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The 2nd Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment

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The Battalion arrives on Crete
Forces defending Heraklion
Attack on Heraklion
Lt. McEwan killed on patrol
Battalion's last action
CQMS Fred Crosby

The 2nd Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment (York & Lancs) was based in Khartoum in the Sudan when the Second World War broke out.  They were there almost a year on a station classed in normal times as "one-year no-family" because of its very bad climate.  The health of the battalion was deteriorating when they were moved to Cairo in January of 1940.  Their stay there was very short, as they were moved to Jenin in northern Palestine in mid January.  While in Palestine they were part of the 14th Infantry Brigade, which moved again in late May, 1940, for the area around Cairo.  The Brigade was later broken up, some elements going to the Western Desert, but the 2nd Battalion was destined for Alexandria, much to their disappointment.  They were still there when Italy launched its attack on Greece in October 1940, but were now about to be moved.  On the 28th October Lieutenant-Colonel Sim, C.O. of the battalion, was told by Vice-Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commanding the British Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, that the battalion was now on loan to the Royal Navy and would be moving to Crete as soon as possible in the cruiser H.M.S. Ajax.  On the 1st November, 1940, the battalion sailed for Crete, arriving at Suda Bay on the 2nd November.  Their arrival was met by an attack by the Italian Air Force, Lance-Corporal Loosemore and Private Lister were both wounded.  They were the battalions first casualties of the Second World War.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sim had been told to dispose his forces in such a way as to protect the anchorage at Suda Bay from attack by a raiding force.  No-one was yet talking of an aerial invasion.  On the 7th November Sim's force was strengthened when the S.S. Brisbane Star arrived with the rest of the battalion's transport and the rear party.  H.M.S. York also brought the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch as well as one heavy and one light battery of anti-aircraft artillery, and one field company of engineers.  The arrival of the British troops allowed the 5th Cretan Division to be released from Crete to the defence of mainland Greece.  On the 31st December, 1940, Lieutenant-Colonel Sim took an appointment in Egypt and was replaced as C.O. of the Battalion by Major A. Gilroy of the Black Watch.  Little was happening on Crete, but in April of 1941 the Allied forces in Greece were forced to evacuate the mainland, many of them heading for Crete.  While this evacuation was taking place the Battalion and the Black Watch were moved to the area around Heraklion.  Also, as a result of the evacuation from Greece the command of forces on Crete was placed in the hands of Major-General Freyberg, V.C.   

Forces available for the defence of Heraklion
Commander Brigadier B.H. Chappel D.S.O.
Infantry 2nd Battalion The York & Lancaster Regiment
2nd Battalion The Black Watch
1st Battalion The Leicestershire Regiment
300 Australian riflemen and 250 artillerymen armed as infantry
Artillery 12 Bofors guns, two troops of heavy anti-aircraft guns and 5 captured Italian guns
Armour 2 infantry tanks and a troop of light tanks of the 3rd Hussars
Greek troops 3 infantry battalions

From around the middle of May the air attacks against Heraklion built up to the point where there were four or five a day, but the RAF had been withdrawn from the island (see 33 Squadron) on 19th May, so there was no air defence other than AA batteries.  On the 20th May the invasion started against the area around Maleme airfield in the west.  Word filtered in to the Heraklion area of what was happening, then the air attacks built up in intensity until they had an "Air Raid Purple", the prearranged signal that troop carriers were coming in.  The Ju52 transports came in at around 400ft. "four abreast in long columns which stretched out of sight" (battn history).  They were met by very heavy ground fire.  The following is directly from the battalion history.

Ju52 transports over Heraklion

In a matter of seconds the air was full of parachutes slowly descending to the ground.  The moment the Battalion had waited for had come.  Intense small-arms fire caused very heavy casualties among the enemy.  Of those who escaped death in the air, the majority were killed on the ground, before they had time to get clear of their harness, by small parties of men rushing from their slit trenches with bayonets and bombs.  The tanks and carriers also came out of their hiding-places and massacred all those who landed in the open.

On the Battalion front outside the perimeter opposite "B" Company, one large group of enemy landed in an area occupied by some Greek troops.  "B" Company promptly attacked and spent a couple of hours in rather confused fighting in some very enclosed country.  They killed a number of the enemy and then left the Greeks to carry out the final mopping-up.  Meanwhile, well inside the perimeter another body of enemy had collected in a small village.  "C" Company, which was in reserve, put in an immediate counter-attack and dealt with them well and truly before they had time to get properly organized.  Some eighty of the enemy were killed for the loss of about five casualties.  The rest of the Battalion was not so heavily involved but dealt with everything that fell in its area, even the Quartermaster, Lieutenant Armstrong, taking part and for the expenditure of one round, accounting for the only paratrooper who had the temerity to try and invade his store.

The enemy fared no better at the hands of the other units of the garrison.  Of about 1,000 enemy troops who had come down inside the perimeter, over 900 of them had been buried by noon the next day.  Small parties and odd individuals of course escaped, but these were mopped up during the next few days.  Quite a large force, however, had fallen clear of the perimeter and parties of them were heard calling to each other after dark; they made no attempt to attack, being possibly too shaken by what had happened to their comrades.  Thus the day ended in complete victory for the Heraklion garrison and the total failure of the Germans to achieve their object of capturing the aerodrome by direct airborne attack.

After this attempt there were no more paratroop drops on Heraklion, but the Germans did put a lot of effort into building up their forces outside the Heraklion perimeter.  The battalions role was now very much of digging in and holding the defence line, while putting out patrols as necessary, again from the battalion history;

One of the most successful leaders of the Battalion's patrols was Lieutenant D. McEwan.  He had joined the Battalion in March from the United Kingdom, having quite illegally avoided being posted to the Infantry Bas Depot in Egypt, and been made Intelligence Officer.  Somewhere he had picked up an English-speaking Greek soldier who had lost his unit.  This man, whom he attached to his Intelligence Section, proved invaluable as an interpreter.  With the local information which he gleaned from the villagers, Lieutenant McEwan and his picked band of men were able to penetrate far into the enemy-held country and bring back prisoners, booty and much useful data about the whereabouts of enemy forces.  Unfortunately, when leading such a patrol three days before the evacuation, Lieutenant McEwan ran into a machine-gun nest and was killed instantly.  This officer had only been with the Battalion a short time, but his ever-cheerfulness had made him popular with all ranks.  In the last few days he had proved himself a born leader and a very brave officer.

While the Germans were positioning forces around the Heraklion garrison, but before the encirclement was completed, a company of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders joined the defence, having made their way across the island from their landing on the south coast at Tymbaki.  The Germans were continually probing against the defences and the following is the last serious fighting in which the battalion took part before their evacuation from the island.

When it was reported that the enemy on the front of "B" Company appeared to be  withdrawing, a battalion attack was hastily organized by Lieutenant-Colonel Gilroy to accelerate their departure.  This was carried out on a two-company front with "B" company on the right and "A" Company on the left, whilst a company of the Leicesters under command was in reserve.  Two light tanks were also attached for the operation.  The advance was over very enclosed country, consisting of a mass of small houses and gardens.  The field of fire was nowhere more than fifty yards.  All went well for about eight hundred yards, as the enemy fell back without offering much resistance.  Then both tanks dropped out as their machine gun locks broke and there were no spares.  Soon after this "A" and "B" Companies were held up by very heavy automatic fire.  from this it appeared that the enemy was now on the line he intended to hold.  Every corner and turning seemed to be covered by fire and it was almost impossible to pick out the enemy posts in the thick and enclosed country.  The reserve company was put in to turn the left flank, but it found it strongly held and suffered considerable casualties.  As there was a danger of the enemy infiltrating at night and getting through the gap which the advance had left in the perimeter, the attack was called off and all companies withdrew to their original positions.  Whilst commanding "A" Company during the attack, Captain Tucker was very severely wounded.

By now the position on the island had been lost, particularly in the west, and General Freyberg had ordered the evacuation of Allied forces from Crete.  The 2nd Battalion would leave from Heraklion port by sea.  At 06:00 on the 28th May Brigadier Chappel, who commanded the forces around Heraklion, issued orders for the evacuation of Heraklion.  The battalion, being nearest the harbour, would form an inner ring around it, and would fight to cover the embarkation of other units if the enemy followed them in.  If all went well, they would also be evacuated.  No one below the rank of officer was to be told of the evacuation before 20:00.  This secrecy extended to the hospital which had been set up in Knossos (site of the ancient palace).  The situation with the hospital was a little unique.  When the hospital fell into the area occupied by the Germans, they allowed it to continue operating as a joint hospital with red cross ambulances bringing in British wounded from Heraklion.  Captain Tucker was one of those left behind, and he later died of his wounds as a prisoner of war.

When the men were told of the impending evacuation, at 20:00, they were astonished "as to them the whole battle of the last ten days had seemed to have been eminently successful."  D Company, under Major J.H. Mott was the last to withdraw.  The ships taking them off eventually got away, later than planned, at 03:30 on the 29th May, and they were badly attacked en-route Alexandria as they knew they would be.  "Of the 4,000 troops in the evacuation from Heraklion, over one-fifth had been killed wounded or captured during the ill-fated voyage back to Egypt."

One of those from the Battalion who died on the 28th May was CQMS Frederick Arthur Crosby, aged 26.  I have been contacted by his grand daughter, Mandy Eastman, who visited Crete this year, and was at the Suda Bay cemetery on the 28th May, exactly 60 years after he was killed.  Mandy has sent me an email with some words on her grandfather, and some photos from Suda Bay.  Rather than use my words, I have taken the liberty of including most of her email below.
"As I said earlier, we visited the Suda Bay cemetery earlier this year. We found Fred, and were overwhelmed with the emotion of the place. We all cried, and said a prayer, for Fred and the others. It was so surreal, to be in such a beautiful place, knowing what a terrible event had occurred there sixty years previously.  Neither my grandmother, Fred's wife, nor my mother,
had ever visited the grave, so we were the first family to see him. My son, Anthony, Fred's great grandson, and I recognized that we would not even exist if it were not for Fred.

I attach a couple of snaps we took at Suda bay, along with the only photograph I possess of Fred himself. I believe it was taken a few weeks before he sailed with the regiment. Like most of the men who died, he looks so young. When we visited Suda bay, we placed some red and white silk roses on Fred's grave, to represent the red and white of the Yorks and Lancs Regiment. The medals were the actual medals sent to my grandmother by the war department for his service. He obviously never got to receive them.

Fred was born in Barton-le-Willows in Yorkshire in 1915, and spent most of his life in the tiny village of Bossall just  9 miles north east of York. A full blown Yorkshireman if ever there was one. His mother is buried in St Botolphs church at Bossall, and Fred  is himself remembered in the village church, where they have a small wooden plaque with the names of 6 military
personnel who lost their lives between 1939 and 1945.( I have a picture if you would like it ). For a village of less than twenty houses, this must have been a staggering blow. It makes you realize that, as in the great war of 1914-18, every town and village in the land sent their best sons and daughters to war. Horrible.

The island of Crete is so beautiful. The people so friendly. We visited the little museum dedicated to the battle of Crete, and met the owner, an amazing character who lived through the battle. His house is in effect a shrine to the battle. He lost his parents to the nazis, and was himself blown up by stuka divebombers and lost an eye and some of his hearing. My husband's uncle was also captured on the island, and subsequently spent many years in captivity, until being freed by Yugoslav partisans later in the war, but that's another tale.

I wrote to the York and Lancs museum, and have received written data on the battle. You are quite correct when you say Fred was unlucky. Another few hours and he might have escaped the island. By all accounts though, the ships rescuing the military were themselves subject to horrendous attack, and many more lives were lost.

Its all very humbling really, and to think we still have military forces at war in Afghanistan today: Have we really learned anything from it all. I don't know. It just seems very sad to think about it."