Military historians spend a lot of time calling out the commanders of the past for their mistakes, pointing out the wrong decisions they took that led them (and the men under their command) to defeat.
One of the granddaddies of them all took place on Hill 107, during the Crete campaign. The 22nd New Zealand Battalion had held the German paratroopers at bay for an entire day–the opening day of Operation Mercury–successfully blocking their path to the airfield at Maleme. It was an increasingly dire situation for the Germans, who HAD to take the field in order to land the necessary supplies and reinforcements. The campaign hung in the balance. In the early morning hours of the second day, the Germans steeled themselves for one last, desperate lunge at the hill. It was do or die time on Crete.
They were bewildered at first when their reconnaissance probes discovered that the 22nd New Zealand had abandoned the position, retreating on the open path to the east. Soon the airfield was in German hands, and soon after that so was all of Crete.
Every since that moment, the commander of the Kiwi battalion, LTC L. W. Andrew, has become the goat of the campaign. What was he thinking, abandoning this crucial spot? Was it blindness? Incompetence? Cowardice?
I vote for “none of the above.” Let’s tick off a few facts about Andrew’s situation. He’d had a bewildering day, defending under the first large-scale paradrop of the war. In fending off a series of uncoordinated but aggressive German assaults, his battalion’s casualties were approaching 50%. He’d been under Luftwaffe attack all day, the screaming of the Stukas making it hard to think straight, let alone exercise orderly command and control. Radio contact with his subordinate companies was intermittent, and practically non-existent with his brigade commander, BG James Hargest (5th New Zealand Brigade). Andrew’s counterattack late in the day, spearheaded by his two–yes, two–Matilda infantry tanks had collapsed almost as soon as it began. And while we know today that the Germans themselves had taken a beating that first day and had almost no paratroopers in reserve, that is just the sort of thing that Andrew himself did not know. He had no idea who’d be landing on or around him when the sun came up on day two. He was fairly certain that those Stukas would be back, though.
And so he ordered a retreat, linking up with 21st and 23rd Battalions to the east. A mistake? By the conventions of military history, yes, I guess it was.
But it probably made a heck of lot of sense at the time.
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