Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Organising a Historical refight pt 8: The New Zealand division on Crete 1941

The next couple of posts sees me taking a back seat and letting the players share their thoughts on the game. Unfortunately I didn't take many photos so you will just have to enjoy the first hand accounts.

Retaking Maleme

(aka, “They don’t like it Upham” by sergeant Bill May on Maleme airfield, 21 May)

Yesterday morning, 20 May 1941, at the start of the German invasion of Crete, 20th (South Island) Battalion was posted north of Galatas guarding the approaches to Suda bay and acting as divisional reserve. From first light we could see the Jerry paratroop planes and Stukas to the south giving our guys a hammering but we saw no action ourselves. Boys chaffing to get stuck in.

In the early afternoon the word came through that ‘Kip’ (Brigade commander Colonel Howard Kippenberger) wanted us to hook from the North and clear the paratroopers, off Red Hill overlooking Galatas. They’d given our Composite battalion a pasting.

We moved off cautiously using the vineyards to keep out of the sight of the Stukas and Messerschmitts. Sky was thick with them and we were slowed down a good deal.

Some time before 1500 we reached our start line and were told to halt and form a defensive position. Seems the top brass now thought the Germans had the hills to west of Galatas too thickly manned for a daylight op and we’d hit em instead after dark.

Around dusk the word came in that ‘Kip’ had arrived and there was some sort of conflab going on between our divisional commanders about some big push. They said Hargest had driven all the way from Maleme in a Bren carrier.

As night fell we got new orders. We were to prepare for immediate replacement of our position by an Aussi battalion and take their trucks and drive down and storm Maleme airfield during the night while Herman’s air boys were having their beauty sleep. We’d given the Germans a stern check in the morning. The whole world was watching. The key to the defense of the island was Maleme airfield to prevent Jerry bringing in reinforcements. Our chaps defending across their had been blasted off the field by the Luftwaffe and the airborn infantry and it needed retaking.

Galatas could be left in the capable hands of the the 18th and 19th and the doughty Composite Battalion and Greek fellows.

10pm. No sign of the Aussies. C’mon Aussi, c’mon, c’mon. Time to traverse the island and put in the attack while the skies were empty was running through our fingers.

11:00pm. Still no diggers or trucks.

11:30pm the Aussies arrive. We rapidly take over their trucks and get on our way.

‘Kip’ takes personal command over from Burrows. In support we have two troops of light tanks from the RTR and a couple of platoons of NZ Div Cav acting as infantry who have already survived several scrapes with the German paratroopers and Stukas during the day. We were glad of their support.

By 1:00am we are passing through the positions of 28 Maori Battalion at Palatanias guarding against a seaward assault. They cheer us on.

At 2:00am we disembark on the start line more than a mile east of Meleme village, our first objective.

As we are doing this we see the sky to the south west filled with tracer. We’re told its our 19th Engineers attacking point 107. Go the Sappers. If they can clear that our job will be so much easier. We hear later they broke through as far as the airfield but took tremendous losses which forced them to withdraw before dawn.

Four hours till sun rise. Precious little time to get our job done. We head off through the fields and vineyards towards the village. It’s a silent approach. No arty to shoot us in any way. Boys all keyed up.

Suddenly we are there. We attack on a two company front with D (Otago Southland) Coy on the left and B (Nelson/Marlborough) Coy on the right, each supported by a tank troop.

The Germans have machine gun nests and a captured Bofors screening the village. The Southern men are thrown back and their tank troop destroyed but B Coy with the help of Div Cav clear the spandaus and the Bofors they are facing.

My platoon under Captain Charlie Upham and   the rest of C (Westcoast) company attack through D company and storm the MG’s, acquiring many of these fine weapons and wreaking havoc on their former owners.

Meanwhile B company and Div Cav storm the northern end of the village and, after a vicious hand to hand fight with some grave losses, chase the Germans out.

In C company do the same to the southern end of the village. The Germans fall back trying to reform on the airfield. Upham’s leads our platoon and our remaining Tank troop are after them like a Terrier on a possum inflicting losses and giving them no respite.

Then we are all surging through on to the airfield shooting more Germans.

The paratroopers attempt a desperate stand mid airfield. Their fire is withering but there’s no stopping our guys with their blood up. We smash into them, shooting, grenading and cold steel. They break and run again.

But now dawn is almost on us and soon the fighters and dive bombers will be back. We’ve taken perhaps 25% casualties at this time but the boys are full of fight. ‘Kip’ pulls most of our mob back to start digging the slitties that we’ll soon desperately need.

The Tankies get sent to the far end of the field to make sure the dispirted Jerries stay at a respectable distance.

C Company, having killed all the Germans we could catch get a new job to clear any Germans off point 107 which over looks the airfield and link up with 19 Engineers if we can find them.

Off goes Charlie urging us to keep up.

We run into entrenched partroopers on the crest. It’s a fierce fight and many of our chaps go down. But the paratoopers are getting it as well.

The sun is now up and the planes can only be minutes away. Suddenly we on 107 see a new threat. To the south are Germans coming towards us in batallion strength. Tough Austrian mountain troops. Too numerous for a depleted rifle company to hold. The Alpine boys bite hard and C company lose about another platoon as we fall back on the main body on the airfield, taking a wounded but defiantly swearing Upham with us.

As the morning mist clears our tank comes under fire from an antitank gun west of the airfield. Fortunately they’re still tizzed up from being chased for a mile by bloodthirsty Kiwis and they miss. The Tank discretely retires back out of range to the main body.

Suddenly we hear the throb of aero engines and the fighters appear followed half an hour later by the ugly, bent wing butcher birds. Our trenches look frightfully shallow and close together. The boys peer skyward, licking their lips, anticipating a long hot day.

Then ‘Kip’ plays his trump card. In the middle of our position he spreads out a German Air recognition signal. He perked it clearing out a landing in Galatas yesterday morning.

The Stukas waggle their wings and search for other prey. They soon find it in the form of D company men who are marching to rejoin us having been dispersed during last night’s action. For a while they ride their luck.

From Point 107 we see the slopes start to fill with mountain men. We fire fitfully but they use the ground well. Our rifles seem inadequate against their spandaus. We lob a few mortar bombs their way. It slows them a little. They look confident. They have all day.

We have taken about 50% casualties now. We have no support in sight.

We know there are more Kiwis near at hand. Help must come soon.

The boys moral remains high. We’re determined to sell this ground dearly. And while we do there will be no planes landing at Maleme….

( Thanks to Richard for this well written acount. In his day job he was/is a history teacher)

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