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Judge Not: Colonel Andrew’s ‘Mistake’ at Maleme

By Robert M. Citino
10/11/2009 • Fire for Effect

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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29 Responses to Judge Not: Colonel Andrew’s ‘Mistake’ at Maleme

  1. Bill Nance says:

    Just goes to show that in combat, just like in boxing, if you focus exclusively on how bad you’re hurting and not think about the enemy’s situation, your chances for a bad call go up. Or, if both sides think they’re beaten, they’re both right.

  2. Rob Citino says:

    Right on, Bill. A good battle to illustrate the problem of information. Each side knew how badly IT was doing, but not how badly the other.side was doing. A very typical problem.

  3. Lee says:

    Clausewitz advises, “In a lost battle the power of an army is broken, the moral to a greater degree than the physical. A second battle, unless fresh favorable circumstances come into play, would lead to a complete defeat, perhaps, to destruction.” He continues that risking your forces, “may be traced to the moral deficiency of the adversary, or to the preponderance gained in the battle not having been sufficient to make a lasting impression.” From this I believe Andrew, not knowing all the facts and the miscommunications, followed the path most advisable. He knew what he would be risking, what in the fog of war must have appeared the probable destruction of his beleaguered forces. I do not believe Clausewitz nor I would perceive his actions as cowardice: rather the opposite. Andrew made the best decisions he could with the Intel and training he had at the time.

  4. Luke Truxal says:

    This proves that the moral of a combat unit plays such a huge role in later operations. A commander can retreat away from a victory just as well as the Germans fought their way through a loss. Allied losses suffered early in the war against Germany may have played a major role in Colonel Andrew’s withdrawal. I wonder if Andrew would have withdrawn had the British had more success prior to the invasion of Crete?

  5. Rob Citino says:

    Good point, Luke. Losing can become a habit as much as winning can. If your first response to a setback is, “Oh no, here we go again,”, then perhaps you’re already beaten.

  6. B. Horne says:

    We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that Rob’s terrific cover story on the 1941 German invasion of Crete by air will appear in the the Winter 2010 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, on newsstands on November 15. http://historynet.wpengine.com/mhq

  7. Mike Hegarty says:

    The RAF was next to non-existent in that battle with many of its planes being evacuated to North Africa and Egypt. Overwhelming Axis airpower certainly factored into Andrew’s decision. While Wellington’ and Blenheims were performing harassing raids and supply drops, few if any Spitfire or Hurricanes remained on Crete. Andrew made the best decision that he could under the circumstances.

  8. Rob Citino says:


    Good points all!


  9. Michael says:

    The question is: what were his orders? There is no point examining Andrew’s decision in isolation because he is unlikely to have had much idea of the overall battle on Crete. Obviously he should have been told to fight to the last man to hold the airfield but was he told this?

  10. Robert says:

    For the want of some good intelligence a battle was lost. Nothing new there!

  11. Wayne Trovinger says:

    Many of the comments above are accurate and too the point. Although his orders are not known or discussed here, keep in mind the desire of England and their allies, with their limited manpower resources, as well as the blooding of the Empire from WWI, may well have caused him to withdraw in order to fight another day.


  12. Charles says:

    Insightful points from Mr. Citino, and good feedback. Without more information, though, we can neither exonerate nor condemn Colonel Andrew for his decision to retreat and consolidate with sister battalions to the east. The question of orders becomes central: what were the various battalion commanders supposed to defend in case of attack, and had General Hargest made clear the brigade’s defensive priorities? If he had, the other battalions should likely have attempted to fight their way west in order to consolidate around the critical Maleme airfield. Where was Hargest during the battle, and did he or others recognize the importance of the airfield and try to reinforce Andrew? If General Hargest did not see (or did not share with his battalion commanders) “the big picture” of what was really important in the brigade’s area of operations, the fault would seem to be his.

    • Peter says:

      A significant factor to consider was at the time, a German sea-borne assault was expected at any time. In fact, this was anticipated to be the main assault. In the event it didn’t happen, never-the-less it was a factor looming in the immediate background.


    I concur with Charles, we need more information in order to reach an accurate conclusion.

  14. Rob Citino says:

    Charles and Roger–

    Thanks for the insightful comments. Might I just add that his communications with Brigade HQ (Hargest) had been interrupted virtually all day? For historians, the question of “orders”, it seems to me, has to give way to the question of “command and control”.


  15. Luke Truxal says:

    Something that Dr. Citino exposes in his blog about the battle for Hill 107 that may need to be discussed is the different fighting styles of the Germans and the Allies. Colonel Andrew attempts to save his battalion when he believes his situation is hopeless. The German objective is the airfield and they attack constantly holding nothing back. The Germans always fight to the bitter end to reach their objective. Early in the war this gives them an advantage. However, later in the war it proves to be their downfall at Moscow and Stalingrad when the objective proves to be outside their logistical capabilities. The Germans continue their attack until they can no longer attack and it comes back to hurt them. The Allies are more concerned about their troops and the logistical demands of combat than the Germans therefore Colonel Andrew orders the retreat in order to preserve his battalion for another day. While you don’t win wars retreating this does show that the British are more realistic when it comes to deciding whether or not a strategic target is within their capability of taking or holding. In this case the British were wrong, but it doesn’t make their way of waging war wrong. The Germans however will sacrifice anything for their current objective even if it hurts them in the long run.

  16. Eli says:

    It is important, when trying to analyze the decisions of a military commander (or anyone else, for that matter) to base that evaluation on the information and resources available to him at the time the decision was made. Inadequate intelligence often leads to bad decisions, as it’s a mistake to simply assume that one’s foes suffered the same damage as one’s own forces did. That path leads to disaster. When intelligence is lacking, a leader has to assume that the enemy is still capable and dangerous. Had Col. Andrews known the enemy’s actual strength and the importance of holding his ground at high costs, he would certainly have continued the fight, but it would have made little sense to fight to the last man just for its own sake.

  17. Charles says:

    Communications between Brigade HQ and the various battalions were very difficult after the German airborne attack, and simple pre-standing “orders” would have been of limited value. Similarly, the Brigade commander lost much of his ability to provide on-going “command and control.” But had the battalion commanders been appropriately pre-briefed by General Hargest about the relative importance of the Brigrade’s defensive tasks, they should have themselves quickly realized the critical importance of holding the airfield and denying the Germans the ability to reinforce quickly and massively. I remain curious as to what kind of personal initiative was typical within the New Zealand land forces of that time, and how well General Hargest had given his subordinates an accurate overview of Brigade priorities prior to the attack. If the Kiwis had a hidebound approach to following orders rather than showing personal initiative, and coupled that with a tendency to keep info higher up the ladder rather than lower, it would explain a lot of what happened.

  18. Rene vd Assem says:

    I suppose only orders in itself are not the only issue. The commanders intent with the orders are much more important. So if Hargest intent for Andrew’s orders had been to hold the position at the hill “at all costs” then I am sure he would have stayed in place. Personally I doubt that Hargest’s orders had this intent given the reasons mentioned earlier by others. Also dont forget that the NZ troops were not used to `modern` warfare and must have been at the end of their wits given the situation.

    Unless there are some personal notes of Andrew and – or commanders subbordinate to him I doubt the whole truth will ever be known.

    I would say that judging these situations and decisions by people who wer not `at the scene`is always going to be very easy.


  19. Bill Nance says:

    Although the LTC Andrew may not have had orders, he also had to have basic understanding of the situation. He was defending the main airfield on the Western side of the island against an airborne force whose only hope for reinforcement was through an airfield – more precisely his airfield. This situation is what commanders are paid for.

  20. Christopher Tarboton says:

    I recall reading a book by a NZ survivor of the Crete campaign and admiring greatly their courage in extremely difficult circumstances, but also the apparent complete breakdown of communication between their fighting units, with the result that whilst they seemed to understand the importance of holding out, it was assumed that resistance had crumbled around them and thus the withdrawal. Unlike today, communication was a different story entirely. The next question that needs answering is whether Andrews had stayed fast, would it have defeated the invaders?

  21. Miguel Ondina says:

    Sorry I come late to this discussion. There is another angle to look at why Andrews decided to “bug out”. Perhaps this was another manifestation of the British “way of war” after the devastation they suffered during the Great War. France 1940, Singapore, Tobruk and Greece are more examples that demonstrate the British state of mind in the 1940’s.
    This state of mind explains Montgomery’s greatness and success (except for Market Garden of course). He recognized this tendency and planned and executed battles in which the British soldier could win.

  22. Randall C. Reed says:

    The official Australian history is fairly clear about the cammender’s appreciation of the importance of the airfields. With Eban Emael and the Corinth Canal behind them, the British Commonwealth forces understood the importance –nay, the absolute necessity– of resupplying airborne troops via an airhead as soon as possible after the initial drop. The airfield was key: That’s why the Brits defended each one of them. British defense of Suda Bay was an afterthought left to the MNBDO because of the preoccupation with defending against airborne assault. No, I think it is clear that some people are made of sterner stuff and some aren’t (sorta like 2 of the 3 regiments of the US 106th Division in the Bulge). Andrews “put up the good fight” and saw his chance to live a comfortable existence in a German POW camp and he took it. Walking away was the easier course of action for a gentleman soldier. Funny how quickly and consistently it was recognized as the critical action of the battle. I don’t think he counted on that.

  23. Rob Citino says:


    The New Zealand official history is a bit more protective of Andrew, and argues claims that Brigadier Hargest “misread the situation.” But your point is well taken.

    May I ask: as you the Randall C. Reed who designed my favorite wargame of all time: Avalon Hill’s Air Assault on Crete? If so, welcome!

  24. Brian Jacobi says:

    I think that it is mostly the loss of contact with higher command that precipitated the retreat, as it is much easier for a remote higher leader to order a fight to the last man, than for a commander who has to look into the faces of the men he is condeming.

    During the ‘Channel Dash’ of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau the Manston station commander, seeing that to send Swordfish aircraft in a daylight attack (they had initially planned a night attack) was suicidal, called the Admiralty to have the attack cancelled. The remote commander was able to insist, where as the man on the spot might not. With tears in his eyes he passsed on the order to Lt. Cmr. Esmonde to proceed with the attack, with the inevitable result.

    British and Commonwealth forces in general may have known the inportance of holding airfields, but at this early stage of the war each individual commander was probably finding himself in this position for the first time. Later in the war there may well have been a harder edge.

    • Dave says:

      The guys in the rear all ways know what is best for the ones on the front line. Always. Do it and no back talk I know best.

  25. Tom says:

    Point over looked:

    1.You do not know what he observed at this point which provoked his movement
    2. You do not know what his intelligence report said to him at this point
    3. You do not know what his search teams saw and reported.


    These item are critical in making decision. Unless you are there it is hard to criticize any decision by any commander under fire. .

  26. Brett Curtis says:

    I agree, Andrew was no coward having been awarded the VC in WWI – but like most Kiwis he was a citizen-soldier, having stayed on as a Territorial between the wars. NZ Historian Glynn Harper has written a very good book on NZ commanders. Like most NZ senior officers, Andrew was getting on in age and also his superior Brigadier Hargest, was also deficient, a man promoted far beyond his abilities because of his connections (he was a Member of Parliament). Col (later Maj-Gen) Howard Kippenberger wrote the NZ official history of the Cretan Campaign and apportioned blamed squarely on Hargest – later captured in Nth Africa, escaped Italian POW camp and appointed NZ official observer to D-Day then killed on June 12 1944. Having said that, most early NZ senior commanders were found wanting – either too old or inexperienced. Fortunately a good crop of younger men rose to the challenge!

  27. Peter says:

    A lot of problems on Crete. Hargest requested the areas west of Maleme, be occupied/defended. This was denied. The runway itself be cratered, this was denied, obstructed by drums of gravel, again denied. How critical was the aerodrome deemed before the battle? The Germans were easily killed, but only until they got to their weapon cannisters. A key factor was the preliminary German bombardment. 1940/s version of the coordinated air/land battle. This meant that once the para attack began, the infrastructure collapsed. Communications were problematic. Landlines were cut by roving bands of Germans, runners never turned up. The late war artist Peter McIntyre commented that on arriving at HQ one day, before the battle, all senior officers emerged from conference concerned mostly about the sea invasion. The “sea invasion” I’m sure loomed large in the background throughout all the battles 20 + May. I think the Maleme sector was expecting to receive 10,000 troops supported by armour from the sea.

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