Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sandy Thomas on the defence of Maleme on 20 and 21 May 1941

There is an interesting piece about Sandy Thomas, who was on Crete during the German attack in 1941. Sandy Thomas was a junior officer in the 23rd Battalion of the 5th New Zealand Brigade. The 22nd Battalion, commanded by Lt-Col. Les Andrew VC, held the Maleme airfield. During the day on 20 May 1941, they killed German paratroops as they descended. What Sandy Thomas, who was not at Maleme on 20 May, did not know is that the 22nd Battalion took heavy losses from the German glider-borne troops that landed to the west of the airfield. The 22nd Battalion had really lost cohesion as a unit. Sandy Thomas's remarks about Lt-Col. Andrew seem to be on the mark, however. Andrew may have had a VC from the Great War, but that did not automatically make him a good battalion commander. We suspect that giving up the hill overlooking the airfield was not that bad of a decision, although the common opinion was that giving up the hill was Andrew's big mistake. Andrew had asked the brigade commander, Brigadier Hargest, for help, and was turned down. Hargest had two battalions that he could have sent into Maleme in the night to replace the 22nd Battalion, but he did not. Brigadier Hargest was a politician-turned soldier, and he was unaware of what was happening and the situation of his battalions. We would blame Brigadier Hargest more than Lt-Col. Andrew over the loss of Maleme airfield and eventually the island of Crete. What Sandy Thomas did not know is that the Germans were landing Ju-52 transports on the beach and a dry riverbed to the west and they did not need Maleme to bring in troops and supplies. This is based on the article about Sandy Thomas and also on Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The 20th Battalion on 22 May 1941

Interestingly enough, the New Zealand 20th Battalion was formed in 1939 by the later to be famous Howard Kippenberger. The battalion was formed in New Zealand and was transported to the Mediterranean Theater. After arriving, they participated in the ill-fated Greek expedition under General Maitland Wilson's command. In Greece, the 20th Battalion was included in the 4th Infantry Brigade. The brigade attempted to defend the Aliakmon line. They were moved from the Aliaikmon line to the Servia Pass, which was a more defensible positiion. They were able to hold their position for three days before withdrawing. They were evacuated from Greece and transported to the island of Crete. Very quickly, after the German attack on 20 May 1941, when the battalion was pushed out of their position at Maleme, the second-in-command took control for the remainder of the campaign. The 20th Battalion had been in positions a ways away and was only able to participate in the attack on Maleme after being relieved  by Australian troops. Due to the last minute relief, the 20th was late arriving at Maleme. While the late arrival hurt the chances of success, the German strength was such that they were able to rebuff the attack. While the Germans suffered heavy losses, their control of the airfield at Maleme meant that more troops and supplies could be brought in to strengthen the defenses. This is based on the account in the New Zealand official history.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The New Zealanders in action on 22 May 1941 at Maleme

The New Zealand 20th Battalion only arrived near Maleme at 2:45am on 22 May 1941. There were only two companies at first. The attack started at 3:30am with the Maoris and 20th Battalion together. The Maoris had some tank support in the dark and they made good progress. As the sun came up, the tanks were stopped with one being hit. The 20th Battalion was able to get near to the airfield, but were stopped by heavy gunfire. The daylight had made them very vulnerable and they came under attack from both the ground and air. The 21st Battalion was able to capture the wireless station, but then was heavily opposed. By the afternoon, the troops were forced to give ground. With the 20th Battalion withdrawing behind the Maoris, they were forced to hold two fronts. Australian machine gunners in platoon strength were sent forward late in the day but were annihilated. While some other plan might have done better, such as to use the Australian battalion to attack, the Germans were now too strong at Maleme, with two brigades and part of another. Everyone had taken heavy losses, but the Germans had an advantage over the Australian and New Zealand troops. The Germans were able to fly in supplies while the Australians and New Zealanders were starting to run short. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

22 May 1941 at Maleme

The Australian 2/7th Battalion had completed the relief of the New Zealand 20th Battalion by 11:30pm on 21 May 1941. The Australians had suggested that the 2/7th Battalion used for the attack, rather than the 20th Battalion, as they were fresh and ready. The New Zealand attack was to commence at about 11:30pm, but while the Maori's were ready and had been waiting, the 20th Battalion was late arriving. The attack only started at 3:30am on 22 May. The Maori's had moved forward towards the airfield at Maleme, but the 20th Battalion had met stiffer resistance and was held up by German forces. The 20th Battalion had advanced near the airfield, but one company was under heavy fire, so the commander decided to withdraw behind the Maori battalion, so that if they were successful, they 20th could occupy the high ground in the south. There was hard fighting all day. There was air attack and German aircraft flying in mountain troops who got off the plane and went straight into combat. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The 2/7th Battalion moves west on 21 May 1941

The Australian infantry battalion, the 2/7th, had been ordered to move west to near Suda on Crete. They were to move starting late afternoon. The battalion commander had been west, looking at the situation, while his second-in-command got the men ready to move. Before the battalion commander had returned, the brigade staff captain had ordered him to get the battalion moving as close to 5pm as he could. They did not get their entire transport right away. The vehicles arrived in small groups. The drivers were very afraid of air attack and wanted to leave their vehicles, which seemed an obvious target. Major Marshall had used the same tactic that they had successfully used in Greece: keep moving fast and don't stop. The 2/7th moved west had a breakneck speed which Major Marshall found exhilarating. Marshall arrived at Suda with the first company and met Lt-Colonel Lunn, the battalion commander. Marshall then turned around to bring the other three companies forward. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Greek plan to attack Valona in January 1941

The Greeks decided to attack the Italian port of Valona in Albania, following the failure of the Italian offensive. The Greek army had received captured Italian equipment from North Africa as well as British equipment. The British acquiesced to a Greek request for air support for the offensive. The Greeks committed almost all their army to the attack, leaving six weak divisions facing Bulgaria. Now, the situation changed radically in Greece, as General Metaxas died on 29 January 1941. In response, Churchill stopped the offensive in North Africa, so there would be forces to send to Greece. The British later found that Hitler had decided in November 1940 to attack Greece. The offensive would start in March 1941. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, May 13, 2013

German Strategic Objectives in early 1941

The Germans planned to invade Greece, probably in March 1941 to achieve two aims. One was to secure their rear prior to the planned attack on Russia in May or June 1941. The other was to prevent British bombers, based in Greece, from hitting the Rumanian Oil fields. The Germans felt increased urgency due to the British successes in North Africa and the Greek successes in Albania. The Germans wanted to ensure their success, so they planned to use a larger army than originally envisioned. Hitler was ready to use however large an army that could be supplied over the roads in the Balkans. The initial British force was planned to include the 2nd Armoured Divsiion, the New Zealand Division, and the 6th, 7th, and 9th Australian Divisions. The Australians would have a large role in the move into Greece, when it came. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

The 2/7th Battalion on 21 and 22 May 1941 on Crete

The 2/7th Battalion commander was Lt-Colonel Walker. Early on 21 May 1941, his commander, Brigadier Vasey informed Lt-Colonel Walker that they were not to do the planned attack to clear the road to Maleme. Brigaider Vasey thought that they would be part of a counter-attack at Maleme, instead. Brigadier Vasey and Lt-Colonel Walker, with his Intelligence Officer, attended a New Zealand meeting where they heard what the actual plan was for the evening. The 2/7th was expected to move 18 miles in the night to relieve another battalion and they would be out of communication during the trip. The 2/7th Battalion did not have their own vehicles, so they would be carried in someone else's transport. The New Zealand Brigadier Inglis and Lt-Colonel Walker drove forward to see the position into which the 2/7th would be moving. When Walker expressed his doubts about the plan, Brigidier Inglis informed him that a "well-trained" battalion could carry out the operation in an hour. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Australians on Crete during 21 and 22 May 1941

The commanders on Crete were playing the same sort of games that they played in the Western Desert later in 1941 and during the first part of 1942. They were breaking up brigades, rather than use them as a substantial combat unit. Instead, they took individual battalions and ordered them around, often without support so that they were either depleted or overrun. At least on Crete, the issue was the relative lack of forces to defend the island and the perceived need to provide a fighting force at all the remote points. That practice left the Australian Brigadier Vasey without any fighting battalions. He requested to be given command of the area where the two Australian battalions, the 2/7th and the 2/8th, were located. That only happened late on 22 May 1941. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Australians on 21 May 1941 on Crete

The plan was for a counter-attack on the Germans at Maleme airfield on the night of 21/22 May 1941. One player in the scheme, the 2./7 Battalion (an Australian unit) had fought at Bardia in the route of the Italians in January. In February and March, they had been positioned at Mersa Brega and had been attacked by air and by Rommel's forces. From there, they had gone to Greece in the ill-fated venture. They were well-enough led that they had not suffered much loss from any of the air attacks. Brigadier Vasey had planned to use the 2/7th to clear the road to Retimo. Instead, higher command had decided to use them elsewhere. The 2/7th would replace the New Zealand 20th Battalion. The problem was that the plan was ill-conceived and didn't allow enough time for the 2/7th to travel and relieve the 20th Battalion. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Friday, May 03, 2013

The German plan for Crete for 22 May 1941

One critical event was that General Student appointed General Ringel, the 5th Mountain Division commander, overall German commander on Crete. The plan would be to take control of Crete from west to east. The Assault Group, the glider-borne troops, would hold the airfield with mountain troop help. The number of mountain troops would be increased by flying in more to the airfield. Once there were enough mountain troops, they would circle through the hills and clear them. The Germans felt that their hold on the airfield was tenuous, but would be strengthened if they could land another battalion of mountain troops. The planned counterattack was to take place on the night of 21/22 May 1941, but without Australian participation. The Australians at Georgioupolis had not been in action. The veteran 2/7 Battalion, which had achieved success in Cyrenaica, would be asked to clear the road to Retimo. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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