|The retreat to Chora
|On the 27th May General Freyberg knew that
the situation on Crete was such that a retreat and evacuation was
[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".
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withdrawn as far as possible.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
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 &
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
|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.
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
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
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.
is a section from PRO file AIR 23/6751 and gives some views on Leadership
failings during the retreat.
"Leadership. Lessons &
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
||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
as today, did dove-grey islands float
In memory of Allied soldiers killed during the evacuation of
, May 1941.
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!