After narrowly surviving the Axis invasion of the Balkans in April 1941, New Zealander Haddon Donald and his men were evacuated to Crete. They soon found themselves at the dawn of a new era in warfare.
The Germans had two goals when they invaded Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941. First, they wanted to save face by regaining territory the Italians had lost in Greece five months earlier, in addition to toppling the anti-German military government that had just taken power in Belgrade. But, more important, Adolf Hitler also wanted to secure critical oil fields in Romania, as well as his army’s southeastern flank, as he prepared to launch Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of Russia.
Battered by the hammer blows of repeated defeats in Europe, beleaguered British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was desperate to regain some measure of prestige for his overwhelmed armed forces and prevent the Axis from opening the door to the Suez Canal and the British empire’s vulnerable possessions in the Middle East. In order to stave off a complete disaster, Churchill knew it was essential to maintain a toehold in the Mediterranean for as long as possible.
To help the Greeks defend their homeland, Churchill rushed in a 32,000-man army under Lt. Gen. Bernard Freyberg. Lieutenant Haddon Donald of New Zealand was part of that force, which included British, Commonwealth and Greek soldiers, but Freyberg’s men quickly found they were no match for the Germans—the Axis onslaught was simply too great.
Donald, commanding a platoon in the 22nd Battalion, 2nd New Zealand Division, barely had time to catch his breath before he and his men were driven to defeat at Kalamata. Fortunately for them, as British and Commonwealth positions in Greece were crumbling, on April 16 a frantic Churchill ordered Royal Navy ships to assemble off the Peloponnesus and begin evacuating his forces. Donald was among those rescued from the Kalamata beach.
Having barely escaped the debacle in Greece, the young officer might have hoped for a respite, but when he asked what was next for his weary men, he was told, “Ahh, you’re off to Crete.” Churchill, it so happened, had decided to make a stand on Crete, saying the island “must be held at all costs.” This was essential so that badly needed reinforcements could be hurried to the Middle East, and Crete’s airfields could later be used to bomb the important Romanian oil fields at Ploesti. However, had Donald known what he would find there—and that he and his men would be asked to pay with their lives to buy Churchill the needed time—he might well have decided to jump overboard and take his chances in the sea.
As Donald was taking stock of a campaign that had seen yet another British expeditionary force pushed into the surf, he had little idea he also was about to become a witness to a military revolution.
WWII: You were dropped off on Crete in a pretty disorganized state. What was done to restore some order to the situation on the island?
Donald: General Freyberg was put in charge of all the troops on the island, and he relinquished command of the NZ division to Brigadier Edward Puttick. We spent two or three days waiting until we were given our proper dispositions, and the 22nd Battalion, 5th Brigade, was sent to defend the Maleme aerodrome, which was on the northwestern coast of Crete, closest to Greece. The 22nd was given the job of protecting the aerodrome itself, with our headquarters on high ground overlooking the aerodrome, which was battalion headquarters. C Company was given the job of protecting the perimeter of the airfield, and my platoon was on the south side of the perimeter. The 15th Platoon from Gisborne was alongside the beach, and the 13th Platoon was given the job of looking after the eastern end of the airfield. We didn’t have enough troops really to protect the western end of Maleme, where there was a fairly wide-open riverbed with not much water, and a lot of country farther west, which was completely undefended. We were given an impossible task, really.
WWII: What measures did you take to defend your positions?
Donald: The battalion had a very large area to defend, and the rest of the brigade was scattered around fairly close by. We didn’t have much in the way of equipment. We had no picks, no shovels, so we dug the trenches with bayonets and scooped the stones and rocks and things out with our helmets. We managed to procure the odd shovel from the locals, and that was a godsend, and a pick or two, not many, so we had to be fairly industrious in burrowing holes for ourselves.
WWII: It doesn’t sound like you had much to work with. Were you at all worried that you would be facing a repeat of the battle in Greece?
Donald: We were hopeful—we lived on hope. We didn’t quite understand the severity of the onslaught that was coming. There were a few aeroplanes at Maleme—I think there were about nine Hurricanes to start with—and we were attacked from the air almost every day. These Hurricanes would go up and try to fight off the German fighters and bombers, and they gradually dwindled down until there were only two. One day the second-to-last one came in to land at Maleme—I can vividly see the jolly thing now, on fire with a Messerschmitt 109 following behind it. The Australian AK8 [anti-aircraft] gunners tried to shoot the German down but shot our guy down instead, which was a disaster—they were quite close together, almost nose to tail. They’d all fought very gallantly, shot down quite a lot of German planes, and so the last one that was there was sent off to Egypt. There was no point in staying.
Editor’s note: Haddon and the rest of Freyberg’s force would soon confront the aerial onslaught of General Kurt Student’s Fliegerkorps 11, the largest airborne force organized to that point. Operation Mercury, in fact, would be the first attempt in history to seize an island exclusively from the air.
Hitler had signed Führer Directive No. 8 authorizing the strike only three weeks earlier. The directive was audacious in its goals, and the Germans hoped that their elite Fallschirmjäger was equal to the task. Earlier operations in France and the Low Countries carried out by smaller airborne forces had succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. The Fallschirmjäger’s earlier triumphs had been so shocking that Allied military leaders began to consider creating their own airborne forces.
Working under a very tight timetable, Student managed to organize his force and send it on its way. Beginning at 8 a.m. on May 20, 1941, German paratroopers began falling from the sky.
WWII: So you had no air cover at all. I know there was a suspicion that you would encounter paratroopers, but you must have been shocked by the size of the force that started dropping from the sky on the morning of May 20.
Donald: We expected an attack both from the sea and from the air. We thought it was coming on the 17th, then we were told the 19th, and then the 20th. Intelligence group had broken the code, and we were given the information, so we were expecting what was going to happen. There was quite a preliminary softening-up that went on, particularly around the aerodromes and particularly around Maleme. We were bombed heavily every day, and although we didn’t suffer very many casualties, we did suffer from a morale point of view—it was pretty tough. On the morning of the actual attack, we had the initial bombing from the Stukas, and they really screamed at you. Then the heavy bombers came in from the sea and gave us a real pounding. There had been a slight gap in timing between the Stukas and the heavier bombers, and my runner, who shared my slit trench with me, had gone off to get breakfast. It was about 8 o’clock in the morning, and while he was away this squadron of heavy bombers came over. We were really pounded, and a bomb landed in my runner’s side of the slit trench and exploded in the trench where he would have been had he not been getting breakfast. The explosion’s concussion knocked me out on the other side of the V slit trench. And the first thing I knew, my runner was shaking my shoulder and said, “Wake up, boss!”
WWII: What did you see when you came back to your senses?
Donald: There were gliders and parachutes all around us. So I was rather hazy but did wake up and look around, and you couldn’t see a jolly thing because there was so much smoke and dust—it took at least a quarter of an hour before you could see more than 20 yards or so. Our platoon headquarters area, which was with the company headquarters, was absolutely flattened. The trees were all gone; there were bomb craters almost touching one another over the whole area. Then the ground fighting started.
WWII: The main objective for the first wave of attacking German troops was the island’s two airfields, which meant that you were at the very heart of the landings. What was the situation like around Maleme?
Donald: The Germans landed a lot of troops to the west of the aerodrome, which was undefended. They soon found out that they were not getting shot up there. But everywhere else where we were, they just had the daylights shot out of them—we shot them in the air and we shot them on the ground. We were really in control of our own areas, but then they landed a lot more troops to the west of the aerodrome, and they formed up there and started to attack us in strength.
WWII: What did this mean from where you were located? Wasn’t most of the fighting to the west?
Donald: Well, I was a platoon commander, and we were there to defend the aerodrome. Our 15th Platoon, which was on the seaside of the aerodrome, was overwhelmed fairly quickly, and we saw the last of them surrendering. The platoon commander was shot in the jaw, and he’d been unconscious; one of his men, a Corporal Mihaffy, was in a trench with several of his men when a German soldier tossed in a grenade. Mihaffy whipped his tin hat off, put it over the grenade and stood on it. Both his feet were blown off, but he saved the rest of his section. We did not know what was happening with the 13th Platoon. We didn’t have contact with them because we couldn’t send runners and we had no telephones and no radio. My platoon had been reduced to about 20 men from 36. So we were fairly weak, and the Germans mounted an attack toward us. They had herded up some RAF prisoners, and they were driving these chaps in front of them toward us as a screen. I told the boys quickly to hang off because if we’d started shooting, we would have hit the Brits.
WWII: Did you let them advance right into your foxholes?
Donald: We waited until the Brits were about 30 yards away from us, and I shouted out, “Drop, we’re going to fire!” and they did. As soon as they hit the ground, we opened up on the Huns, and we killed quite a lot of them. The rest pulled back. The Brits came in and joined us, so we got about six or seven reinforcements out of that lot. We gave them rifles, and they helped us manning the trenches.
WWII: What happened after you beat back this attack?
Donald: That afternoon our CO had two Matilda infantry tanks. They were big, fairly cumbersome and not very effective, but they had very thick armor, and they were hidden—the Germans didn’t know that they were there. Our CO, Colonel Andrew, wasn’t getting any support from brigade headquarters, so he decided to mount an attack of his own with these two tanks. I was given instructions to support the tanks.
WWII: What did this entail?
Donald: They were to go to the western end of the aerodrome, where we had counted at least 200 Germans. We knew there were a lot there, but this was our effort to try and counterattack and retake the western end of the aerodrome. There I was with about 25 or 26 blokes and these tanks. We’d had no contact with them at all, but they were trundling up the road and I was suddenly given orders to move.
WWII: It sounds like this was a hastily conducted affair.
Donald: I gave orders to my section commanders on the run. We had to try and catch up with the tanks. We got down onto the road and came under pretty heavy machine gun fire. I had one section on the right of the road and one on the left. The third section was following close along the road, and I commanded from there. As we advanced, my right-hand section commander came across to see me under a hail of bullets and said: “It’s no good boss, we’re too exposed. We can’t make any ground on that side.” I went back with him to have a look and could see that it was hopeless—it was too exposed. “Wait here and give us covering fire,” I said, “and we will see what we can do.” I went back across the road and got a bullet in the leg.
WWII: Did this take you out of the action?
Donald: No. We went on to the second tank, which was about 150 yards in front of us, and we were trying to catch up with it. By this time, the first tank had reached the Tavernitis River, where there was a bridge. We watched the tank crew come and surrender to the Germans. They had bogged down, and there was something wrong with their 2-pounder gun. The second tank then turned around on the road and came back toward us and stopped where I was.
WWII: It seems like it was now just your pitifully small force taking on the Germans by itself. What did you do about the tank trying to leave you?
Donald: We’d been told that if we wanted to make contact with the crew, there was a bell on the back of the turret that we could press and they would come out and talk to us. I pressed this bell and got no response. Then I climbed up on the tank and pressed the bell again. The tank was being shot at, so I waved my hand in front of the visor, and the hatch came up very gently, very hesitantly. There was a British sergeant in charge of the tank, and he said that they had lost control of the turret. I had a look. An antitank shell had hit the cowling around the turret, and it was all splintered. The crew couldn’t turn the turret, and the other tank had surrendered, so they decided it was time to go.
WWII: Was this a good enough excuse for you?
Donald: “Okay,” I said to him. “We’ll come along beside you and use you as protection, and we’ll put several of our wounded chaps on the protected side of the tank.” We got back with about 14 blokes. Some of us were wounded, and some of us were still intact. It had been a futile effort. We were not nearly strong enough, and the attack wasn’t properly prepared, so it was a rather forlorn effort before it even started.
WWII: How bad was your wound and how did you keep going?
Donald: When I was hit, it just felt like a smack from a bat. I had a leg up, climbing a little bank, and the bullet went in just above the knee and came out about six inches farther up my leg. I can’t understand where it went to from there. It should have gone into my body somewhere, but it must have whipped in a semicircle somehow, and all I got was just a puncture where it went in and where it came out. It wasn’t too bad at that stage. It became fairly painful later, but it didn’t hold me up to any extent, and anyway I was too jolly scared to stay there and quite prepared to pull back.
WWII: After the Germans landed, it seems as if the battle was just a series of disjointed fights like yours with the tank. Did you have any idea of the big picture, or at least what your battalion was up to?
Donald: We couldn’t make contact with battalion headquarters, and because we were so isolated and could hear Germans as close as 50 yards away, when it got dark my company commander decided that we should pull out. We took our boots off because it was rocky ground and it was noisy with boots on, and we got through the German lines without disturbing them. By the time we got to the top of Hill 107, it was almost daylight. I was at the tail end of the column. We had about 30 blokes by then, some of them wounded, some stretcher bearers and people like that. I was right at the back, and I saw on a terrace just above me a German tin hat going up and down in the air as though the owner was looking around. I had a tommy gun and fired just below this tin hat and I heard a metallic clatter. This German had a tin hat on a bayonet, and he was trying to draw fire to see where we were. Being a bit green, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I soon figured out what he was up to.
Editor’s note: At the end of the first day, victory was anything but certain for Student’s men. Despite the Germans’ best efforts, British and Commonwealth forces still held the airfields. At Maleme, the defense was based on the key terrain of Hill 107. The decision of Donald’s battalion commander to abandon this critical piece of high ground ensured that Student could fly in reinforcements to his hard-pressed men, reversing the tide of the battle.
WWII: Well, you were now at the tail end of a slowly moving column, and the Germans knew where you were. What did you do?
Donald: I pulled out a grenade and tossed it. The explosion was followed by all sorts of squeals and yells. I had dropped behind the rest of my group by this time and so I now tried to catch up. I moved over a little ridge and ran into a party of Germans. Six of them were laying out a big red swastika to identify their position to supply planes overhead. I came across these chaps unexpectedly and shot three of them and the others disappeared. I picked up the swastika flag because I knew I could use it to fool the Germans into dropping some supplies where we were.
WWII: You obviously did not want to stick around for very long. Where did you go from there?
Donald: I headed back toward the 21st Battalion’s lines because the rest of our company had gone. While I was hurrying along, I heard a roar just behind me and looked around. There was a Ju-52 troop carrier just skimming over the ridge. It was so low I could see the Germans inside. I put a new 50-round magazine on my tommy gun and opened up, aiming first at one of the engines and then at the cockpit. I could see my bullets tearing holes all the way down the side of the plane. I emptied my whole magazine into the plane and learned later that it had crashed on the other side of the hill. The few who tried to escape the wreckage were shot down by one of our Bren guns.
WWII: Your accuracy as an anti-aircraft gunner must have lifted your spirits.
Donald: Yes, it certainly did. We’d been subjected to bombardment and strafing from the air for about 10 days and it was very disconcerting. I was feeling very frustrated until that point.
WWII: It had now been some time since you had been hit in the leg. Was it ever treated?
Donald: After I got back to my battalion, I was sent off to the RAP [regimental aid post]. There were a whole lot of people there. Barney Clapham, our transport officer, was one, and he had been wounded in the leg as well. Together we went to the doctor to get our wounds dressed. Once we reached the doctor, Barney and I were told that we should stay around the hospital so he could dress the wounds again the following morning. The hospital was fairly full of people wounded much more seriously than us, so we went down the road and found a house in a little village that had some beds in it, and we had a jolly good sleep.
WWII: Did you go back to the hospital to get your wounds dressed again?
Donald: Not really. We got up onto the roof, and lo and behold about 500 yards away there was a whole line of Germans coming down the hill, which was partly covered with olive trees and vineyards. Barney had a German rifle, and I borrowed this from him because I was a trained rifle shot. He spotted for me with a pair of binoculars as I did the shooting. I bowled over two or three of these Huns, and then Barney would say, “There’s another one to the left” and point it out with his binoculars. In this way we got several more of them. Soon a fellow came down the street with a white flag—he was one of our own troops. We called out, “What’s going on?” And he said, “We’re surrounded, the rest of the battalion had pulled back and we have surrendered, so will you please stop shooting!” We were shooting in an area where the RAP was, and they had surrendered, but we didn’t know anything about that. We decided that we would try to make a bolt for it. There were two or three lines of Germans coming down toward us, but I’d seen a sunken track leading out from the village earlier. It was about six or seven feet deeper than the surrounding ground, and so we got into this and made a bolt for it. The end of the track was about 500 yards away from the village, but when it petered out we were exposed. We stopped where we were and hid until the coast was clear. There were quite a lot of vines and things growing on the side of the terraces, which had been built up with stones. There were grapevines growing on the terraces, and on the walls there was quite a lot of thick stuff, vines and shrubs and things. Barney crept into one of them, and I crept into another, and we separated so that we were hidden.
WWII: The Germans must have been pretty close at this point.
Donald: We heard the Germans coming, and a whole platoon came over to my part of the terrace. I could have touched each one as he slid down above my head. We were very quiet. They were shooting into cover like ours just in case there was somebody there. Luckily they didn’t shoot into the two areas that Barney and I were in. We kept very quiet, and we waited there until dark. We decided that we would do a tour south toward the White Mountains, circle around the flank of the Germans and then rejoin our troops. We headed toward the White Mountains and picked up 18 or 20 of our troops along the way. Most of them were native Maoris who had had similar experiences to ours. We were quite a group by the time we all came together. We did a trip round helped by the Cretans. They knew where the Germans were and luckily prevented us from going into one village where there were 150 of them! We spent a couple of days circling around the German lines and eventually rejoined our own troops. Even then, we couldn’t find the 22nd Battalion. We found out they’d pulled back even farther. Barney and I were both having trouble with our wounded legs. They hurt like hell.
WWII: Did you keep going?
Donald: Yes. We heard that our forces were pulling out of Crete and would be evacuated from Sphakia. The only problem was that the White Mountains were now between us and that important little village on the south coast. We weren’t looking forward to climbing over those mountains with gammy legs, so we pulled into an ordnance depot and found a new motorcycle that was partly assembled. Fortunately Barney was a transport officer, and he quickly got to work putting this thing together. So there we were with a motorcycle, which was great. We managed to get to the top of the mountains on this motor bike, and then we ran out of petrol. We had to walk the rest of the way, but it was downhill, so it wasn’t too bad. It was getting pretty close to the end of the Crete affair, and we managed to get down to Sphakia, where we were checked off and put into a fairly large group of walking wounded. We were eventually delivered to [HMS] Napier on the second night [May 29], I think it was. We were very thankful at that stage to get away from Crete safely, once more in the very efficient hands of the navy, and we joined a convoy that took us into Alexandria, Egypt.
Although his platoon had been destroyed, Donald could be considered one of the lucky ones. Nearly half of the men who had been dumped onto Crete following the Greek fiasco had become casualties. For the Germans, however, the outcome was even worse. Hitler was so appalled when he received word that Student had suffered some 7,000 casualties that he proclaimed the airborne corps had outlived its usefulness. Germany would never again launch a major aerial offensive during the war.
Despite the losses the Fallschirmjäger suffered, Allied leaders were deeply impressed by what Student had accomplished. So much so, in fact, that they sped up the creation of their own airborne forces. It could be argued that the massive Allied airborne army that jumped into Normandy three years later could claim Student as one of its founders.
None of this, of course, mattered much to Haddon Donald who, after escaping Crete, went on to serve with distinction in North Africa. He ended his war in Italy as a lieutenant colonel. After the war, he ran a successful business manufacturing farming supplies, and also served in the New Zealand parliament.
For further reading, see Haddon Donald’s memoir In Peace and War: A Civilian Soldier’s Story.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.