Maj. Macalister Hall
|The story of the 1st
and Sutherland Highlanders on Crete.
|I was contacted by Lawrence Madill who sent me a copy of
some pages from "The Thin Red Line", the magazine of the
Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. The articles were written by
the CO of the unit during the action on Crete, Lt-Col R.C.B.
Anderson. The articles were written a few years after the
war. They were sent to Lawrence by Lt-Col (Ret) A.W. Brown.
|Extracts from the magazine
are shown in blue text.
|A recurring theme in the narrative of the involvement of
the A&SH is the poor level of communication on the island, and
between different units. It is probably fair to assume that other
British units suffered similar problems. "During
the ten days of the battle we, in the Heraklion centre, knew little or
nothing as to how the other sectors were faring, for communications
between the sectors were almost non-existent, and we relied almost
entirely on the BBC news bulletins to keep us informed as to how the
battle was going in the other sectors and on the sea."
|On the 15th May, prior to the German invasion the
battalion was in the western desert performing guard duties. The
confusion they would experience over the coming weeks started from
square one as they received a warning order that they may move, this was
cancelled a few hours later, only to find that again later that day they
were ordered to move. Around midnight 16/17 May they were told
they were destined for Crete aboard HMS Glengyle, and they were set
three specific tasks on the island;
|(a) The defence
of Messara Plain and its preparation as an emergency landing-ground for
|(b) To watch for possible parachute
landings on Nida Plateau, in the hills north-west of Ay Deka.
|(c) The defence of the beach we
landed at, as it was expected to land further reinforcements at the same
|The landing was planned to be by landing craft at Tymbaki,
but they had no information as to its suitability as there had been no
aerial reconnaissance. They would in fact be the last battalion to
land on Crete, and their landing strength would include three infantry
tanks. They were told that the German attack might start on the
19th May, and the battalion should not expect air support because of
enemy air superiority. "This forecast
was to prove remarkably accurate, except that the expected enemy air
superiority in the early stages was to turn out to be complete air
monopoly during all the stages of the battle. The complete control
of the air by the Germans was destined to hamper and restrict all our
movements by day to such an extent that we were powerless to intervene
and prevent the continual build up of enemy troops and supplies, and
equally powerless to reinforce our own dwindling man power."
|The Glengyle was one of three cargo ships which had been
converted at the beginning of the war to carry troops and landing
craft. She was due to berth at Alexandria at 18:30 on the 17th
May. The following extract gives some indication of the problems
of loading ships for a landing, especially with changing timetables.
|"The ship did
not eventually arrive until 20:30 on 17th May, and we found it sadly
deficient of landing craft. Instead of its normal complement of
two motor landing craft (M.L.C.) and twelve assault landing craft
(A.L.C.), it actually carried three of the former and four of the
latter, and this deficiency of A.L.C. was obviously going to make more
difficult the landing in Crete, as instead of the normal two flights,
several flights would be necessary to land the Battalion and all its
stores. the time factor, therefore, became an immediate problem.
|Three parties had to have a say in
the timing. Firstly, the Royal Navy, who said that the ship must
leave Crete for its return journey not later than 04:00 hours on the
night selected for arrival. Then the Captain of the ship estimated
he would require 24 hours to make the crossing. Finally, we had to
estimate how long it would take us to off load troops and stores in the
few landing craft available. Ours was a difficult problem as we
had no information as to how close to the shore the ship would anchor,
and this factor was going to affect the number of flights the landing
craft could make from ship to shore and back. We also had to bear
in mind that off loading at Crete by manual labour in the dark would
take much longer than to load at Alexandria, a port equipped with all
modern loading facilities. We estimated that, if we had everything
stacked ready to put ashore, we should require not less than four
hours. This meant we must arrive not later than midnight on 18th -
19th May, and so leave Alexandria at midnight on 17th - 18th May.
It was then 20:30 hrs., and this left only 3.5 hours available to embark
the Battalion and load some 130 tons of stores, which had been stacked
for us in the docks at Alexandria.
|It was quite impossible to load all
these supplies in the time available, and even if it had been possible,
they could not have been put ashore at the other end. The 130 tons
represented 30 days' supplies, and included aviation petrol, and other
material for the RAF. We decided that the maximum amount we could
reasonably expect to off load in Crete was 10 days' supplies, exclusive
of some 50 tons of Battalion baggage and stores, and it was agreed that
we should load accordingly, provided we included the RAF stores.
As it turned out, this proved to be an accurate estimate, and the ship
could have been cleared in Crete if it had not been for some unforeseen
and unavoidable delays. It was very unfortunate that so much
stress was laid on the importance of loading the RAF stores, as it must
have been known that the existing landing grounds were already out of
action and that RAF participation in the defence of the island had
already ceased." Even after all
the problems there were further delays due to air-raids, the ship
eventually sailed at 01:00 on 18 May.
"The voyage was uneventful." Although
spotted by an aircraft at 18:00 there was no air attack to follow.
|The Glengyle anchored about a half
mile off Crete at 23:30 "on a fine still
night" for the battalion to move ashore. Problems
continued however, and the first wave did not arrive ashore until nearly
03:00on 19th May, and the ship was due to leave again at 04:00!
When the ship sailed punctually it had only landed a small percentage of
the necessary petrol, which would prove to be a serious problem.
The MLC's did not return to the ship, and one would be later used to
escape from the island.
|Having arrived on the island they needed to conceal
themselves from aerial observation and so lay under cover during all the
daylight hours of the 19th. Mindful of their set objectives, Lt.
Guy Valentine was to take a unit to investigate the suitability of the
area for an emergency landing ground, and he reported the area south of
Ay Deka as ideal. By the 20th the tanks and transports had arrived
and were off-loaded at Tymbaki and all companies were ready, in position
and with slit trenches dug. On the 20th the CO went to Heraklion
to visit Brigadier Chappel commanding the 14th Brigade for the defence
of the Heraklion area.
|The fact that the German attack/invasion really had begun
did not become apparent to those at Heraklion until about 17:00 when
some 200 Ju52's arrived at 300 feet and proceeded to drop some 2,000
parachutists. Some of these were on the Heraklion - Ay Deka road
at the Kaireti Farm, cutting
communications between the battalion and 14th Brigade so making the Farm
an objective in an attack by the battalion on the 24th May. These
landings were met by a series of counter attacks and by 21:30 the
British area was pretty well clear of the enemy. "The
success of the counter attacks was due to the speed with which they were
launched, to the good look-outs which had been kept, and to the fact
that they were carried out on the initiative of the local
|Although the Germans had landed at 17:00 there was no
message from Brigade HQ to the Argylls at Ay Deka. Word only came
when "a party of 20 RAF personnel arrived at
our HQ and told us that they had been unable to get into Heraklion as
they had run into heavy machine-gun fire north of Gournies".
They volunteered to form themselves into a RAF platoon and fight with
the Argylls. By now the road to Heraklion was cut and
communication difficulties were going to pose serious problems, "at
no time during the next ten days were we able to establish any kind of
communication with Brigade by means of wireless." The only
road route open now was Ay Deka, Praetorius, Heraklion, but the road to
Praetorius was little more than a sandy track. To communicate with
Heraklion a convoluted system of phone calls between police stations and
their onward transmission by dispatch rider was used, which meant a
delay of up to 6 hours for a response to an urgent message. The
battalion spent the 21st around Ay Deka with the intent of continuing to
pursue their objectives set before leaving Egypt. Meanwhile 14
Brigade continued their action at Heraklion against the German troops
who were consolidating their position on the ground.
|For the area from Tymbaki to Heraklion, see the detailed
map. I have used place name spellings from the "Thin Red
Line" article. They are different to those on the map.
Tymbaki = Timpaki, Ay Deka = Agii Deka, Praetorius = Pirgos