Whose fault was failure on Crete?

Bernard Freyberg
Bernard Freyberg

Allied troops won the Battle of Crete on the first day; New Zealand commanders lost it on the second, particularly by failing to hold Maleme airfield, through which German troops then poured onto the island.

In a Mainlander article (April 23), Crete veteran and career soldier Major-General Sandy Thomas cited poor leadership as the reason that Maleme was lost and singled out as an example Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Andrew, 22 Battalion's commander, whose job it was to hold Maleme.

"Andrew had won the VC for extreme gallantry [in World War I] but that did not necessarily make him a good commander," Thomas told Press writer Mike Crean.

Thomas is not the first, and probably won't be the last, to criticise Andrew, whose reputation has been hammered by some historians and commentators since he died in 1969.

Among those critical of Andrew are the historians Michael King, Glyn Harper and Chris Pugsley, whose assessment of the late commander range from "quite incompetent" (Harper) to a man who "lost his nerve" on Crete (Pugsley).

But those who criticise Andrew perhaps are unaware of a letter written by the overall commander on Crete, Major-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, in 1956 to 22 Battalion's official historian, Jim Henderson.

In it, Freyberg said: "I do not for one moment hold Col Andrew responsible for the failure to hold Maleme; he was given an impossible task, and he has my sympathy."

The key to the debate is the hard-pressed Andrew's decision, isolated and without support while under heavy attack, to withdraw from Maleme during the night of May 20-21, 1941.

But other officers also played a role, including Andrew's immediate superior, Brigadier James Hargest, commanding the NZ 5 Brigade. Why didn't Hargest do more to support Andrew?

And what of Lieutenant- Colonel Douglas Farquharson Leckie, commanding the neighbouring NZ 23 Battalion, which had been instructed to support Andrew. Why didn't Leckie send his battalion forward?

A close reading of the evidence suggests that Andrew became a scapegoat for the loss of Maleme. According to his granddaughter, this caused him great hurt, but he "took it on the chin" and refused to defend himself because it "may have harmed others' reputations".

But Andrew does have his champions. After Pugsley made that allegation that Andrew lost his nerve, in his book Scars on the Heart, old soldiers rallied to Andrew's defence, writing outraged letters to several newspaper editors.

Pugsley has since said Andrew was a "broken man" on Crete but it is possible by reading diverse sources to build up a completely different picture of Andrew's decision to withdraw.

On 20 May, 22 Battalion suffered possibly the worst aerial bombardment of an infantry formation in the history of warfare to that time: Andrew himself, who was slightly wounded by shrapnel, described it as being worse than the Somme in 1916, which he had also experienced.

Andrew's communications were quickly severed. He had no knowledge about how his troops were faring; or indeed if they still existed as a fighting force. He left his command post to assess the situation, but was forced to ground by small-arms fire, counting eight enemy paratroopers before escaping.

His radio link with brigade headquarters was sporadic and its battery fading. Such orders as he received from the brigade were ambiguous and non-assertive. Germans were infiltrating his company's headquarters position.

He called repeatedly for reinforcements, only to be told none were available, then that they were. Those reinforcements did not materialise when he expected.

Direct appeals to the support battalion were refused. Andrew may have walked to 23 Battalion headquarters, 4km away, in the early afternoon, and he certainly returned to it at night: hikes totalling up to 12km through often hostile territory, at obvious personal risk, while wounded.

Colin Armstrong, a lieutenant on Crete, was among those who defended Andrew. In civilian life he was a barrister and solicitor, and he claimed to have been there when Andrew made his decision to withdraw. He said that Andrew assessed the situation and made a decision, in consultation with all his available officers, to fall back on the neighbouring New Zealand positions, ready for a strong counter-attack the next day.

Sandy Thomas told Crean that the 23rd were waiting and willing to help Andrew at Maleme, but the order to do so was never made. This overlooks the fact that such a contingency was covered in pre-battle orders and that Andrew certainly made a direct appeal for support.

The 23rd's C Company commander, Major H H Simpson, told historian Tony Simpson that Andrew had visited 23 Battalion's headquarters in person and asked for help: "I knew Les Andrew well; he and I were good friends. He was very shaken and disturbed and I personally took him down to battalion headquarters. I don't know the outcome of his visit except that his request was not granted."

History has been most unkind to Andrew. He has carried the weight of blame for the loss of Maleme, and consequently the loss of Crete. The simple fact of the matter was, however, that he withdrew from the airfield and what he believed was a hopeless position only after asking for reinforcements and being refused. Those officers who did not provide support must surely share the blame.

Glib assertions, made decades after the event, and sheeting home blame to Andrew alone, are in danger of sullying forever the reputation of a brave and dedicated soldier.

Nor do they take into account the reality of the situation: Andrew was fighting blind at Maleme, and his situation was symptomatic of a wider crisis, where arguably the New Zealand command structure stopped functioning under a massive and sustained German blitzkrieg. He and the wider New Zealand command were, in short, victims of what we have more recently called "shock and awe" tactics in warfare.

Andrew lost Maleme but he alone did not lose the battle or the island of Crete. It is time to seek a more comprehensive explanation of the wider Allied defeat and restore Colonel Andrew's reputation.

* Ric Stevens is the night editor of The Press.

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