Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In the prison valley on Crete on 21 May 1941

Colonel Heidrich was the airborne division commander on Crete on 21 May 1941, after the general commanding the division was wounded. Colonel Heidrich was on the scene, directing operations in the prison valley on that day. He fully expected to face a British counter attack, but none arrived. The British defence of Crete was in great disarray, despite the presence of good men who were in charge, such as General Freyberg, the overall commander of the defence. The great majority of the troops on Crete had been dumped there after the withdrawal from Greece at the end of April 1941, and they had never really recovered from that experience. As well, British communications gear was so bad that Freyberg was often totally out of touch with developments on the island. The two paratroop companies that General Student had dropped near Platanias area ran into trouble. They were again dropped on defenders who were waiting for them and lost heavily. Of these, only 80 men were able to land and occupied a farm near the beach at Pirgos. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The German results at sea near Crete by 21 May 1941

The German invasion force for Crete that was dispatched on ships consisted of 2,330 men. They were the 3rd Battalion of the 100th Mountain Regiment, part of an anti-aircraft unit, and a heavy weapons unit. They sailed early on 21 May 1941, but returned to port when there was word of British warships. They sailed again late morning and when they neared Crete, they were intercepted by the Brtish squadron with cruises and destroyers. They were fortunate to only lose 320 men. The Italian destroyer Lupo distinguished itself in the defence. Italian boats and destroyers rescued many men. The British Royal Navy was much better prepared than the land forces defending Crete, although they would pay dearly before the battle for Crete was over. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The German plans for the second day in the attack on Crete

On the second day of the German attack on Crete, the Germans decided that they had to secure control of the airfield at Maleme. General Student decided to drop his last two paratroop companies east of Pirgos. This was on 21 May 1941. The plan also included the glider-borne troops attacking from the west. They needed the supporting air force to destroy the artillery battery on the hill that had been shelling the airfield. A mountain battalion was loaded onto Ju-52 transports in Greece in ready to land on the airfield at Maleme. The mountain troops would start landing at 4pm on 21 May. The landing took losses, in that 20 transports were destroyed while attempting to land. The Germans attacked the airfield at dawn, took the hill, and moved across to the east of the airfield. Immediately after taking the airfield, they took the towns of Maleme and Pirgos. The 22nd New Zealand Battalion had abandoned these positions in the night. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 22, 2013

At sea near Crete on 21 May 1941

British naval forces sheltered south of Crete, preparing to resume sweeps across the northern part of the island. At this point,bombing had intensified, so that one force was continuously under bombing attack from 9:50am until 1:50pm. The air attacks sank the destroyer Juno, of the best new destroyers of the J class. The cruiser Ajax was damaged from near misses that did not directly hit the ship. After receiving reports of more small craft heading towards Crete, the naval forces felt obligated to make another northern sweep. They intercepted the convoy, sinking a steamer and caiques and damaging the Italian destroyer Lupo. This had been accomplished by the British cruisers Dido, Orion, and Ajax. They were accompanied by four British destroyers. By this point, the Germans were wary of any more seaborne attacks. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The planned attempt to recapture the airfield at Maleme

The plan to recapture the airfield at Maleme was to use the Maori battalion and the 20th (New Zealand) Battalion to attack during the night of 21/22 May 1941. The 20th Battalion was to be made available by replacing it by an Australian battalion brought from Georgioupolos. Aircraft from Egypt would bomb the German positions. The troops would have three light tanks on the road to support them. The first objective would be Pirgos and then they would attack t he airfield after resting. The rest of what happened on 21 May 1941 was pretty successful. An Australian battalion took the heights southeast of the airfield at Retimo. At Heraklion, the Germans were driven out of the harbour area by a counterattack. Both at Retimo and Heraklion, the Germans were kept from taking the airfields. At sea, a convoy with German troops was attacked and driven off with losses. The ships with German troops were escorted by Italian destroyers. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 15, 2013

21 May 1941 from the Australian Official History

From the Australian Official History, we see that there was a plan to recapture Maleme airfield, but that the situation was deteriorating elsewhere. The German air support was now so important that fighter aircraft on strafing runs were making movement by day difficult. The defenders of Crete were having to deal use battalion-sized units, rather than brigades. The plan was to bring an Australian battalion to replace the 20th (New Zealand) Battalion, which was to be brought to the area near Maleme for an attack on the airfield with the rest of the 5th Brigade. One problem was that German paratroops were infiltrating south of the Maori battalion and might pose a threat eventually. There was some concern that the New Zealand Division could be split into two parts by a German attack towards the north. Meanwhile, a small amount of artillery was ordered to the west to participate in the planned attack on the airfield. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

More about the first day in the invasion of Crete

As we have said, the German forces that were dropped close to the defending New Zealand troops from the 5th Brigade took heavy casualties. Many or most paratroops dropped over the defenders were shot and killed before they touched ground. Some fifty gliders were also dropped. The attack commenced at about 8am on 20 May 1941. The troops on the ground could see the aircraft towing gliders pass overhead and then saw other aircraft dropping paratroops and supply canisters. The gliders were mainly dropped near the Tavronitis dry riverbed. The defensive plan had mistakenly left this area undefended. The gliders were able to unload their troops who moved towards the Maleme airfield and attacked. The immediate area around the airfield was held by the 22nd NZ Battalion, commanded by Lt-Col. Leslie Andrew. He was a Great War VC recipient. The battle was going badly enough by afternoon that Col. Andrew requested help from the 23rd Battalion. The 5th Brigade commander, Brigadier Hargest, refused the aid, because he mistakenly thought that the 23rd Battalion was fighting paratroops dropped nearby. Col. Andrew ordered an attack by his reserve and the two tanks, but that failed when the tanks broke down. The 22nd Battalion withdrew, with the brigade commander's permission, into the area of the 21st Battalion. This is based on the account in the New Zealand Official History.

Monday, April 08, 2013

When the morning started on 21 May 1941, the remnants of the 22nd Battalion had withdrawn into the defensive positions held by the 21st and 23rd Battalions. They were all part of the 5th New Zealand Brigade. At dawn, stragglers from the Royal Air Force, the gunners for the disabled anti-aircraft guns, and Royal Marine artillery made their way to the New Zealand positions, The brigade was under almost constant air attack and was under attack from the German airborne troops. There had been a machine gun platoon on a height, and these withdrew after they exhausted their ammunition firing at the airfield. At a meeting the plan for 22 May was for the 23rd Battalion to retake the airfield and the surrounding area. By 8:10am, a Ju-52 landed, unloaded, and took off from Maleme airfield. Several aircraft carrying troops landed, unloaded, and took off at the west end of the airfield. Many German paratroops were dropped onto the Maori battalion, who cleared most of the Germans, but not all. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

A different topic :Auchinleck versus Rommel

We had a discussion this afternoon about the general topic of the war in North Africa in 1940 to 1943. Prior to the arrival of Bernard Law Montgomery on the scene, the only British general to beat Rommel in battle was Claude Auchinleck. He did it not just once but twice. As we well remember and have discussed in the past, the first occasion was when the Crusader battle, which had been commenced with great hope, had gone wrong. General Auchinleck had made a string of bad appointments in 1941 to 1842. The first time, Alan Cunningham, brother of the great admiral Cunningham, proved himself to be unsuitable for the position of Eighth Army commander. He had just fought a brilliant campaign in east Africa against the Italians. The battle was fast moving an mobile, but with small forces of colonial troops along with regular army units. Alan Cunningham was extremely tired and lacked experience with mechanized warfare in the desert. When Cunningham was ready to cede the battle to Rommel, Auchinleck stepped in and proceeded to beat Rommel, forcing him into a retreat from the area near Tobruk. The second occasion was when Neil Ritchie had lost Tobruk and there was danger of Rommel blitzing into the canal zone. Auchinleck stepped into the command again and after some maneuver, fought the First Battle of El Alamein and left the Axis forces stalled and disabled. The best source on this topic is the British Official History of the War in the Mediterranean and Middle East, along with Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

21 May 1941 in the morning

General Freyberg first learned of the deteriorating situation near Maleme on the morning of 21 May 1941. He had not realized that the Germans had made good progress pushing the 22nd Battalion off their positions. First thing in the morning, the artillery were keeping the Germans from using the airfield at Maleme, but it almost didn't matter, given the other news. The remainder of the troops defending the airfield were attacked by divebombers starting before 9am. Freyberg was then informed that there were more paratroops being dropped near Maleme. Ju-52 transports were also able to land and take off from the riverbed and beaches to the west. That meant that more troops and equipment were arriving. The intelligence officer, Puttick thought that there were two German regiments, one at Maleme and one near Galatas. Puttick thought that they needed to recapture the airfield as the main priority. At an early morning meeting at the 23rd Battalion, the consensus was that the 23rd Battalion should try and hold their defensive position. The 22nd should try to withdraw into the positions of the 23rd and 21st Battalions. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Paratroops near the prison on 20 May 1941

Colonel Heidrich, who now command thed the German airborne division, personally led his 3rd Regiment near the prison on the island of Crete on 20 May 1941. His men were all paratroops, and were an example that they could succeed, if properly deployed and led. Colonel Heidrich landed near the prison at about 9am on 20 May 1941. He had almost the full strength of three battalions at his disposal at the start of the fight. The immediate problem was that there were British on the overlooking heights who commanded the battlefield. Two companies, by the afternoon, were able to take the Galatas heights. In error, during the evening, they abandoned the heights, and formed a defensive position. Two battalions of the four that Heidrich had under his immediate command had taken significant losses in the first day's fight. Colonel Heidrich thought that with his remaining strength, they might be able to defend against the expected attack the next day. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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