Day seven – 26 May 1941: decision to withdraw
On 26 May the Germans continued to advance eastwards across the island. New Zealand forces withdrew to a line east of Galatas and were subjected to continued air and ground attacks. Elements of Creforce began moving toward Sfakia on the south coast, which seemed to offer the best evacuation point.
New defensive line
The New Zealanders withdrew east of Galatas and established a 7-km defensive line between the coast and the villages of Perivolia and Mournies. After a relatively quiet morning, German forward patrols made contact with the New Zealand line. The defenders were subjected to heavy machine-gun and mortar fire, but no major attack eventuated as the Germans waited for air support. An attack launched that afternoon was not a major assault, and the line held with some reinforcement.
While the New Zealanders had managed to hold on, lack of ammunition, food and sleep was taking its toll. They could not be expected to stand up to the weight of men and weapons that the Germans now had on the island. Hard decisions had to be made.
The precarious situation at the front was not helped by a sudden reorganisation of Creforce’s command structure in which Major-General E.C. Weston replaced Brigadier Edward Puttick as commander of front-line operations. When, on the evening of 26 May, Brigadiers James Hargest (5th NZ Brigade) and George Vasey (19th Australian Brigade) asked permission to withdraw their respective brigades, Weston could not be found. Puttick took it upon himself to order a further withdrawal during the night of 26–27 May. Amid the confusion a large number of British troops were left behind and taken prisoner.
All arrangements had been made and at about 10.30 [p.m.] we moved each [battalion] on its route with the Australians on our flanks to the south. The going was terribly hard, the roads had been torn up, vehicles burned across them, huge holes everywhere – walking was a nightmare. Our guide lost us with [the] result that we went through Canea itself, transformed from a pleasant little town to a smouldering dust heap with fires burning but otherwise dead.
Brigadier James Hargest, 5th (NZ) Brigade, in D.M. Davin, Crete, 1953, p. 353
By now Freyberg was convinced that Crete was lost. A lack of reinforcements and supplies, exhausted troops and constant enemy air attacks made the defence of the island impossible. That morning he contacted British Middle East Command in Egypt, urging an immediate decision on evacuation to save at least part of his command. Authorities in London were not prepared to accept defeat and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command, to throw in more reinforcements.
Day eight – 27 May 1941: withdrawal to Sfakia begins
Poor communications hindered the withdrawal of the main force to Sfakia on the south coast. Retimo remained cut off from supplies and evacuation routes. The garrison at Heraklion was also isolated and a naval evacuation was planned.
Charge at 42nd Street
A new line was established at ‘42nd Street’ – a dusty 2-km lane running north from the village of Tsikalaria to the main Suda–Canea road. It had been named for the 42nd Field Company, Royal Engineers, which was billeted nearby before the invasion.
The line was held by soldiers from 5th Brigade and 19th Brigade. Both units were exhausted after nearly a week of almost constant fighting and movement. After preparing defensive positions and eating whatever rations they had brought with them, most of the men took the opportunity to rest and catch up on sleep.
We redistributed the available ammunition and managed to get some washing done as, by this time, our clothes were literally sticking to us… . Yarns were being swapped, washing was being done and bodies were being washed when, without any warning whatsoever, the enemy opened up with spandau fire from about three hundred yards.
Lieutenant K.C. Cockerill, 19th Battalion, in D.M. Davin, Crete, 1953, p. 376
When the first enemy troops appeared, the Anzac defenders launched an impromptu counter-attack. Taking their cue from nearby Australians, New Zealand soldiers – led by 28th (Maori) Battalion – fixed bayonets and charged forward. Surprised by the ferocity of the onslaught, the Germans buckled and pulled back.
After stalling the German advance, both brigades began retreating toward Stilos (about 13 km to the south-east) that night. With not enough trucks to transport all the wounded men, the most seriously wounded had to be left behind. By midnight, the bulk of both brigades had successfully extracted themselves from 42nd Street.
Behind 42nd Street the remainder of the 2nd New Zealand Division was already beginning the long trek to the evacuation beaches at Sfakia. The initial stages of the withdrawal were chaotic as units tried to locate each other; continuous strafing and bombing by the Luftwaffe (German air force) made movement by day almost impossible.
The garrisons at Retimo and Heraklion continued to hold out, although there was increasing concern about how they would be evacuated. It was thought that the troops at Retimo could pull back through the mountains to the south coast, but attempts to inform them of the proposed evacuation were unsuccessful. Provision was made for the British troops at Heraklion to be taken off by the navy on the night of 28–29 May. Meanwhile, Freyberg had at last received authorisation from Cairo to evacuate his force. The battle for Crete was over; the evacuation of Creforce was about to begin.
Day nine – 28 May 1941: over the White Mountains
The main elements of Creforce began their withdrawal over the White Mountains to Sfakia. Despite sporadic attacks and the arduous nature of the route, a breakdown in German communications ensured that the evacuation path was kept open. While the garrison at Retimo remained isolated, most of the troops at Heraklion were evacuated by ship. At Sfakia preparations were made to evacuate the first troops from the main force.
The Germans were now in total control. By morning they had occupied Canea, and Suda was cut off and about to fall. General Julius Ringel, commanding the German ground effort, ordered the bulk of his forces to push eastwards and relieve paratroops fighting around Retimo. This proved a crucial misjudgement. Ringel mistakenly believed that Creforce was withdrawing eastwards to link up with the garrisons at Retimo and Heraklion and establish a new front. In reality, most of Creforce was moving south towards Sfakia. Amazingly, this movement was not detected by the hundreds of German aircraft that criss-crossed freely over the island.
Over the White Mountains
Further south, the hard work was just beginning for the men of Creforce. Although the distance between Stilos and the Askifou Plain (the assembly point before Sfakia) was only about 24 km, the rugged White Mountains lay in between. The only road south zigzagged up a mountain range to a height of around 1000 m at the summit of the pass. For troops who had been fighting and moving constantly for nine days, this was a formidable obstacle.
The road to Sfakia was soon filled with retreating men. A few trucks ground their way up the steep inclines until they broke down or ran out of petrol and were pushed over the banks. Those who slogged away on foot soon rid themselves of extra weight, leaving the route littered with discarded equipment. A lack of water and inadequate food took its toll as soldiers collapsed at the side of the road. During the day most sought shelter under olive trees and amongst rocks on the surrounding hills.
We didn’t have much sleep. I remember one night, my mate and me, the only thing we had to keep us warm was a stiff bit of canvas from a jeep, and it was too stiff to bend. It had these celluloid windows in it. But anything like that was used to keep you warm. There were a lot of shot-up trucks with dead bodies in them. It was hot during the day and a couple of times, particularly where people had been burnt and the trucks had burnt, the smell was horrible.
Private David Taylor, 27th (Machine Gun) Battalion, in M. Hutching (ed.) ‘A unique sort of battle’: New Zealanders remember Crete, 2001, p. 176
Despite the difficult conditions most units – especially the infantry battalions – maintained an impressive discipline and organisation during the crossing. On the night of 27–28 May, 4th (NZ) Brigade and the remnants of the Composite Battalion made their way over the pass and set up defensive positions on the Askifou Plain to meet the danger of an airborne attack. The next night 5th Brigade made the crossing. Despite having been in action continuously since the invasion began, these men somehow found the energy to keep going. Led admirably by Brigadier Hargest, they reached the Askifou Plain on the morning of 29 May.
The navy arrives
Formal evacuation orders were issued by Creforce HQ. The 5th Brigade and 19th Brigade would move through 4th Brigade’s positions on the Askifou Plain and down to the beach at Sfakia. Fighting troops would be taken first, with the wounded and those who had fought the longest having priority. Only organised groups travelling from the assembly area by a specified route would be embarked.
On the beach preparations were made to embark the first men. Four destroyers arrived that evening, bringing much-needed rations. Over the next few hours about 1000 men were loaded onto the ships. At 3 a.m. the destroyers sailed for Egypt.