Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Organising a Historical refight pt 9: The New Zealand division on Crete 1941

 In this post we have a similar report from the other side of the fence; the regimental commander of 3 FJR.

First Morning

The regiment was wound up, everyone was looking forward to landing on Crete and more importantly getting out of the valley and onto Signal Hill. Take off went well. In the early light I could see the streams of Ju-52s rushing down the runway and labouring into the air. Forming up took longer than I had hoped but at last we were in formation and heading south. I went forward and checked with the pilot, he was tense, there was a lot of scattered cloud about and keeping formation was difficult. As I returned to my seat I could see that our tidy formation was already starting to spread out and break up. With a sense of foreboding I studied my maps for the hundredth time.

I was stirred from my study of the map by the warning that we were approaching the Cretan coast. As I move to my jump position I was horrified to see parachutes opening over Galatas. Some of my troops were landing over 2km north of their drop zone. (One of the few survivors of that gallant platoon made it back to our lines late that evening; he told a tale of chaos, troops landing amidst buildings, on roofs, desperately trying to reform. A very rapid counter attack was mounted by infantry and what appeared to be a scratch force of headquarters troops, led by two senior British officers.) Green light, time to jump, hoping like hell that the pilot had some idea where we are. There off to the north is the prison, it should be to the east but we were less that 1km off target. I hit the ground hard and rapidly gathered my gear, no sign of the regimental defence platoon so I join up with a nearby platoon of II Battalion and headed rapidly for our drop zone. We pass troops form all four battalions all rapidly heading for their respective drop zones, trying to form order out of chaos. Reports started to come in, II Battalion was dropped mildly scattered, the three remaining battalions are spread up to 2.5km from their drop zones.

Major Heilmann, of III Battalion, was killed organising a defence by platoons of at least three battalions against a strong attack by a Greek battalion east of the prison. Without the Me-109s strafing the attack as it came in the situation would have been much worse. This attack beaten off, the forming up proceeded reasonably smoothly. I took command of III Battalion in place of Major Heilmann as I was planning to accompany it. There was no contact with Generalmajor Sussmann, he appears not to have landed on Crete at all. Major Liebach of the VII Pioneer Battalion was very late arriving at his drop zone as he landed in an olive tree and had to be cut down.

The drop I saw over Galatas was unfortunately not an isolated instance. A number of platoons had fallen wide, those that landed to the south and west had a long march to their drop zones but were otherwise OK, except for the unfortunate platoon that ended up in the Reservoir. Those troops who landed east or north east of their drop zones appear to have landed amongst enemy troops and will have been lucky to survive. Over 25% casualties on landing but we have survived the initial counter attack. It is clear that there is more opposition than intelligence warned us of. Several platoons that were scattered onto Signal Hill have made it successfully down to their drop zone and the way north still appeared clear.

As the majority of each battalion reached it drop zone I and III Battalions push north according to plan. II Battalion forms a defensive line to the east of the Prison guarding against further attack from the Greeks. VII Pioneer Battalion formed up as reserve while waiting for its commander to be cut down from his tree. As I moved up with III Battalion to take the northern slopes of Signal hill I could clearly see the Stukas diving down on Wheat Hill in support of I Battalions attack. As the Stukas wheeled away and another Gruppe concentrated on Ruin Hill the lead company of I Battalion was seen occupying their first objective, Wheat Hill. I moved on with III Battalion and we successfully occupied the northern slopes of Signal Hill, covering the left flank of I Battalion and covering the coast road with fire.

First Afternoon

Reports came in of I Battalion successfully pushing onto Ruin Hill. The Stukas were now concentrating on Galatas. The enemy fire from around Cemetery Hill was very hot  causing some casualties. With an unknown number of enemy troops in Galatas and I Battalion having suffered over 50% casualties I decided it was time to shorten the line. I Battalion was ordered to withdraw back to Wheat Hill and II Battalion come up from valley and extend the line around the eastern slopes of Signal Hill. VII Battalion was also ordered off the valley floor to a covering position to the west of I and II Battalions. It is fortunate that they were as they stumbled upon a company of Kiwi's lurking in our rear which they rapidly forced to flee. There was much jubilation when reports came in of the capture of Maleme Airfield and the imminent arrival of Mountain troops. We weren't sure what was between us and our reinforcements but were sure we could at least hold out until they arrived. My aim was to continue to tie down as many enemy forces as possible while attempting to avoid further casualties. The situation appeared to have stabilised and during the late afternoon I took the opportunity of reorganising our defenses before digging in for the night. III Battalion shuffled right to better support the much weakened I Battalion (down to the equivalent of 7 platoons). VII Battalion was moved to the northern slope of Signal Hill to replace elements of III Battalion and guard our western flank from forces driven back from Maleme. II Battalion moved a company over to replace VII Battalion covering our position from the south and south west, where I expected little if any threat.

Not long after VII Battalion arrived a weak Kiwi company was sighted moving east along the coast road. The battalion engaged with machine guns and was unable to attract any support from the Stukas that were concentrating on Galatas. This in retrospect was a missed opportunity. Major Liebach should have been more forceful and moved part of his battalion down onto the coastal plain to destroy this force rather than letting them slip away along the beach, just out of range of his machine guns. When I received his report on events it was too late, they had escaped. I further compounded Major Liebach's error by failing to fully understand the significance of the coast road. I was worried about the inevitable counter attack the Kiwi's would launch sometime during the night. I knew that all of my battalions had taken significant casualties and were stretched thin. I hoped that my continued presence and Kiwi concern about my renewed attacks tomorrow would stop significant re-inforcements moving from my sector to Maleme. As later events proved I was wrong. What I should have done, in hindsight, was move VII down onto the costal plain, risking an immediate counter attack. Withdrawn the weakened I Battalion from Wheat Hill to replace VII Battalion as our western flank guard. III Battalion could have then moved two companies east to replace I Battalion on Wheat Hill. II Battalion could have withdrawn slightly further north replacing I Battalion south of Wheat Hill. Whether we could have completed this significant reorganisation and completed digging in before the expected Kiwi night attack was dubious.

First Night

Having dug in where we were we waited expectantly through the night. By midnight we were beginning to wonder if the Kiwis had decided to await our attack in the morning, perhaps concentrating their efforts around Maleme. I was beginning to rue my decision not to push VII Battalion onto the plain. Suddenly at about 0230 the Kiwis and Greeks were swarming over our positions. A massive bayonet charge by at least two Kiwi and one Greek battalion was coming in from the east and south. I Battalion was broken, but fortunately limited counter attacks by III & II Battalion restored situation. I committed VII Battalion to fill the gap and prepare for its attack in the morning.

Second Morning

At first light I Battalion having rallied attacked and recaptured Ruin Hill. II Battalion attacked Pink Hill supported by VII Battalion and limited Stuka attacks. The enemy was successfully driven back and heavy casualties were inflicted on enemy troops attempting to form a blocking position south east of Galatas. Reports come through that the airfield at Maleme has been lost over night. The Sturm Regiment  had withstood massive attacks from the battalions it had been battling all day. It was finally overcome by a fresh battalion, that had been trucked down the coast road from the Galatas area, supported by tanks.  The Mountain battalion that had landed on the airfield during the afternoon launched a hasty counter attack south from ?? where it had moved ready for an attack to the east. It had good success early on but arrived at the airfield too late. The Kiwi battalion had consolidated and dug in. They inflicted heavy casualties on the Kiwis but were unable to dislodge them from the airfield. The drops on Heraklion and Retimo yesterday afternoon were a complete debacle and without Maleme we were cut off with supplies dwindling.

(This report supplied by Paul who commanded 3 FJR around Galatas)

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