This article appeared in the April 1990 NZ 28 Maori Battalion Golden Jubilee Reunion booklet.
WITHDRAWAL FROM CRETE
On the morning of the 28th May 1941 orders came for a daylight move south on the road to Sfakia. The decision had been made at Brigade, that it was no longer possible for the brigade to fight by day and withdraw by night and still fight an enemy that was becoming numerically stronger by the hour.
Orders were for the troops to move in single file in section groups on the road verge only, and NOT on the road, to avoid detection from the air. D. Company was at the tail of the battalion. Major Dyer said to me, "You and I are the only officers left in D Company. I will march in the front and you in the rear. I will not let any man get ahead of me, and you will not let any man drop behind you, so if we have to fight we will know that what is left of D Company is between us," and so the march began. We were going along cheerfully enough until Major Bertrand, Bn 2.I.C. joined us. He was to march at the rear of the battalion.
With the men weakened by lack of adequate rest and no food, I decided to strip the Bren guns and distribute the parts among 4 men with orders to stay together so the weapons could be quickly assembled if needed, and we trudged on. Fortunately we weren't harassed by enemy aircraft. Sometime during the day we found the road had been blown up, presumably to hamper the Germans. This meant that the 15cwt truck, the only vehicle the battalion had, had to be abandoned. We had to plod along on foot without the luxury of one small truck to carry the heavy equipment and the sick and lame. So we had to say goodbye to our heavy Machine Gun and watch it disappear with the truck over the cliff.
After darkness fell, the silent column kept on. With each rest halt it became more and more difficult to get the men on their feet, they weren't complaining, no grizzles, just tired. The N.C.O's and I had to encourage and cajole, then to urge and eventually to threaten. The men were falling into a deep sleep in the 10 minute halts and when it was time to move on, the more weary would ask for more time.
"Just give me another five minutes, Sir, and I'll catch up," but I knew that if we didn't get them on their feet, they would never catch up, they would sleep for hours, and be wakened by the enemy; so we kept prodding and urging them. It was hard enough to get myself going. More than once I had to roll over onto my hands and knees and so up onto my feet.
Looking back after all these years, a feeling of pride comes over me, when I think of how these men battled on, bone weary, footsore and not a single word of complaint, and not a single man left behind. We heard that someone had caught a couple of fowls, but whatever became of them I don't know. They certainly didn't have time to cook them, perhaps they ate them raw - who knows. I bet they tasted beaut.
All things good as well as bad came to an end, and eventually after we had staggered over the top of the White Mountains and along the Askifou Plain, we halted and slept. The history book says that was about 0300 hours but I wasn't interested in peering at my watch in the darkness, all I wanted to do was sleep, and that was what we all did. It wasn't a matter of looking for the most comfortable spot, the most comfortable place was right where we stopped on the side of the road.
That day, the 29th, there was nothing to do but to rest and look for food which was a pointless exercise as we were on a barren mountain plateau near a deserted village which proved to be as barren as the surroundings. Then came more orders, to move at once towards Sfakia. It was not a long march; it took us only about three hours unmolested by enemy planes, but hampered by groups of stragglers, men who had lost their units, men who had deserted their units, walking wounded doing their best to keep going, a sad sight but inevitable.
We eventually reached our destination which was the high ground above Sfakia. By now we were almost fully recovered from the ordeal of the previous few days. We were able to get our boots off, dry our socks and let the air and sun get at our feet. I hadn't had a chance to take off my boots for five days during which I had waded through streams, so my feet were in need of some sympathetic treatment. The only thing lacking was food, and there was nothing that could be done about that; but amazingly we didn't feel famished or starving; we were OK enough, we could survive, but a good feed could have been most welcome.
The morning of the 30th dawned, the day was sunny and warm and our only pastime, exercise or whatever you'd like to call it, was watching columns of stragglers moving past us. Later in the day Major Dyer returned from Battalion to inform us that the battalion was to go off that night less a rearguard of 6 officers and 144 OR's which was to remain behind to protect Force Headquarters and be evacuated the following night. Major Dyer was in command and Captain Rangi Royal as his 2 I/C and four subaltems. Humphrey Dyer said to me with a smile, "Of course you will stay with me." It was more a statement than a question; there was nothing to say. I certainly would not have left him and the 'D' Coy men required to stay behind. I quickly sought out the 'D' Coy men and told them I needed 22 volunteers to stay behind. Every single one volunteered, so Jack Tainui and I made the selection. Later in the afternoon our rearguard watched as the battalion filed past and made their way down the mountainside toward Sfakia.
Some time later, I heard there was an army food dump in Sfakia. I went to Major Dyer with the news and a request that I go down with a carrying party to get some. He sent me to Brigade to get a requisition. When I told Brigadier Hargest what I wanted he told his Staff Captain to write out a requisition for 200 men, 150 for us and 50 for Brigade H.Q. I set off immediately with a carrying party of Jim Kihi as Quarter Master and six men from each company, 26 men in all. We soon caught up with the tail of the evacuating troops.
When we reached the fringe of Sfakia we were told we could not enter Sfakia, till after midnight when the evacuation was completed. Midnight came and we moved down. I had no trouble in finding the food store which was in the Charge of a N.Z. Artillery Major. He was surprised to learn that we were still fighting in the mountains and he and his men quickly gave us the requisitioned supplies. When he heard we had not eaten for days he gave us extra rations.
Jack Tainui and I made the selection. Later in the afternoon our rearguard watched as the battalion filed past and made their way down the mountainside toward Sfakia. We carried our supplies up to a flat rocky ledge with a deep well - it was more of a huge cistern. To get the water we tied a steel helmet to some signal cable we found. While the boys were having their fill of water Jim Kihi was issuing the bully and biscuits. According to custom in our battalion the officers ate last. When it came to my turn to drink I knelt by the well opening and gulping down the water. With spillage I drank four hat fulls, then Jim handed me a whole tin of bully beef and a packet of biscuits.
When I protested, his words to me were, "Shut up and eat." I am inclined to think that such conduct and words only happen in the Maori Battalion. There was a lovely relationship between officers and men; I was the officer but I looked on them as brothers and equals, and while they respected their officers they still regarded them, especially under times of stress, as mates. How else can an N.C.O tell his officer to "Shut up and eat". So I ate, or rather I emptied the tin into my cupped hands and just put my face into the meat. Bite and swallow, bite and swallow then a drink of water, bite and swallow, a biscuit, more water, till all the meat was gone. That was the first food for four days.
Next morning we found our rearguard who were pleased to see us, mainly I presume because of the rations we brought. We sent a portion to Brigade. I remember watching Major Dyer sitting on a rock in a huge cave eating biscuits and jam, munching on and on with a contented smile on his face.
In late afternoon we started our withdrawal. Our problem now was not the Germans, but our own stragglers. We were told that only troops actually accounted for would go off on the ships provided by the Royal Navy. Major Dyer impressed upon me that he was putting meat the rear of the battalion force with strict orders NOT to allow any stragglers to join our line. His words were, "For every straggler you let pass, one of our men will have to stay behind." So that was it, clear and precise.
At the tail of the column once again were Jack Tainui, Guv Mathews and me, I had my Luger, Jack and Guv with their Thompson sub-machine guns. As the column moved slowly, the stragglers pressed closely behind us, stopped only by the three of us. It was a sad sight. There was even a group of our walking wounded who had struggled along after they had to abandon their 15cwt truck. Luckily for them Brigadier Hargest came along and escorted them through and handed them over to Major Dyer. It was his right and I was secretly pleased.
Nightfall and eventually the order to move. I suppose every man had the urge to get ahead and make sure he got onto a boat, but there was no such move from any of the men. If anyone felt the urge to do so, the urge for self preservation, he kept it under control.
In time I came to the water's edge and this was the last boat, loaded deeper into the water, the dark shape of the boat getting nearer; I reached out my hands, stifling a little feeling of panic - if the boat should move out now - and then my hands were on it. I grasped the gunwale, nothing could make me let go now; I pulled myself out of the water and my boys pulled me into the boat - oh the relief, but then the boat was grounded because of the excessive load, so several of us got into the water again to push. It didn't take much effort and the boat was clear, and we hastened to clamber aboard again. As the boat moved quietly away from the shore to the waiting ships, the evacuation from Crete was almost over; I was the last N.Z'er to leave Crete in the official evacuation.
In no time at all we were on the' Abdiel' , having boarded by way of the stern ramp used for laying mines. She was a four-funnelled, mine-layer, light displacement vessel of exceptional speed. The three vessels involved, the 'Abdiel' and two destroyers, set off at full speed to put as great a distance as possible between them and Crete and the enemy planes that would be sure to be searching for us at first light. Meanwhile, down in the bowels of the 'Abdiel' we gathered around huge chests containing cheese and biscuits; we just ate and ate, nothing to say, but thankful to be there.
Early next morning, I went up on deck with my close friend Lieut Jim Tuhiwai of' C' Coy. Ahead of the 'Abdiel' were the two destroyers moving so we were told at full speed for Alexandria. The Abdiel, being faster, was tucked in behind them; every now and then she would do a zigzag and settle in behind one of the destroyers, then another zigzag and settle in behind the other throughout the journey. Anxious eyes would scan the skies behind us, looking for sign of enemy bombers, but they troubled us only once. It was a half-hearted attempt at intervention, hit nothing, but got a hot reception from the naval gunners.
As Alexandria loomed on the horizon, Major Dyer said, "Let's tidy ourselves as best we can, smarten ourselves up and march off the ship like the good soldiers we are." There was little we could do, but we worked with a will and did what we could. The results weren't spectacular either. When the ship was finally tied up and the gangway down, we marched off and formed up in company groups, then with Major Dyer leading and Rangi Royal following, we marched off to the trucks waiting to take us to Amiriya camp.
It was a happy band of men that came in sight of our battalion. Lt-Col Dittmer, our Commanding Officer, stood on the side of the road as truck after truck of waving soldiers drove past him; for a man of his Teutonic breeding, the look on his face was the nearest thing to emotion we had ever seen. On debussing, he had the chaplain, Capt. Harawira hold a brief service of thanks-giving, thankful for the fact that having endured so much, he had his battalion once more together, eager and ready for the next task.