Day ten - 29 May 1941: awaiting evacuation
As the remnants of Creforce retreated across Crete’s Askifou Plain, the first ships left Sfakia for Egypt. The Germans finally entered Retimo, forcing most of its Australian defenders to surrender. The garrison at Heraklion was evacuated by sea but their convoy suffered heavy losses from German air attacks.
Evacuation plans at Sfakia
Major-General E.C. Weston met with his senior commanders for the first time since the withdrawal began to discuss the final stages of the evacuation. It was decided that 4th (NZ) Brigade would set up a defensive screen at the southern end of the Askifou Plain and make its way to the beaches at nightfall. The 5th (NZ) Brigade would move further south near the village of Komitadhes – some 5 km from Sfakia – before heading for the beaches. The New Zealanders would be followed by 19th (Australian) Brigade and a Royal Marine battalion. The assumption was that the evacuation would be completed on the night of 30 May.
During the afternoon 23rd Battalion, defending the northern entrance to the Askifou Plain, came into contact with leading elements of the pursuing German force. Short on rations and water, the New Zealanders held off several attacks before pulling back to join the remainder of 5th Brigade near Komitadhes. They were closely followed by German troops.
Retimo and Heraklion
By evening advanced elements of the main German force had entered Retimo. The outlook for the Australian defenders was bleak. Fast running out of food and ammunition, they remained unaware of the plan to evacuate to the south. When the garrison surrendered next day, most of one Australian battalion – 2/11th Battalion – dispersed into the surrounding hills.
Further east an evacuation was successfully carried out at Heraklion during the night. A force of two cruisers and six destroyers sailed from Egypt and managed to embark around 4000 British troops. Delayed by a damaged ship, the convoy came under air attack on the return voyage to Alexandria. The German aircraft inflicted serious damage, and many of the rescued troops were killed on the tightly-packed ships.
Day eleven – 30 May 1941: who leaves, who stays?
A rearguard force positioned above the beaches held off repeated German attacks. Evacuation plans had to be scaled down as some of the ships were forced back to Egypt. Tensions rose as decisions were made as to which soldiers should go first.
The Germans pushed closer to Sfakia. Troops from 100th Mountain Regiment followed up the New Zealand withdrawal during the night and occupied the Askifou Plain. As the Germans moved south they came into contact with rearguard forces. By dusk they had battled to within sight of the village of Imvros – about 16 km from Sfakia. Here they found an Australian battalion – 2/7th Battalion – blocking the road. In an attempt to outflank the Australians the German commander sent his troops into two ravines on either side of the road.
In the western Sfakiano Ravine the advancing mountain troops ran into elements of 20th Battalion, which was now led by Colonel Howard Kippenberger. To block the ravine Kippenberger sent one of his companies – including Second Lieutenant Charles Upham’s platoon – to occupy high ground on one side. As Kippenberger recalled:
Upham’s platoon was slowly climbing up the steep 600-foot hill west of the ravine.… Two hours after they had started the climb there was another sharp outburst of firing.… A little later Upham’s platoon started to come back and then a message came that all twenty-two of the enemy party had been killed, completely helpless under his plunging fire.
Colonel Howard Kippenberger, 20th Battalion, in D.M. Davin, Crete, 1953, pp. 430–1
For this and earlier actions on Crete Upham was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC).
At Creforce HQ Freyberg and his commanders deliberated over that night’s evacuation. Each of the four destroyers due to arrive after dark would take 500 men. Both 4th and 5th Brigades were selected to go, but there was not room on the ships for all of 5th Brigade. Brigadier James Hargest reluctantly chose 21st Battalion to stay behind. Another New Zealand unit, 18th Battalion, was ordered to form a perimeter around the beach to make sure that the evacuation was orderly.
Later that day news arrived from Alexandria that the evacuation was to be scaled back. Only 250 men were to be taken on each destroyer because the ships would be exposed to air attacks next day and the risk of casualties on crowded vessels was too great. The reduction in numbers meant that 5th Brigade would be staying another night.
More bad news was to come. Only two destroyers arrived to continue the evacuation; mechanical faults and bomb damage had forced two others to turn back. Despite the lack of space, 1400 men were taken off that night. The entire 4th Brigade embarked behind an armed cordon put in place to prevent desperate stragglers from rushing the ships. Colonel Kippenberger, who led 20th Battalion down to the beach that night, described the feelings of those going:
The afternoon wore miserably on, but at last there was nothing for it but to say good-bye and go. ... We had a tramp of some miles to the beach, the last part lined with men who had lost their units and were hoping for a place with us. Some begged and implored, most simply watched stonily, so that we felt bitterly ashamed. There was a cordon around the beach with orders to shoot any man who tried to break in. I had to count my men through. We were the last unit to pass….
Colonel Howard Kippenberger, 20th Battalion, in D.M. Davin, Crete, 1953, p. 435
During the night Sunderland flying boats arrived to take Freyberg and other senior staff officers back to Egypt.
Day twelve – 31 May 1941: the last night of the evacuation
More than half the remaining members of Creforce were evacuated from Sfakia. Lack of space on ships combined with a scarcity of supplies meant that 6500 troops – including 2100 New Zealanders – were left behind on Crete to face inevitable capture by the Germans.
Last chance for evacuation
At dawn on 31 May there were still some 9000 men in and around Sfakia waiting to be evacuated. Time was fast running out. General Wavell, conscious of mounting naval and troop losses, decided that the evacuation that night would be the last. Four destroyers were initially allocated to this operation. When the New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who was in Egypt, learned that 31 May was to be the final night of the evacuation, he urged Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, to send an additional ship. The loss of men on Crete would be a crushing blow to New Zealand’s war effort, Fraser argued. Cunningham’s response was to order that the cruiser HMS Phoebe return to Crete.
Back at Sfakia news had filtered through that this would be the final night of evacuation. With room only for an estimated 3500 men, priority was given to infantry units – including 5th Brigade, 19th Brigade and a British Royal Marine battalion. By the time the ships left around 4000 troops had been squeezed on board, including 80 walking wounded. Those leaving did so with mixed feelings, their relief at getting off the island tempered with regret for those left behind.