The Battle of Crete: Counterattack

LieutGen Freyberg might have been obstinate and stubborn, but he knew exactly what the J-52s landing like clockwork on the evening of the 21st meant. He didn’t believe Andrew’s Brigade (Bde) Cdr’s suggestion that the “parachutists were being evacuated” or that the situation at Maleme was “satisfactory”. Freyberg was just convinced an amphibious invasion was imminent, and that evening he received what he thought was a confirmation: an Orange Leonard communique reporting the departure of the “naval supporting landing” (The Lupo and 22 caiques). Nevertheless, he couldn’t allow the Germans to resupply through Maleme so he ordered a counterattack. Freyberg still had seven unengaged battalions (bn), three of whom were of the fully equipped, fully manned British garrison brigade, but they would be needed to counterattack the sea landing. So it would be just a limited counterattack by the 5th NZ Bde.

The 5th NZ Bde (of which Andrew’s Bn was a part) was “holding” the line outside of Pirgos and the ridge two km east of Hill 107 with the reinforced 21st NZ Bn (with a company from now disbanded 22 NZ). The counterattack would consist of the 23rd Bn while the 28th covered the beaches east of Canea. The Bde Cdr protested and requested another Bn. Freyburg granted it, the 20th from east of Canea, but only after it was replaced by the a bn from the “corps” reserve at Georgioupolis 29km away (lots of reserves on the island). The order went out at 1900 on the 21st. The Australians from Georgioupolis didn’t arrived in Canea until 2300. The 20th took three hours to make the march to the start line. The attack commenced at 0330.

Despite confusion at the line of departure, a fresh German mountain bn, and reinforced FJ in the way, the Kiwis made good progress. One group of about 15 led by a hard charging 33 year old lieutenant even made it onto the airfield. But it was the high water mark of the attack. The 21st and 28th Bns were eventually committed, but they were uncoordinated and piecemeal. The sun rose at 0601. German pilots in Greece took off in the dark and circled the airfield waiting for light (which was dangerous as hell, and I’m sure they got a safety brief when the returned…). As soon as they could, the Stukas and Messerschmitts pounced on the attackers. By 0800, the attacked had failed.

To add insult to injury, the FJ in the prison valley struck north at the seam between the 5th NZ Bde and the 10th Bde at Canea, and reached the coast. It was only symbolic but it panicked the Allied command, and the remains of the 5th NZ Bde drifted east to “break out”.

The Germans would land three more bns, light artillery, and supplies from the 5th Mountain Division that day. Freyberg would never have another chance to take Maleme.

The Battle for Crete was over. The Germans won. The Battle for the Evacuation of Crete began.

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