Haddon Donald describes defending Maleme airfield, Crete

Lieutenant Haddon Donald of 22nd Battalion was one of the men defending Maleme airfield on 20 May 1941. Here he describes the day's fighting, and his involvement in a counter-attack against German troops near the Tavronitis River.


Megan Hutching: What was happening on the aerodrome itself at this stage?

We had a few guns, a little bit of artillery. I don’t think they were 25 pounders, I think they were old French guns that our artillery people got into service and made to work and they were landing shells on the aerodrome every now and then to prevent the Huns from landing. Hun planes were circling around all the time. Didn't try to land, they saw it wasn't safe and so off they'd go again. It wasn't until rather late in the evening that the first German planes started to come in and try to land. It was my turn to man a Browning machine gun which we'd taken from a Hurricane that had been shot down. Mounted on a rather scrappy sort of a tripod. This first German plane came and was obviously going to land, so I shot him up with this Browning, and he crash-landed at the far end. That was very satisfactory. The rest turned and flew off. So nothing landed that evening but they started to pour in next morning when we'd pulled out.

Megan Hutching: Now one of things that you said you were involved with was that counter-attack – that futile counter-attack with a couple of tanks?

The battalion had two British I-tanks. They were Matildas, fairly heavily armoured. They were a little bit cumbersome, only a fiddling little two-pounder gun, but a good machine gun, and heavy armour which meant that they were fairly hard to knock out. They were quite good tanks but later proved that they weren't really effective. But they were under Colonel Andrew's command, and things were getting fairly desperate in the late afternoon. He couldn't rouse any support from Brigade, so he decided to do a minor counter-attack on his own with my platoon and the two I-tanks, which was forlorn before it ever started. However Johnny Johnson gave me my orders. While he was giving me the orders—he'd just finished—there were the two I-tanks trundling up the road down in front of us. My platoon of about 28 blokes was supposed to go with the tanks and protect them, [but] we hadn't talked to them or made a plan. So I called my platoon together, and got the NCOs in a little huddle as we ran down towards these tanks and told them what we had to do more or less. One section on the right of the road, one section on the left of the road, the other section on the road itself, and protect the tanks, go with them.

It was pretty hopeless because it was broad open daylight. It was like the First World War—over the top in broad daylight. No show at all. But still, we had to do what we were told. So the first tank trundled off down the road, being shot at in every direction, but fairly impervious to small-arms fire anyway, and they got down as far as the bridge at the western end of the aerodrome. We could see them there in the river bed, and they were shooting away with their machine gun but not with their two-pounder, which was pretty useless anyway. But after a while they bogged down, and we saw them get out and surrender to the Germans. We'd counted 200 Germans at one time down there, and here was my platoon of 28 or thereabouts, including six or eight of the British troops that had joined us, so we knew that we really had no show. So that first tank surrendered.

We hadn't caught up with the tanks at all. We tried but we were shot at and [had] a number of casualties. I think we finished up with eight who weren't either wounded or killed out of the 28 that we started with. The second tank came trundling along the road. We'd been trained that if you wanted to make contact with a Matilda, you pressed the bell behind. I climbed up on the tank and pressed the bell. No response, so I climbed up onto the front of the tank and waved my hands across the glass—there was a little glass port that they looked through—and the turret [hatch] of the tank came up very gingerly and slowly.

The tank commander put his head out of the turret and said that an anti-tank shell had hit their turret and they couldn't turn it. I could see where this had happened. The cowling round the turret had been torn apart and jagged bits of steel were sticking up. So he'd decided to get back out of it. I loaded several of my wounded blokes onto the lee side of the tank and the rest of us walked alongside with the tank to shelter us and managed to get back to Company Headquarters. What happened to the tank, goodness only knows, but I know that the attack was aborted. It was futile to start with.

Megan Hutching: So what about the people in the first tank? What happened to them?

They were taken prisoner of war...My counter-attack happened about five in the afternoon, and I suppose it took a couple of hours or thereabouts. We were back about seven o'clock at Company Headquarters, and the next thing that happened we saw and heard Germans approaching, mostly from the west, and from the south as well. They'd infiltrated round below Point 107—there was quite a bit of cover west of it, and we could hear them infiltrating. Also to the east of us, there were a mob of Germans. We were finally surrounded, and at that stage I suppose we only had about ten or a dozen fighting troops left that weren't wounded or been killed. Some were signallers and stretcher bearers and that sort of thing, so it was fairly dicey. We hung on for quite some time, not actually being attacked but we could hear that there was an attack being mounted and we knew that we would be for it. We were the obvious remaining strongpoint on the aerodrome, and not a very strong strongpoint. And fairly apprehensive.

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2 comments have been posted about Haddon Donald describes defending Maleme airfield, Crete

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Nigel Smith

Posted: 18 Mar 2014

Thanks for informative text & interviews on battle for Crete.. My father was in Royal Marines on Crete in WW2 don't know where he fought, he told me about being dive bombed by Stukas... But didn't say much about War. He was captured and went on to POW in Germany.
Involved in Long March at end of War...had pretty bad time I think.

Ministry of Truth

Posted: 15 Apr 2012

Interestingly, Haddon Donald mentions that the first Matilda tank used in the counter attack was seen firing its machine gun, but not its 2 pounder main gun, at the hard pressed Germans clinging on around the airfield. The actual reason for this is surprising. In his book on the Battle of Crete Anthony Beevor comments that the wrong type of ammunition had been loaded into the tank before the start of the attack. It appears that this oversight may not have come to the attention of the tank crew until they were actually engaged in an action with German paratroopers - or so it would seem.
Alternatively, the crew may have been ordered into action despite the absence of suitable ammunition. Either scenario appears difficult to comprehend in retrospect. The tank was eventually abandoned in the riverbed along the edge of the airfield when it became stuck.
It's very easy to be critical in hindsight, however, the poorly coordinated nature of the counterattack says quite a bit about the overall organisation of the NZ defense of the airfield. NZ commanders appear to have completely failed to understand the importance of the airfield to the overall defense of the Island. Ultimately, that failure probably cost us (and everyone else) the Battle of Crete.