27th April, 1941... We arrived at Suda Bay on Crete while it was still daylight and, to reach the wharf, had to scramble over two warships already tied up, such was the congestion in the port.
We moved away from the port to the shelter of an olive grove and there we stayed for a couple of days to get things sorted out. It was an opportunity to take stock of ourselves and our situation. We were a sorry looking lot. Few of us had any weapons or equipment and most lacked tin hats and few had mess gear with many not having shaving gear. As time passed the lack of mess gear, very sorely missed, bothered us. We had to eat and drink out of tins that had to be constantly changed as they tended to rust and, with their deep joins, were hard to get really clean. One was constantly scrounging for new tins. I was fortunate enough to have carried my knife, fork and spoon in my pocket, but many were not so lucky and were always forced to borrow. Altogether our eating arrangements were a source of a lot of discomfort. The way to a man's heart etc.
Over the years since the war I have been able to put it all behind me and have not had many flash-backs of bad memories. There is one memory that has never been far from surfacing. To this day I still on occasions have bad dreams, upsetting and disturbing about that eating gear. Invariably in my dream I am trying to find my mess gear. Without it I cannot get my rations. Sometimes I have my knife and fork and am searching a bush camp for plates or tins. On other occasions I have nothing and am panicking. Usually I awaken with a headache and sweating. Crazy isn't it?
Over the next few days after reaching Suda Bay news filtered through of Allied losses in Greece. We realised then just how fortunate we, in our unit, had been. Maybe Fate had other plans for us, not necessarily nice plans. We had been in some potentially dangerous situations but each time had escaped with minimum losses. Our episode with the Costa Rica was an example. We came so close to losing the lives of most of our members but, due to good discipline, good leadership and the extraordinary efficiency of the Royal Navy, we lost not one person. The only casualties were ankles and legs hurt landing on the steel decks of the destroyers. We often used the expression, "Thank God we have a Navy" as a "put down" when referring to not so bright soldiers. After the Greece and Crete campaign, when we said it we meant it.
Thinking back on the Costa Rica episode, I consider that the worst moment of the trans-shipment came when the Defender, fully laden, pulled away from the sinking ship. The Defender had been supporting the Costa Rica on the starboard side as she settled lower in the water. As the vessels parted the ship gave a terrible lurch and keeled over until the water came almost up to the deck level on that side. She righted herself somewhat but now had a decided list to starboard (the right side). Most of us felt that she came very close to rolling over right then. We were told to, as many as possible, line the port side to help balance the ship. As I left to board the Hereward the deck was sloping so steeply that it was difficult to keep one's footing on the slippery surface. The hundreds of spent cartridges under foot certainly didn't help.
Normally, whenever we travelled by sea in a war zone we were issued with life jackets which had to be carried at all times, although they were often an inconvenience. When we boarded the Costa Rica we found that there were very few life jackets. Hence, with over two and a half thousand men on board, the majority had none. I was one of the unlucky people to go without a lifejacket on what happened to be the only occasion when we desperately needed one. You can imagine the feelings of the majority group without life jackets. The ship was sinking a long way from land and our chances of survival were not good if we had to attempt to stay af loat without support. Some took off their boots in preparation for a swim but most of us waited to see the outcome of the rescue operation. I was a very poor swimmer and would have not lasted long. Being in the Anti-Aircraft group I was too busy most of the time to give much thought to the future.
There were two types of life jackets in common use. One was composed of blocks of cork in. a strong linen cover which was hard and uncomfortable to sit or lie on. The other was kapok filled and useful as a cushion or pillow or whatever. Both were worn the same way in the water. The cork life jackets were said to support one for two days in the water while the kapok items were said to last for up to a week. It was strange but many men preferred the cork one. The reason being, according to some, "Who wants to die of thirst floating around for a week?". It seemed strange logic to me. I always tried to get myself a kapok one.
Over the years our visit to Greece has received a lot of Post Mortems questioning why we went and why it all failed. It was a doomed attempt militarily. Politically, who knows. I do know that Hitler wanted that area badly enough to commit 28 Divisions of troops, 8 of which were armoured. They also committed 850 aircraft of various types. We had less than a quarter that number of troops including roughly one division of armour. The German main battle tank was much larger and tougher than ours. We had more artillery but their bombers more than adequately compensated for any lack of artillery that they may have had. The Germans had ample air cover, we had little at the beginning and none once they broke through into Greece. Also their supply lines were a lot shorter than ours. They also had access to the resources of the many countries that they had defeated in the past two years.
In Greece the enemy lost over five thousand men killed and wounded. Our battle casualties were not nearly so heavy but in the evacuation we left behind 14,000 troops, mostly base and labour battalions made up of Indians, Cypriots and Palestinians. All fighting units were evacuated, minus the many casualties of course. Perhaps the greatest losses suffered militarily, considering the stage of the war, was the loss of all heavy equipment tanks, trucks and artillery. Also lost in the evacuation from Greece were four transport ships and two destroyers. Five hundred troops lost their lives in the sinkings plus of course an unmentioned number of ships crew members.
Being still assembled as a complete unit with a Quartermaster and C.O. the members of the 2/7th Battalion on Crete were from the start able to obtain sufficient rations. Maybe not quite as much as desirable but at least we did not go really hungry. While we were at Suda Bay, we were issued with new weapons and I was very pleased to receive a new "Tommy gun" but no equipment and only two magazines for the Tommy gun. No equipment meant no water bottle and no pack or haversack in which to carry anything and no pouches for ammunition.
After some experimenting I settled for 50 rounds of ammunition in each side pocket of my jacket and one hundred in each of a pair of sox, tied top and toe with cord and worn bandolier fashion over each shoulder. I managed to pick up a couple more magazines later which made things a bit more practical as a Tommy gun very quickly emptied a 25 shot magazine and one could not ask for time off to reload. The only other item issued was one blanket per person. Although it was Spring time, it was very cold most nights. As we of course could not light fires, we spent some miserable nights trying to get warm. A great coat would have been a big help but none of us had one.
Over the next couple of weeks some of us did get some eating gear and shaving gear also. However I was not so lucky with the eating gear. Once we were re-armed, (we could not say re-equipped), we moved on foot to our defensive area a mile or so past the village of Georgeopolis. It was a nice level area about fifteen miles east of Suda Bay, with the mountains behind and a lovely wide beach about a mile long in front of us. A great spot for a holiday and a great spot for a seaborne landing. That the Germans thought so too was proved later. We spent the next three weeks digging and concealing weapon pits and erecting barbed wire entanglements where they were calculated to be the most bother to advancing enemy troops.
When we arrived at Georgeopolis we received our pay in Drachmas (the Greek currency), thus enabling us to supplement the Army issue by buying local eggs, flour and goats milk. The army rations were never very plentiful. We were enjoying the goats milk until the Doctor pointed out that the "goats" were in reality sheep and as such were subject to some nasty diseases, therefore their milk though pleasant tasting was not fit for human consumption. There was a small stream that crossed the beach not far from our camp. The water in it was beautiful to drink and wash in. However because we lacked a change of clothing and were not allowed to hang out washing, we were not able to take advantage of it to keep our clothes clean. For the most part we were compelled to place clean bodies into dirty clothing.
When our work of preparing a reception for the expected invaders was almost finished, a couple of us obtained permission to visit a village some miles back into the mountains to buy some bread and honey. There was a narrow road that began about opposite our unit area. By following it we found the village but were surprised to find that the road stopped about quarter of a mile short of the village and the only way in was by a track just wide enough for one person or animal to move along at the one time. I think that they must have preferred their isolation to having vehicles in their streets. The streets were too rough and steep for wheeled vehicles anyhow, being paved with large rounded cobble stones. The village was sited on a fairly steep hillside. Once in the village we were made welcome and shouted a round of free drinks at the cafe. We were pleased to find that there were some men who spoke good English and they invited us to sit and talk a while.
One man receiving a lot of respect from the others we found to be the Minister for Agriculture in the Greek Parliament. As we were both farmers before we were soldiers we had a common interest from which to start. We were able to hold an interesting conversation with him. He already knew something of the production levels of Australian cattle which was much above anything achievable by Greek farmers. One of the men took us to where there lived an elderly lady who sold honey. A problem arose when we found that we had to supply our own container. The lady, at last, offered to loan us a new-looking two quart billy can (approximately two litres). We gave our solemn oath that we would return it the following week. The English speaking gent emphasised that these villagers were very poor and that the billy represented a lot to her. Having given our word we meant to keep it no matter what it took.
Next day the German invasion started. We did not have an opportunity to eat that honey and, worst of all, we did not keep our word to return the billy can, it was left under the tree where we ate our meals. That simple act of trust was typical of the reaction of Greek civilians everywhere we went in Greece and Crete. I hope that lady with the bees understood and worried about it less than I did. That broken promise bothered me for years. I still think about it even though, no doubt, the kind lady has long since passed on. The Greek Royal family were staying in a similar village inland from Suda Bay. They were evacuated to Egypt after the invasion started.
From the middle of May, German aircraft had been particularly active, bombing and strafing anything that resembled a target. Also at Georgeopolis was a troop (4 guns) of the 2/5th Battery Artillery , a unit formed in South Australia. The 2/5th went first to England on the Queen Mary. On arrival there they were issued with modern 25 pounders. Later they were sent via South Africa to the Middle East arriving in time to take part in the battle for Tobruk. Too late for Bardia where we would have been very grateful for their help. They supported us right through to El Agheila. They went to Greece only a week or so before us, giving them time to reach the Northern frontier of Greece just as the Germans launched their assault on our forces there.
The good work of the 2/5th Battery helped delay the enemy advance in several areas and aided in the safe withdrawal of most of our troops. After fighting all the way back to Athens they unfortunately lost all their guns and equipment in the final evacuation. Thus they were now on Crete armed with vastly inferior Italian 75mm. artillery pieces. One gun was sited a couple of hundred yards behind our position among scrub on some high ground. As soon as they were dug in they fired some practice shots ranging on possible future targets. They were disappointed to find that almost half of their shells were duds. Not surprising-as some of them dated back to World War 1.
The day before the invasion began an enemy spotter plane thoroughly searched the area and eventually found the hidden gun. They circled it a couple of times at very low altitude, no doubt having radioed their bombers, then as a departing gesture threw a toilet roll at the gun crew. We watched it unrolling as it fell to finally drape itself across the shrubs and trees near the gun site, neatly marking the target for the approaching bombers. We felt that they intended another message to our chaps at the same time. The bombers pounded the area but failed to score any direct hits on either gun or crew. Later the battery moved west when we did and shelled Maleme aerodrome, destroying a number of planes and gliders on the ground but too late to stop the build up of enemy forces that eventually pushed us out. This parallel between the 2/5th artillery Battery and the 2/7th Infantry Battalion continued right through to Sfakia where their unit was also left on the beach to surrender. The story of the 2/5th Battery is told in the book "My War" by Michael Clarke.
From the morning of the 20th German planes were out earlier than usual and very aggressive with fighters, bombers and spotter aircraft all seeking targets. Around 0800 hours the first of the big troop-carrying aircraft approached from the west and we braced ourselves for the coming fight. To our surprise, they passed on overhead at about 300 feet, ignoring us. They were large three engined planes with what looked like corrugated iron sides, unpainted. In other words they were coloured silver. They were so close and flying so slowly that we had plenty of time for a good look. What has puzzled me ever since is, why the heck didn't we fire on them with everything that we had? We had been so accustomed to avoiding being seen by enemy planes and thus revealing our positions that we failed to grasp the fact that the situation had changed.
We were soon to learn that the parachutists were aimed at capturing the three air fields on Crete, Maleme to the west of Suda Bay, Retimo a few miles to the east of us and Heraklion further east again. So we waited in relative calm while occasional aircraft raced by low overhead but all the time the air was throbbing with the sound of engines as the heavy transports shuttled back and forth to the aerodromes on either side. While we were waiting nervously, all Hell was breaking loose around us. About noon a twin engined bomber, a JU88, damaged by anti-aircraft fire, crash-landed on the beach in front of us without doing much further damage to the plane. Half a dozen of us went out to round up the crew. When we arrived they were removing the machine gun from the nose of the plane, ready to make a fight of it. When they saw us so close they changed their minds and surrendered, for which we were grateful as that particular weapon had more than twice the firepower of our weapons.
German paratroops over Crete
One of the crew that we captured was an officer with a short leg who walked with the aid of a walking stick. We thought that this must indicate a shortage of men on their part. What we didn't know at that time was that in the R.A.F. we had a pilot who had no legs at all. He was known as "Tin Legs" Bader. We wanted to burn the aircraft at once but were prevented by an officer from Australian Army Intelligence who arrived on the scene. He said that it may contain valuable secrets that would help our side in the war. Later the Germans were able to repair that plane and get it back on its wheels. Fortunately, before they could fly it away, a group of Greek Guerillas attacked it at night and burned it. This is what I think should have been done in the first place. I suppose there was a plus for us in having the Germans wasting time and material repairing it prior to the burning.
The seaborne force that was known to be heading for our beach, was intercepted by our Navy and turned back to Greece with very heavy losses. By the second day it was obvious that we were urgently needed elsewhere to where our troops were being pushed back from the aerodrome at Maleme. During the afternoon we moved by truck to south east of the 1drome. The trip took a long time as enemy aircraft attacked continually and the drivers had reached the limit of their endurance and wanted to stop at each enemy approach. At last they were convinced that the only way to go was flat out and dare the bombers to hit us. It worked and we arrived before dark to the area south east of the 'drome. It was the intention of our unit to attack from a southerly direction while other units including the New Zealanders were to advance along the coast. While we were there, Lieutenant Colonel Walker came to each section and talked with us. He wished us well for the coming events and asked us, if possible, to have a shave. Then he said what I consider was a remarkable thing. In the next twenty four hours a number of us would fall into enemy hands either dead or wounded. For the sake of the 2/7th Battalion we should strive to look as soldierly as possible.
It was only months later that I realised that he felt that we would fail to push the enemy off the airfield. If we were to succeed it would be their dead and wounded that we would be looking at. What a load that man carried when I am sure that he could see little to cheer about as he came to give us a few words of cheer. At the time we failed to see the deep significance of his words. This may have been just as well. The knowledge would not have helped our morale. We were advised not to drink the water from the nearby creek as there were the dozens of enemy dead in it upstream.
As history shows we did not make that attack but later moved over to the coast to support the Kiwis who were coming under heavy pressure. They had suffered a lot of casualties during the original landing by the parachutists, the Germans realised this so were trying to push through in that sector. It can only be presumed that the reason we did not attack as planned was that the Commanding General, Freyberg, had reached the same conclusion as Lt.Colonel Walker. Our forces were not strong enough to succeed against a now powerful opposition who had several thousand troops in position.
During the night, while we were waiting to attack the drome, a runner came back from the unit in front and to the west of our position. His unit was running short of rifle ammunition. We obtained a couple of cases and I volunteered to help himcarry one back. A case of rifle ammunition holds 1000 rounds and weighs about 70 pounds [33 kilos] so it was not a one man load. The brens and rifles used the same ammunition. After delivering the ammunition I set off alone in the dark to return along a narrow path around the side of a hill, heading for my Company. Suddenly I was confronted by a figure behind a tree and the challenge of "Halt, password". I stood like a dummy. In the stress of the moment I could not remember the password that we had been given that morning. I could not think of what to say. After what seemed to be ages, but I guess was only a few seconds, the challenger said "Is that you, Bluey?" I managed to stammer "Yes". He said he was on the point of firing when he recognised me. Those were very tense moments. My return trip must have been a lot faster than going out loaded. I had not expected to reach our lines so quickly. We received a new password each day and up until then had not had occasion to use one.
During the next day we were defending an area. I was placed to cover the approach to a gully in which there was an Italian artillery piece. I had a clear view of the next hillside and was maddened to see a group of six enemy soldiers climbing along it. They were in sight for about five minutes. As they were about 300 yards away, the perfect range for a rifle, they were out of range of the Tommy gun with its useful range of not much more than one hundred yards. They were carrying what I thought looked like mortars and ammunition. I was not all that thrilled to be proven correct a few minutes later when mortar bombs started to fall in front of me. They were trying to hit the artillery piece, not knowing that it was already disabled and abandoned. The wind was blowing in my direction and I just sat there being covered with dust. As those men climbed the hill, what wouldn't I have given for my rifle. That made it the third time that I had the wrong weapon.
That night we were dug in near the beach behind the New Zealanders when we saw some figures moving towards us, moving slowly and quietly on the sand. We let them get close then challenged in the usual way. We were answered by a burst of very strong profanity. We laughed and said "Pass friends". They were wounded New Zealanders heading for a First Aid post. Only Aussies and Kiwis were that fluent in swearing, a foreigner would have betrayed himself if he had tried it. The Kiwis, like me, had forgotten the password and used the bad language as a means of identification.
Most of our men at that stage felt that we could still have succeeded in an all-out assault on the enemy lines. In any case it would have been better being closer to the enemy ground forces. Their aircraft would have been compelled to leave us alone for fear of hitting their own troops. That particular day that we spent behind the Kiwis was the worst day we experienced during the fighting as the aircraft knew that we were there and why we were there, to strengthen the Kiwis for a possible attack. They set out to inflict as much damage as possible, to pin us down so that we could not threaten their troops. They were pretty successful too.
We spent one heck of a day being pounded by many enemy bombers. They bombed and strafed us all day. We saw just how accurate the Stuka dive bombers could be once they could see a target. There was small a hill in front of my position with a pit dug on top in which stood a searchlight. A Stuka put a bomb right into the hole and blew the light straight up into the air. There was hardly a minute during the day that there was not a plane of some sort either attacking or approaching. Troops without at least some air support are in a very difficult position. The enemy can spend time just loafing around waiting for a target to appear. If there was any chance of being attacked themselves they would fly much higher and faster. We saw proof of this one day on the only occasion on which half a dozen Hurricane fighters appeared over Suda Bay, shooting down three or four German bombers. For the rest of the day they were too busy keeping up altitude and speed to endanger people on the ground. It demonstrated how different things would have been had we some air cover.
Being shot at and kept pinned down was bad enough, but it was made worse by the fact that we lacked water bottles. To get a drink meant going to wherever the two gallon tin was. Two of our boys who left their slit trench to get a drink were spotted by watching aircraft, attacked and killed. It was perhaps the toughest part of the campaign. Being constantly attacked or under threat of attack but helpless to hit back. Anyone not having experienced the situation would find it hard to understand the satisfaction gained in putting a few well aimed shots at an enemy position. No matter if you hit or killed anyone or if you didn't see where your shots went, so long as you were attacking you felt better.
We watched a fight between a British Bofors gun and enemy aircraft a few miles east of us on the outskirts of Canea, the capital of Crete. As planes flew past, the gun would fire causing them to hastily swerve, whereupon several planes would attack the area, diving low, strafing and bombing. Each time we would think it was "curtains" for the bofors gunners, but invariably as the last plane was leaving he would be farewelled by a stream of shells past his wings. This event was staged several times during the day. We never did learn the final result, and I do mean final.
There was one thing that I noticed about the bombing in Greece and Crete. Because of the softness of the ground in some places, it was not nearly so effective as it would have been in a lot of other areas. Many bombs went very deeply into the ground and on exploding threw a lot of mud and soil almost straight up and anything even close to the bomb strike was unharmed. Late in the Crete campaign I noticed that to overcome this the Germans had fitted to the nose of their bombs a long spike with a cup-shaped thing on the end. When the rod struck the ground it was intended that the explosion would occur while the bomb was still above the ground and thus the shrapnel and blast would be lethal to nearby troops. Fortunately for us, it didn't always work.
As a psychological weapon Germans fitted whistles to the tails of their bombs so that as they fell they emitted a shrill scream which grew louder as they approached. All designed to further damage the morale of troops on the ground. One other thing we watched was a unit of German Mountain Troops moving along the side of the mountains a few miles to our south. We knew where they were because they kept in touch with their airforce by means of flares which they fired as their planes approached. As they used different coloured flares they no doubt delivered messages that way. We were sure that if they continued their south/easterly march these Mountain troops would eventually get behind us. That was not a very cheerful prospect. We could see parachutes dropping as their transport planes kept them supplied.
Not having made the big assault the first night near Maleme, the opportunity to do so had passed. The writing was on the wall, even though at that stage we troops were not reading it. We still thought that we could lick them if only we were given the chance. However we realised things were bad when we were ordered to withdraw to a "Better defensive position". Everyone knew by now that it was Army talk for "Position hopeless, time to get moving." I think that the date was the 24th of April and although we troops did not know it, the decision to withdraw from Crete had already been made the day before. The units in front of us started to fall back while we moved a short distance inland to plug a gap.
A Maori company came back and rested near us. They had been in the thick of the fighting since the first day and were absolutely exhausted. A white officer with them came over to chat with our Platoon Commander. He told of just how brave and determined those men were. He was very proud of the fighting that they had done. One episode he told illustrated their pluck. It was in Greece during the initial thrust by the German forces up on the border. As usual our forces were thinly spread attempting to cover the gap where Greek forces had pulled out. The enemy drove between the Maori Company and the rest of the New Zealand Battalion completely cutting them off. When darkness fell the Germans halted to wait until morning before moving in to capture or kill them with the aid of tanks and aircraft. But the Maoris did not wait. They gathered on the top of the hill and to the surprise of the enemy did their famous Haka (which is really a War Dance) then firing as they went, raced straight through the ranks of the surprised enemy and rejoined their unit. The Maori casualties were negligible but it was bad luck for anyone in their path.
Things remained pretty tense as we waited in the dark while the forward troops were moving past our lines. There were quite a lot of civilians heading for the hills to get away from the fighting and bombing. We had to check the civilians to ascertain that no enemy infiltrators were amongst them. Fortunately most Greek women were too short to be mistaken for a German soldier, which saved us the task of actually searching them. The parachutists and airborne troops were said to be the cream of the German army and were all fine big well built men. Most of them were fanatical fighters. There were a lot fewer of them by the time the Crete show ended. That particular division of parachutists ceased to exist. Their worst casualties were naturally suffered during the first landing, the time when they were most vulnerable. During the landings at Retimo and Heraklion they landed forward of and on top of our troops not knowing that they were there in such numbers. Many of the first batch were dead before they reached the ground. Our troops did not have it all their own way. As they descended the parachutists were firing their sub-machine guns at our chaps. By the end of the first day most of the enemy troops had been killed.
At Retimo our 2/11th Battalion Commander wished to leave the aerodrome area and wipe out the enemy survivors who, having been badly mauled in that area, had retreated to the beach. His troops would then have been available to reinforce the embattled troops at Maleme. General Freyberg, who to my mind was more cautious than enterprising, ordered him to remain in defensive positions and only fight if attacked. it was galling to the Aussie troops to sit on their tails and watch the German troops swimming off the beach a couple of miles away. Obviously with no intention of attacking anyone. Sufficient numbers survived to enable them later to cut the road west of Retimo so that our troops were unable to reinforce or help each other. At Heraklion the parachutists did not repeat the mistake of landing too close to our defence positions. They chose to land further troops a couple of miles east of our lines and advance on foot to the town and the nearby airstrip. No further landings were made at Retimo.
I consider that the landings at the two eastern dromes were principally to deny them to our aircraft. At the same time this forced our troops to remain in that area and thus prevented them moving to the aid of our forces at Maleme. It was at Maleme that they chose to concentrate the heaviest assault. They landed parachutists followed by troop carrying gliders which they had towed to the area by the transports bringing the parachutists. Our forces were outnumbered, and when the parachutists dropped onto them, they were soon overrun. Our anti-aircraft and artillery units had no rifles or machine guns with which to defend themselves from the descending paratroops. Two Australian Bofors gun crews had all thirteen members killed. The Germans later used one of the Bofors guns against our troops during the withdrawal to Sfakia before their own artillery arrived.
There was no way of stopping the build up of enemy forces once they had secured a foothold on the aerodrome. A landing of Mountain troops was made almost unopposed west of Maleme near Kastelli. These troops then proceeded to move east along the side of the ranges to get behind our lines. It was a shrewd move and put us under severe pressure without having to fire a shot or suffer a single casualty. As all the other units pulled out it left us in the front line and in the path of the enemy advance. When the enemy reached our lines the fighting was extremely heavy and at close range. It was pretty dark and we were waiting behind the crest of a ridge so that as they came on they were visible against the horizon as moving shadows. There were a lot of trees and shrubs about and it was all very confusing. All one could do was fire at any movement in front and have a go at the flash of their guns.
Their attack seemed to roll along our front from left to right as they probed for gaps in our defences. Our lines were not continuous owing to the roughness of the terrain. Mostly we were grouped in defensive areas where it was expected that the enemy forces would concentrate on breaking through. When they ran into our lines the firing was the heaviest that I can recall hearing. German sub-machine guns were particularly rapid firing, a bit faster than our Tommy guns while our Brens were slower again at 600 rounds per minute. Thus we could always tell which side in the conflict was doing the shooting. It also gave us a picture of the activity in nearby areas. Every German soldier carried either a machine gun or a submachine gun. Thus they could bring heavy firepower to bear at close quarters. Our rifles gave us a slight edge at longer ranges. Unfortunately most of the fighting was close range.
After a time, inevitably the enemy had to scale down their efforts and the activity died away. Taking advantage of the lull we quietly withdrew and formed up some distance back. We always held them during the day and any withdrawals were done after dark. When the word came to withdraw by Companies, "B" Company marched off down the road as if on a route march, in threes, with Wadi Mac leading and we three Tommy gunners spread out in front. We could not be sure whether or not some of the enemy had sneaked past us in the dark and would try to ambush us. By this method we reached our new positions much faster than going across country and were able to get a little sleep before the enemy caught up. Catch up they did soon after daylight. We were now the front line and in direct contact with the enemy. We held them all day, moving on again during the next night.
The passage of time during this period was as confusing to us as was the battle plan - if any. We had no fixed periods on or off duty or meal times or sleep times and I very much doubt if many of us knew what day it was. By now it was plain that the enemy was definitely winning and knew it. We would hold them in one area but inevitably they would break through somewhere else causing us to draw back to re-establish the line. Thinking back I feel confused as to what happened on which day and just where we were when many of the incidents occurred. I remember quite clearly the events but cannot swear as to when or where they occurred, I am not even positive as to the order in which some events occurred. I do know that this last move took us past Canea, the capital of Crete, to parallel with the head of Suda Bay. We took up positions along a line that became known as 42nd Street, a line running from Suda Bay to the foot hills.
The whole Battalion had just arrived at this new position and were still getting organised when the advance guard of the enemy arrived. The enemy seemed to be taken by surprise to meet our men there whereas our chaps were on the lookout for them. Our "C" Company recovered first from the shock and when Lt. Colonel Walker called on them to "Fix bayonets and charge" they and some other nearby units which included the Maoris, answered with a roar that must have scared Hell out of the surprised enemy who, after the first clash, turned and ran, some even dropping their weapons as they went. After a couple of hundred yards our men were recalled. On their way back they counted almost 200 enemy dead. Our losses were 3 killed, 3 wounded.
It was not long before the enemy was back again, this time pushing against our sector. After getting a warm reception and gaining no ground, they settled down to sporadic fire across the 60 yards (metres) or so that separated them from us. The first encounter had made them a bit more cautious. It was their first taste of a bayonet charge. We used to wonder at their ability to keep up the heavy pressure the way they did. Later we found that they used a system of rotation, having a unit fighting for a few hours then being relieved by a unit that had been resting. It worked for them but we rarely had enough troops to adequately fill the line without having spares resting.
We were lined along a long drain which was about 3 feet deep. It ran through an olive grove and stretched from the foot hills to the bay. It ran roughly north-east and south-west with the bay being at the northern end. The enemy occupied a similar ditch which was not quite so deep nor continuous which explains why we went past it and occupied the second one. With tall grass growing around and over them they were good defensive positions. When the enemy troops were sighted approaching, we all took cover and waited for them to come into the open, to get close before opening fire. The first man to appear was a big chap who looked tough and alert as he advanced towards us through the olive grove at a smart pace, with his sub-machine gun at the ready. I found myself admiring his courage. I know that it takes nerve to act as lead man in a patrol, being the one to draw the enemy's fire. Behind the first man I could see three or four others moving in single file and heading directly towards me. We knew that there would be a few dozen more following them at a safe distance.
I crouched, calculating just how close to allow them to approach before making my move. Wondering whether to call on them to surrender or to just open fire as soon as they were close enough. Then someone on my right became nervous and fired a hasty shot which missed but sent them to ground. The first man had a hasty look in the direction from which the shot came before dropping out of sight. They now knew where we were, making it extremely difficult for us to get a clear target for the rest of that day. At first there was an exchange of fire as both sides tried to ascertain the strength of the opposing forces.
We fired at any movement of the grass or trees opposite. One man was seen climbing an olive tree endeavouring to get a better view and the Bren gunner brought him down. We must have given the impression of strength and aggression because they did not attempt to rush us as they did in a couple of other places. However the line held everywhere for the entire day. The enemy aircraft buzzed us a lot. They were very threatening but were unable to interfere as the opposing forces were too close together. All they could do was climb to a couple of thousand feet then hurtle down at us to flatten out at the last moment.
I had a very good position under a large olive tree with a double trunk under which some wooden crates were stacked. These were hidden by a camouflage net hanging from the branches of the tree. The tree was growing a couple of yards behind the ditch. I was able to fire through the net and could see better than the people at ground level. I am satisfied that some of my shots must have hit the target because, when I detected where shots were coming from and retaliated, all firing ceased from that spot. Maybe at last I had the right weapon. Once I leaned around the tree to get a better view to my left, looking around the front of the trie, not around the back as I should have. I must have been seen by someone on the other side as a spray of sub-machine gun bullets hit the tree, the crates and everything else except me.
The parachutists were using light, short-barrelled submachine guns with fold-away butts that were quite inaccurate except at close range which explained why the bullets covered such a wide area yet missed the target, myself. I am not complaining. The stand-off lasted most of the day with them unable to advance and us content to keep them pinned down. All the while we could see the enemy in the hills getting around past us. The aircraft were still diving at us but not firing. They just kept screaming overhead, barely missing the tops of the trees which were only about 20 feet high. No matter how much one reassured oneself that they would not fire, it was rather unnerving. As one bright spark pointed out, if the pilot misjudged, hit a tree and crashed, he would wipe out half of us.
At some time after 1500 hours (3pm), the enemy brought in their heavy mortars. As the bombs started to explode just behind our positions, my good spot became a hot spot instead. While I had good cover from the front, my kneeling or standing option gave no protection from the rear, from which direction the explosions were getting closer. So I dived for the shelter of the drain.
Several times during the afternoon our troops to my left had passed word along saying that an enemy machine gun was causing casualties firing from what seemed to be in front of our position. As I dived into the ditch I altered my position relative to a tall bush growing out in front. It was then that I could see the enemy machine gunner lying out in front but a little to my left. There were two of our chaps in the ditch and I landed between them. They were the two brothers whom I previously mentioned as not having fired a military rifle. I dare say that they had still not done so. Had either of them raised his head to observe, they could not have failed to see the enemy lying there where he had been for some hours, on our side of the enemy occupied ditch. He was partially obscured by long grass and the trunk of an olive tree. He was, nevertheless, easy to see.
I forgot all about the mortars in spite of their noise and sat up on the back slope of the ditch to have a shot at that target. I was sure that he was the troublesome machine-gunner whom we had heard about earlier. As I sat up a mortar bomb burst quite close and next thing I knew I was lying in the bottom of the drain with my right shoulder burning. I was momentarily stunned and waited a few seconds before moving. It was a strange sensation, the realisation that I had been hit and wondering how serious it was. I moved my hand first and then my arm. In spite of blood dripping from my fingers and the fact that it hurt a bit to move my shoulder joint, I realised that I was not too badly injured, at least no bones were broken. I was very fortunate to receive only one small piece of shrapnel as the blast was close enough to flatten me.
I sat up cautiously, aware that the mortars were still bursting nearby. They soon stopped as they ran out of ammo. At that stage the enemy was forced to carry all their supplies forward by hand from wherever the transport planes dropped them and could not sustain long bursts of firing with heavy items such as mortars. So I returned to the original idea and put a couple of bursts at the cause of my discomfort. At that range I could hardly miss. After the first burst of fire I felt a wave of anger. He was the cause of me being wounded so I fired the unnecessary long, second burst which emptied the magazine. I heard Bert Philp call to me to go easy on the ammunition. That made me stop and think and I did regret my actions. With the first burst I was doing my duty. The second was hatred which I did regret. I had murder in my heart. I wanted to be certain that he was dead.
It hurt to move my shoulder joint but the rest of my arm was all right. As my wrist and elbow were fine I imagined in the heat of the moment that I could manage to stay on duty so long as I didn't move my shoulder. I had proved that I could still use a gun and was quite mobile, so I decided to get the wound dressed at the Field Dressing Station at the rear then return to the front line. I handed my Tommy gun and ammunition to one of the other chaps, just in case I did not get back. After having a final word with Corporal Bert Philp, I left.