26th May
Home Up Galatas 25 May 26th May

 

 

By the 26th May Freyberg could see that the situation was becoming hopeless.
On the 26th there were many localized actions against the New Zealanders west of Canea, at the same time 85 Mountain Regiment under Colonel Krakau was making a wide flanking move to the south with the intent of coming up in the rear of the New Zealanders and cutting them off from the rest of the force in Suda Bay, Rethymnon and Heraklion.  After having to give up Galatas and withdraw to their new line, Freyberg could see on the 26th that the island could not be held, at some point soon he would have to order a withdrawal.  Unfortunately there now set in a period of confusion at senior officer level.
On the 26th Freyberg's HQ had moved back towards Suda Bay, Freyberg himself however was operating from an Advanced HQ with no wireless or telephone communication with Division.  At this same time Brigadier Puttick believed that the Division had to withdraw from its present position, but the only way he could discuss this with Freyberg was to set off on foot to meet him at the Advanced HQ.  Freyberg did not agree with Puttick's assessment of the situation, he said that he [Freyberg] had no authority to withdraw as any further withdrawal that might put the situation at Suda Bay at risk would be tantamount to losing any last hope of resupply, and of holding the island.  Freyberg's strong view was that they could not withdraw to Suda that night as Puttick requested, rather, they must hold their position well clear of Suda.
When Puttick got back to Division with Freyberg's decision at about 4.30 pm his two senior brigadiers, Vasey and Hargest, who were most familiar with the situation at the front, made strong representations to him for withdrawal.  "Both Brigade Commanders strongly represented their inability to hold their positions much longer and asked for orders to withdraw after dark." (1)

Major General Weston had been made commander of all Forward Troops and Puttick now represented the case for withdrawal to Weston, but Weston would not make a decision , he said he would take it up with Freyberg.  "The situation was reported and Gen WESTON, stating that he could not make such a decision himself, left about 1810 hrs to consult the C-in-C." (1)

The following is from the Official History; "The anxiety of Brigadier Puttick at this stage may be imagined.  His brigadiers were pressing him for orders to withdraw.  His superior officer had felt unable to accept responsibility for the decision.  He himself had no authority to order withdrawal, though he agreed with the brigadiers that it was inevitable and considered it tactically expedient.  Further delay might make it altogether impossible.  Yet his only course seemed to be to wait for further news from general Weston or General Freyberg.  To emphasize the urgency of the situation, enemy machine-gun fire from the flank kept passing over his HQ."

"As nothing further was heard from Gen WESTON, Divisional Commander between 2000 and 2200 hrs sent three W/T messages to Force HQ asking if Gen WESTON had arrived there and requesting orders.  No reply was received until 2215 hrs when a message from Force HQ stated "You are under LIFT (code name for SUDA BAY Sector Commander Gen WESTON) who will issue orders." (1)

In the meeting between Freyberg and Weston, Freyberg was again adamant that there should be no withdrawal and Weston was then very slow to communicate this to Puttick, who he knew was anxiously waiting to hear the decision.  Eventually Puttick felt that he could wait no longer for word from Weston, he felt it necessary to order a withdrawal on his own authority.  He ordered the withdrawal to start at 23.30 that night, the new line they would take up would run through Khristos and Tsikalaria to Ay Marina; it became known as 42nd Street as the 42nd Field Company RE had been working there before the invasion.  Some of Puttick's frustration can be seen in para. 180 of AIR 23/6751; "Arriving at Gen WESTON's HQ at south end 42nd Street at about 0215 hrs, Divisional Commander with G1 reported the situation personally to Gen WESTON.  (42nd Street was crowded with MT moving in both directions).  Asked by Divisional Commander why no orders had been sent New Zealand Division consequent upon the urgent representation made to him the previous evening, Gen WESTON said that it was no use sending orders as Divisional Commander had made it very clear the New Zealand Division was retiring whatever happened.  Divisional Commander replied that while the withdrawal could not have been avoided, orders were necessary so that he would know where to retire to and how best to co-operate with other troops.  Gen WESTON was informed of the defensive positions 5 and 19 (Aust) Inf Bdes were taking up and that these brigades would hold that line until ordered by him to retire." (1)
The confusion covered above was also apparent in the newly constituted Force Reserve; this was a force to come under the command of Lt. Col. Duncan, C.O. of 1 Welch, and would also include some 400 men from 1st Rangers and 200 men of the Northumberland Hussars.  About dusk on the 26th Duncan told his officers that they were likely to be ordered to do one of two options; withdraw to 42nd Street or move forward to a defensive position west of Canea.  The first was the preferred option but because of confusion over orders and also over the movements of other units, Force Reserve would move forward during the night of 26/27 May, supposedly to take over positions from 5 Brigade.  As mentioned above, Freyberg had told Puttick that 5 Brigade should not withdraw, they were to remain in position until the arrival of Force Reserve.  The situation had changed however with Puttick's decision that he had to withdraw 5 Brigade, he was not aware of the situation this would leave Force Reserve in.
So, the situation was not good; Freyberg was moving around between his advanced H.Q. and Suda Bay making it difficult for people to contact him, and he believed Force Reserve was taking over from 5 Brigade in an orderly fashion; Weston was unaware of the movement of 5 Brigade until it was too late and he then realised that Force Reserve was now exposed; Puttick had felt he had to overrule Freyberg's decision and withdraw 5 Brigade, not realizing the implication for Force Reserve; Duncan had to move Force Reserve west of Canea not knowing that he was now completely exposed.

And now Freyberg realized a complete withdrawal to Sphakia was necessary.

Position of Force Reserve on 27th May.  From the Official History.

Force Reserve on the 27th were in an untenable position, their left flank was 'in the air' and the Germans were continuing their flanking movement to the south, as shown on the map below.  Duncan ordered some of his men to make it back to Suda while others, including himself, were cut off.  It was a sad and pointless end for Force Reserve, brought about by poor communications and confusion.  However, by their dogged resistance, they did delay the German move on 42nd Street.

While the communication between units was poor, and relied very heavily on runners and dispatch riders, the Official History sees the main cause of the confusion and its results as being the decision by Freyberg to put General Weston in command of the Forward Troops.  Dominion troops and their officers were likely to make decisions on their own if they felt the circumstances required it, and Weston seems not to have considered that.  Accordingly, when Puttick believed that Weston was not taking responsibility for the necessary decision for 5 Brigade to withdraw, then Puttick would make the decision himself.

Quoting from the O.H. p373; "Nor does Weston seem to have realised the necessity for keeping his subordinate in touch with his plans; for it is not possible otherwise to account for his failure to apprise Puttick of the result of his discussions with General Freyberg or, again, his failure to keep Division informed of the exact movements and timings of Force Reserve. ... Had wireless or line communication between Suda Area HQ and HQ NZ Division existed, the whole story might well have been different and many of the misunderstandings of the day would not have occurred.  What in fact happened is the story of very tired and very harassed men, driven by extremely heavy pressures, and not fully acquainted with one another's difficulties and intentions.  In such circumstances a certain strain between forward and rear HQs is inevitable."

When 19 and 5 Brigades got to 42nd Street they believed that they had a protective force (Force Reserve) between them and the Germans, and so adopted a 'resting' stance, they were after all very tired, especially 5 Brigade.  It was with some surprise then that they found themselves being attacked on the 27th.  A vigorous defence mounted, with determined counter attacks which gave the Germans a very bloody nose and drove them off.  

Dispositions on 42nd Street, showing counter attacks.

The position was deteriorating, it was necessary to withdraw, but General Weston who was in charge of the withdrawal was not around when Brigadiers Vasey and Hargest knew that they needed to move their Brigades.  They decided to pull back to Stilos on the Sphakia road, with 19 Brigade moving first, and being followed by 5 Brigade.
That night Freyberg ordered the general move to Sfakia to start on the night of the 27th and the newly arrived commandos, under Colonel Laycock, would form the rearguard of the retreating Allied forces.  General Wavell's suggestion to Freyberg that he should take the New Zealand and Australian forces and link up with those at Retimo, prior to a withdrawal, was not acted on by Freyberg; it only showed him that the Staff in Cairo did not really appreciate the situation on the island.  The evacuations from Rethymnon and Heraklion would have to go on separately as the Australian and New Zealand forces were not cut off from the Eastern part of the island.
The Cabinet minutes for the 26th May report the situation in Crete; "During the last two nights we had landed a limited number of troops and stores.  German airborne troops were holding their ground in the Maleme area and had attacked our troops west of Canea, where severe fighting was continuing.  A critical point in the operations had now been reached.  The War Cabinet were informed that a telegram had been dispatched, emphasizing the crucial importance of preventing any considerable reinforcement of men and material from reaching the enemy in the island at this stage."  Like the staff in Cairo, the Cabinet are somewhat behind events.
1.

AIR 23/6751 Operations in Crete 26th April - 31st may 1941: report by H.Q. New Zealand Division   National Archives in Kew.