The Battle of Crete: The Fall of Hill 107

Due to various leadership, staff, and equipment problems, communications on the island of Crete were abysmal. The Germans actually achieved tactical surprise twice in the initial invasion of Crete: once when Freyberg didn’t tell anyone about the new invasion d-day and h-hour, and a second time later that afternoon when the second wave of Fallschirmjaeger landed around Rethymnon and Heraklion, whose garrisons no one thought to inform of the fighting around Maleme and Chania. Nonetheless, both landings in the East were contained due to unexpected steadfastness from Greek gendarmes and recruits, solid Australian blocking positions and massed counterattacks, a complete civilian “mobilization” led by “Pendlebury’s Thugs”, and quick decision making by Brigadier Chappell, the commander of the 14th Inf Brigade at Heraklion whom Freyberg reinforced because he thought him incompetent. But those troops in Heraklion were desperately needed around Maleme and Canea. Freyberg’s disposition and orders changes to face a still as yet unmaterialized seaborne invasion was deeply affected by bad communications at all levels so most units just executed Freyberg’s last orders and intent. This left nine (!) Allied battalions unengaged on the critical first day and the ones that were nearly overwhelmed.

This was certainly the case for LieutCol Andrew’s 22 New Zealand Battalion holding Maleme airfield, its key terrain of Hill 107, and the town of Pirgos. Freyberg’s changes left the north end of the Tavroniti’s dry riverbed uncovered and this provided the Germans a perfect assembly area to consolidate after the disorganized landings. By 1000 on the 20th, all of his companies were heavily engaged by strong German attacks: C Coy on the airfield, D Coy on the front slope of Hill 107, A Coy and HQ on the back slope, and B Coy in Pirgos. But they held all day. He received unexpected assistance from the Cretan hamlets around the hill (led by their priest), and although the companies took considerable casualties they were holding their own. The problem was Andrew and his company commanders didn’t know they doing as well as they were. Andrew’s increasingly desperate calls for help to Bde HQ went unanswered. His one radio was spotty, land lines were cut, signal flares unseen, and he had to stop sending runners because they never returned. Furthermore he was trapped on the back side of the Hill in his command post out of contact with three of his companies, all of whom he assumed were overrun.

Each company, and some platoons, were fighting isolated actions uncoordinated with the rest of the battalion. On the airfield, C coy had the worst of it, they were the most exposed to Luftwaffe attacks, and faced the most organized attacks due to the riverbed. The commander took it upon himself to launch the bn reserve: two Matilda tanks and one of his infantry platoons. (One tank broke down, and one was stuck on a rock “like a turtle” in the riverbed and abandoned.) The situation was no different for D and A coys.

That night, after 18 hours of hand to hand combat, three of the four isolated commanders, Andrew on the back slope, C Coy on the airfield, and D Coy on the front slope, all came to the same conclusion: they had to withdraw before the Luftwaffe returned in the morning. They were low on ammunition, and each believed they were all that was left of the battalion, with no prospects of reinforcement.

So they all withdrew east to either B Coy in Pirgos or to the 21st Bn.

As the sun rose on 21 May, 1941, the Luftwaffe bombed empty trenches and surprised Fallschirmjaeger occupied an abandoned Hill 107. Maleme airfield, the key to resupply and reinforcement for the FJ, was in German hands. The slaughter and the successes on the rest of the island no longer mattered.

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