobile phone!