Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The end of the line at Sfakia: 31 May 1941 on Crete

On the night of 30-31 May 1941, some 1,550 men were embarked from the beach at Sfakia by destroyers. After the embarkation, there were something like 1,250 Autralian, 1,200 New Zealand, and 1,550 British troops. Some of the latter were infantry improvised from artillery units. There were also as many as 5,000 depot troops. General Weston hoped to get about 2,000 off the beach on the night of 31 May to 1 June 1941. After a bad fight on 30 May, the Germans held back from attacking the rear guard above Sfakia. Brigadier Vasey knew that the Germans were forming a line, boxing in Sfakia so that there would be no other way out then ships from the beach. By the evening of 31 May, there was no longer water available to the men and there was no food. By now, there were few ships left in the Mediterranean. Crete had been a disaster, following closely on the disaster in Greece. Early in the morning on 31 May, a force under Admiral King's command sailed for Sfakia. The force consisted of the cruiser Phoebe, the fast mine layer Abdiel, and two destroyers. After the ships arrived off Sfakia at 11:20pm, they started loading men. They were able to lift 4,050 by the time they sailed at 3am. The commandos of Layforce and the Australian 2/7th Battalion had to be left. They should have been able to be evacuated, and a few were, but through bad management and maybe even ill-will, they were held up until it was too late. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Freyberg stayed on Crete with the New Zealand division

The higher commanders had ordered General Freyberg to leave Crete, but he chose to stay on the island as long as there were substantial numbers of men, including the New Zealand division. He sent a message asking for more ships to come and remove men on the night of 30 May 1941. Four destroyers would come to evacuate men, and that meant that only 2,000 could be embarked. They were also sending some flying boats (Short Sunderland). General Weston, the Royal Marine, decided that they would embark the 4th and 5th New Zealand brigades. They were forced to leave the strongest battalion, the 21xt, as rearguard. They were left under Brigadier Vasey's command. In the event, the naval officer in charge only would take 1,000 men, so the 5th Brigade was left and the 21st Battalion was put under their command. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The embarkation from Sfakia in May 1941

The hope was to embark all the troops at Sfakia onto warships and carry them to Egypt. Four destroyers were present at Sfakia on the evening of 28 May 1941. They removed 230 wounded men and some 800 British troops, including some RAF personnel. In the north on 28 May was when the force at Heraklion was loaded onto three cruisers and six destroyers. That was almost all the British and Commonwealth troops there. Since the convoy from Heraklion was heavily attacked and took losses, that influenced plans for further withdrawals. The Glengyle and three extra destroyers besides what had already been sent were at Sfakia on 29 May. By early on 30 May, Sfakia was being hard-pressed by attacking German troops. Late on 29 May, ships arrived to take more men off the beach at Sfakia. They had removed some 6,000 men, including 550 wounded by 3:20am. At that point, the ships sailed. Even thought the situation was tense, the commanders had to deal with the fact that most of the New Zealand Division was still in Crete. Were they going to abandon them? This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian OFficial History.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

At the rearguard position on 30 May 1941 at Sfakia

Brigadier Vasey, the Australian, commanded the rearguard position protecting Sfakia on 30 May 1941, as the day began. He had the 2/7th Battalion blocking the road. The 2/8th, which was very weak, was in a wadi on the left. He also had Royal Marines, which he held in reserve. As for artillery, he had the two 75mm guns of the 2/3rd Field Regiment. They were commanded by Capatain Laybourne-Smith. They were the only artillery pieces that they had been able to carry over the mountains. There were also two machine guns belonging to the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion. This was now commanded by Lieutenant Bolton. The plan was for the 19th Brigade to hold the rearguard position through 30 May and 31 May and be evacuated by ship. To the north about a mile where the 3rd Hussars with three light tanks. They were accompanied by men of the 42nd Field Company (engineers). The engineers would explode craters into the road after the tanks withdrew. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The night of 29 May 1941 near Sfakia on Crete

After the 23rd Battalion had passed through the rearguard position held by hte 4th New Zealand Brigade, they began to move south. The 4th Brigade reached the road above Sfakia by 10 or 11pm. The 5th Brigade only reached that point by the morning of 30 May 1941. Thy had reached a critical point where the shortage of food and water as an issue. Most of the men headed for the beach at Sfakia came through a "sheeprace" setup by the men of the 2/3rd Field Regiment (Australians, fitting enough). The sheeprace was at Komitadhes, where men were routed to the beach. Ships reached the beach at Sfakia by 11:30pm on 29 May. Men were ferried out to ships by landing craft from the Glengyle. They left behind three landing craft for use in later embarkations. Interestedly enough, the cruiser Perth also carried two landing craft that were used in carrying troops out to ships. The ship had loaded about 6,000 men by 3:20am and then sailed. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

29 and 30 May 1941 near Sfakia

On 29 May 1941, hile the Australians were to hold the rear-guard position near Vitsilokoumos in the hills, there were still the New Zealanders of the 5th Brigade to talk about. The 5th New Zealand Brigade remnants were to move to the area above Sfakia. Layforce would then move to Komitadhes. Early on 29 May, the 23rd New Zealand Battalion was still at the entrance to the Askifou plain. They were down to a company-sized group of men and they were faced at 7:15am with a large number of Germans advancing towards them. They were short of water, but the 5th Brigade Major collected containers and water to them by truck. The battalion was withdrawn late in the day by truck and were carried across the plain and passed through the rear-guard position at the south end by late evening. The 4th Brigade then started to move back. The 5th Brigade reached the road about Sfakia by 10 and 11pm on 29 May. The 4th Brigade only reached theat by daylight on 30 May. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The plan for the Sfakia withdrawal from Crete

Major-General Evetts, who Wavell wanted to oversea the final withdrawal from Sfakia, flew from Alexandria to Cairo to meet with Wavell. General Cunningham had wanted to use the Glen ships and cruisers for the withdrawal, but Wavell insisted that only destroyers be used to remove the men. We can suppose that Wavell was concerned about the mounting naval losses from air attack. As it was, the Glengyle didn't receive the message in time, and Admiral Cunningham decided that the ship should continue towards Sfakia. Admiral Cunnningham sent another three destroyers, these being the Stuart, Jaguar, and Defender to Sfakia. The Royal Marine, General Weston, was still involved. He ordered the 4th New Zealand Brigade to the beaches from Askilou, where they had been in a rear-guard position. The plan was for Vasey's 19th Australian Brigade to hold a rear-guard position in the hills over Sfakia, with the two Australian Battalions, the 2/7th and 2/8th, along with the Royal Marine battalion, two guns from the 2/3rd Australian Field Regiment, and three light tanks from the 3rd Hussars. There were also three carriers from the 2/8th Battalion. This is based on the account from Volume II of the Australian Official History.

Friday, March 07, 2014

General Wavell gets involved

When the Major General was about to be dispatched to Crete on 28 or 29 May 1941, he was briefed by General Wavell, the theater commander. Thinking about the situation, I had some new insights that I wanted to share. General Wavell had a streak of "bad luck" that was only broken by the success against the Italians in Libya in late 1940 and into early 1941. The success against the Italians happened almost in spite of General Wavell. The great blitzkrieg campaign in western Egypt into Cyrenaica was due to Richard O'Connor and his assistant Eric Dorman-Smith. The 7th Armoured Division and the 6th Australian Division threw the Italians into disorder and captured large numbers of infantrymen. The offensive was halted by General Wavell, so that the resources could be diverted to the ill-conceived Greek campaign. I suspect that Wavell did not believe that there was any chance of the Greek campaign succeeding, so he lied to the Australian Prime Minister and the senior Australian officers to get them to agree to participate. Again, I suspect that Wavell thought he would be removed from his command if he opposed the Greek adventure, and that was probably true. He was not going to be able to persuade the Australians with the truth, so he lied. Wavell hung on through a series of disasters, the last being the operations against Rommel at the Libyan border that failed. Churchill had pushed to rush tanks to the Middle East through the Mediterranean Sea only to see them wasted. Wavell was finally fired and Churchill brought in another Indian Army officer, Claude Auchinleck.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

28 and 39 May 1941 on Crete

While the troop movement to the south was underway, by 28 and 29 May 1941, the Royal Marine officer, General weston, was making preparations for the troop withdrawal. By the afternoon on 28 May, General Weston made arrangements for a group of men from the 2/4rd Field Regiment to be available to guide troops to the beach for embarkation. They had to climb from the top of the escarpment down to the beach to be ready. The plan worked and on the night of 28 May, they embarked 230 wounded and 800 British troops, including RAF, on four destroyers. At the same time, three cruisers and six destroyers were embarking the troops at Heraklion. Practically the entire group there was withdrawn. A force including four cruisers, some small, left Alexandria at 9pm on 28 May, heading for Sfakia. The plan was to embark more men on 29 May. Major General Evetts was to command the withdrawal, although he was new to the process and to Crete. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Australian 2/7th Battalion, moving at night on the night of 28 and 29 May 1941 on Crete

On the night of 28 and 29 May 1941, the Australian Battalion, the 2/7th, was moving at night. They had a plan that they executed for what to do if a German reconnaissance aircraft dropped a flare. They had marched until they reached the Askifou plain. This was apparently just north of the village. They moved in sections along the side of the road. When a flare was dropped, the battalion commander blew his whistle, and the men were to lay face down off the road. The idea was to only show the empty road to the air, in the flare light. Afterwards, they resumed their march. Following them, the 2/8th Battalion marched towards Kerstes. They arrived there at about 5am on 29 May. Layforce came along behind and moved to Imvros, on the south side of the plain. The German mountain regiment that had captured A Battalion of Layforce waited all day on 28 May and planned to restart the pursuit in the morning of 29 May. The mountain division was still intent on cleaning up at Retimo, where they bagged the defenders. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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