Alan Jackson's Diary of Crete
A fast trip with a couple of alarms brought us to Suda Bay, Crete. Arrived about noon and had a 3 mile walk to a rest camp. Did not enjoy it.
Today we received permission to send a cable advising "All well". I hope it reaches its destination in double quick time. Many times during the last few weeks we have realised how much the people in N.Z. must have been worrying, particularly on Anzac Day. We would have preferred that that day had been marked with something a little more heartening to you all than just another "successful evacuation".
However, there it is, and those of us who managed to elude the Hun were once more profoundly grateful to the Navy. "Thank God we've got a Navy" means a little more than just lip service now.
We had some rather hectic days and nights while trying conclusions with Jerry. You people possibly know more about the affair as a whole than we do, but we have very vivid memories of our particular share in it. Both from men of the last War, and from the Dunkirk Corp, we have heard of the "mowing down of the Huns". Well, we too can say that we've seen and done the same. For two days I observed tanks and men blown to pieces and I doubt whether during that period in our sector we lost more than half a dozen men. How many we accounted for no one knows. But concentration after concentration of German Infantry was smashed to nothing. One morning we experienced a mass attack. All through the night we heard the tanks and troop carrying vehicles assembling below us. At dawn he attacked with everything he could. Tanks, machine guns, mortars and massed infantry. Unfortunately for his plans, we had anticipated the place of attack and had our guns laid on the spot. The attack was crushed in just quarter of an hour. Again with practically no loss to ourselves. As the daylight increased we could see hundreds of tanks along the road below us. We had a pleasant morning shelling up and down that road and watching these tanks burst into flames. Somehow I think we evened a few scores those three or four days.
In our sector we were fortunate in that the dive bombers were unable to operate. The boys in some of the other places, however, were not so lucky. They were bombed and machine gunned incessantly. Despite that they too inflicted enormous losses. The fact that the odds were over 7 to 1 had very little bearing on the retirement question. A break away in another area made the possibility of us being surrounded a dangerous one, so we had to retire, blowing the bridges and roads and then waiting again at another position for another smack.
As we got further out into the open we received our share of bomber attention. It wasn't pleasant. Hour after hour, each day, Jerry would roar over us. One afternoon, just before we left, 16 planes came over in waves of four. They would zoom down to a couple of hundred feet above us, with their machine-guns spitting out streaks of flame. then round in a circle, and the same again. This went on for over half an hour. Not a very long time, perhaps, but to us it seemed endless. And yet, all he got was one poor beggar and set a truck on fire. The same is true of the bombing. I think that in three days of bombing he killed about half a dozen of the boys. Still, it has a certain morale effect, I suppose, but definitely not as much as Jerry imagines.
The greatest, and most touching, surprise we had was our reception from the Greeks themselves as we passed through to evacuate. We half expected, if not hostility, at least coolness. We had let them down, whether we were to blame or not. Instead of which, they cheered us, clapped us, and kissed us - men and women ran alongside the trucks holding our hands, kissing them and crying. We were dirty, unshaven, and very tired. The hardest thing we had to do was to stop from howling ourselves. It was so unexpected and so sincere. We all hope that some day we may go through again with Jerry on the run.
And so eventually to the coast, and in the early hours of the morning, on to a destroyer. It's a wonderful feeling to be on one of those boats with its guns and its speed after being just a jump ahead of the Hun for so long. And now I'm writing this on the Isle of Crete. Across the water, into which I'm going shortly for a swim, is Greece. Jerry is there but he hasn't got Greece. He will find that out some day.
Just a few words about the Maoris. They have been absolutely splendid. They were in front of us, and we are definitely proud of them. And they reckon the Artillery's just grand. Incidentally, we take larger sizes in hats - tin hats - these days. Received the congratulations of Gen. Freyburg, Brig. Miles and Hargest and was speaking personally to Col. Dittmer. He said the best show he has seen from an Artillery unit. He wished to be remembered to Uncle George. For the time being that's all..........
This is the first real chance I have had to try and summarise some of the events of the last few weeks.
When we evacuated Greece, on the night of 26th April, we assumed our destination to be Alexandria. For some of the boys it was - for most it was Crete. It was a weary march to our ultimate camp. We were all just about done, the sun was hot, and the trip through Greece had been rather a strain. However, the longest march comes to an end and we eventually made our Camp among Olive trees, and near the sea. On the 29th all those with rifles were formed into "Infantillery", including myself. Had a section of 9 men, and we took up a position overlooking the sea. The two chief impressions to date were the beauty of the island and the shortage of rations.
An attack on the island by Jerry seemed generally expected, perhaps by parachute troops. Still have a few planes of ours about, but Jerry raids Suda Bay almost daily.
Things went along more or less normally until on the 12th I was transferred back to Artillery. We have acquired guns (?) - a German 1906 75 mm and two Italian 75's 1916 and 1917. There I again met Jack Cooper. Jerry over more frequently these days. Bombed the Aerodrome continuously and collected most of the planes. On the 16th, 30 dive-bombers again attacked the shipping in Suda Bay, doing a lot of damage. Raids every day. On 18th Jack and I went for a swim through Hospital grounds. Jerry came over and dropped 9 bombs near us. But lucky. Shrapnel all around us. Went up the road to find poor beggar of R.A.M.C. collected it well and truly.
And then on the 20th it started in earnest. At 8 a.m. over he came with scores of planes. And for an hour and a half we were machinegunned from every angle. Then from the sea came the big troop carrying planes and gliders - too many to count. They sort of floated over the island and then out came the parachute troops. Most of us forgot any fear in wonder and amazement at the sight. A marvellous spectacle! Hundreds and hundreds of men in the air, at about 400 - 500 feet and various coloured parachutes. Then the boys opened up. We were desperately short of small arms. Jerry dropped four coffin-like boxes within 100 yards of us. On opening we found them full of small arms and ammunition. Many thanks. Our boys cleaned up about 20 Jerrys here - got two myself. Rather like clay-bird shooting. Walsh received a bullet between the eyes. We also collected about 6 prisoners. In evening, Jones of H.Q. was also shot. And during the evening Bdr. Hill foolishly challenged a stranger without taking precautions. Two bullets in his shoulder. The Jerry got a Bren gun burst where it did the most good.
Next morning more troops by plane. We fired the guns all day at various targets. At night evidence of a naval engagement. Heavy gun fire, flashes of search lights all night. Jerry got onto our position with a mortar. Mac George got caught, but not badly. Shrapnel in back. Myself again lucky. Mortar hit our charges and looked like November 5th. Set fire to olive trees too. We had to put the fire out. Decidedly ticklish job, but we made it. Shifted the guns and ammo further back. Took us all night, finishing at 5 a.m.
Shot all day and were shot at. The continual machine-gunning and bombing would break one's heart. Has already broken the nerve of some of the younger lads. The Dunkirk boys here say Dunkirk was a Sunday school picnic comparatively. 70 and 80 planes at a time in relays. Just Hell. On the 25th we had to move out about midnight. Went through Galatos which was already in Jerry's hands. Why he let us through we don't know unless he thought the quads were tanks. On to a new position near Karnia. Fired during the day when permitted by Jerry. At night out again. We are on the run again. For 8 days we have had practically no sleep and as much to eat. No tea for 7 days. Southwards with the guns. Lucky to be riding. The majority are walking.
On the 28th we were well on the road south. Jerry came over and I watched a bomb leave his plane. Thought it had me. Landed less than 20 yards away. but only a small one. On again to a reception area. Pushed up a ravine and told to wait. Nothing doing that night so sleep all day. On at night. Did about 4 miles in 8 hours and still miles from the sea. Under cover again. We hate the daylight. At 3 p.m. needed water, so down the hill, to find the rest gone on. So Jack Cookie and I started off. Arrived at H.Q. - General Freyburg: Lost our officers and unit. During night went 3 miles to village to bring back rations for Maoris fighting rear-guard. No rations ourselves for days. Living on nerves and water. Finished at 4 a.m. Told that no incomplete units getting away. Looks pretty hopeless. Found Mr Young. Going to see what he can do.
Called for volunteers to take rations up to 23rd Battalion holding a series of ridges. 9 of us volunteered but honestly didn't know if we'd make it. Just about done. However, to the village, and then up the hills. Got there. Boys more than pleased to see us. And then the first real break we had had. If all quiet in the hills at dusk the 23rd were to move out - and we could attach ourselves! The real strain seemed from then on. At about an hour before moving time 4 Jerry Stukkas came over looking for us. Machine-gunned everywhere but missed us. At dark we moved out. About midnight reached the barges. Some Tommies, tried to break through, panicking, Maoris on picket shot three. Our barge stuck. At last on our way. To the destroyer "Jackal". Once on deck we could have howled with relief. The sailor boys were wonderful. Brought us tea - the first for 8 days. Never tasted anything so good. Had 6 cups. Couldn't stop. Then on our way. Action stations several occasions for Air raids but arrived in Alex without mishap. More tea, cakes and cigarettes, and a train journey to Amarea - where we had left 25.3.41. Something to eat, a sleep and then next day to Helwan.
No air-raids, just peace and relaxation.
This article first appeared in a 5 Fd Regt Newsletter.