“Fix bayonets!” – 11 am, Tuesday 27 May, 1941: The ANZACs charge at “42nd Street” near Souda Bay.
On May 27, 1941, the Battle of Crete was lost for the Allied forces, largely as a result of the 22nd New Zealand Infantry Battalion’s withdrawal on May 21st from Hill 107, leaving Maleme airfield undefended and allowing the invading Germans to land their forces unopposed.
The Allied forces were in full retreat, and awaiting the order of evacuation, while they still had time and fought some rear-guard battles to delay the advancing German forces.
The most memorable of those fierce fights was the “Battle of 42nd Street”, as it remained in history, a largely forgotten and obscure episode of the Battle of Crete, known only to surviving soldiers, their families and few history enthusiasts.
At “42nd Street” an elite battalion of German Mountain Troops were totally surprised to be attacked by some 300 yelling, bayonet-wielding Anzacs from a retreating Allied Force that the Germans considered to be demoralised rabble.
Α force of several under-strength Australian and New Zealand infantry battalions established a defensive line along the Hania to Tsikalaria road south-east of Canea, forming a rearguard for the withdrawing troops.
The attack was swift and brutal and concluded with the death of an estimated 200+ Germans* and some 40 Anzacs.
After this encounter, the Germans were wary of making contact with the Anzac rearguard of the retreating Allied Force.
This delay in the German offensive brought sufficient time for most of the Allied Force to be evacuated from the southern coast of Crete.
* The Germans claimed that 121 soldiers were killed – refer to Beevor A, Crete, Penguin 1992, p.200
Troops of the German 141st Mountain Regiment blocked a section of the road between Suda and Chania. On the morning of 27 May, elements of the New Zealand 28th (Māori) Battalion, the Australian 2/7th Battalion and the Australian 2/8th Battalion cleared the road with a bayonet charge.
The bayonet charge at 42nd Street was not only the most effective counter-attack undertaken by Allied Forces on Crete, it was undertaken by soldiers at the limit of their physical and mental endurance.
Since the German airborne invasion of Crete on Tuesday 20 May 1941, the Anzac units had fought a series of rearguard actions for 7 days but by Tuesday, 27th May, were in full retreat.
Any hope of victory had vanished. The immediate prospect was death, injury or a POW camp. The Anzacs were exhausted. Few had slept over the previous 48 hours.
They were desperately hungry and dehydrated, their feet were blistered and sore and their boots were falling apart. However, with great fortitude the Anzac units prepared to defend 42nd Street.
42nd Street was an unsealed, dusty road, lined with olive trees. It ran perpendicular to the main coastal road from Hania to Souda Bay. It was sunk below the surrounding land with a raised embankment on its western side.
This bank provided an excellent screen for the defenders.
The road was named 42nd Street by the British Garrison, which was established on the island in November 1940, as the road was occupied by the 42nd Field Company of the Royal Engineers. On Crete, it is sign-posted as Tsikalarion Road.
On 27 May, as a German battalion advanced towards the road, the Anzac defenders carried out a bayonet charge that inflicted heavy casualties on the German attackers, which forced them to withdraw and briefly halted the German advance.
The charge was sparked by a Maori soldier who, seeing troops of the Mountain Regiment emerge out of the olive groves, picked up a Bren gun and using it as a patu performed a haka as the prelude to a ferocious attack which sent the Germans fleeing.
Read some first-person accounts of ANZACs who fought at the “Battle of 42nd Street” (sources below):
Major Humphrey Dyer gives his account of the bayonet charge on 42nd Street – Suddenly something blew up in front and heavy M.G. fire opened on us. There was a yell on our right and we went forward with C Company on our right shouting ‘Charge!’ 19 men at first hung back bunched behind olive trees.
Either just before or just after over-running an HMG mounting (gun removed) there was close-quarter fighting with some Germans who stood their ground. Hemi bayoneted one – “I got one at a couple of yards in Wild West style; Matthews got a number with his tommy gun, and then sprayed a bunch shamming dead in a shallow depression.”
The order was given to fix bayonets. The aim was that by getting close to the Germans the Luftwaffe would not be able to distinguish friend from foe and would be neutralised.
Private H G Passey (VX3987) who was Lt-Colonel Walker’s batman reported that:
“When this order went out it seemed to lift the tension that had been hanging over us for the past few days. The time had come when we were going to show Jerry a few tricks…”
(Australian War Memorial 52, Item Number 8/3/7, 2/7 Infantry Battalion, April-July 1941, p.157).
At about 11am the Alpine troops of 1st Battalion of the 141st Gebirgsjager Regiment were seen approaching 42nd street. In accordance with their orders, the defenders allowed the Germans to make close contact. Reg Saunders in the 2/7 Battalion described what happened next:
They came over a rise 50 metres in front. I saw a German solider stand up in clear view….. He was my first sure kill… I can remember feeling a moment that it was just like shooting a kangaroo… Just as remote. After that many Huns appeared and for them and us it was pretty confused.
(Bolger W P; Littlewood J G; Folkland F C, The Fiery Phoenix: The Story of the 2/7 Infantry Battalion, 1939- 1945, 2/7 Battalion Association, 1983. p.90).
Suddenly the soldiers in C and D Company of the 2/7th leapt from their positions and with a raucous yell charged at the Germans. Reg Saunders reported:
It was crazy, crazy, the most thrilling few minutes of my life. We were all obsessed with this mad race to slaughter with the bayonets – it wasn’t like killing kangaroos any more. When we got there they were real men excited like us and some of them terribly frightened. They were highly trained Germans but they got such a shock.
(op. cit. p.91).
At the same time the Maori Battalion attacked:
‘(Captain) Rangi Royal took the initiative instructing his runner – “You go and tell C Company they will hear my whistle quite plainly. On the blast of my whistle we (B Company) will charge. The runner that day was 17 year old Rangitepuru Waretini (known as Sonny Sewell).”
“He blew his whistle and no bugger moved. It wasn’t until he blew it again and he jumped up himself and… Sam O’Brien of Te Puke got up with him and started to use the rifle like a Taiaha. You wouldn’t think he was a soldier at all… He had two left feet… But oh something must have stirred inside him I suppose when he got up and did this. Rangi just raised his staff and went like that (pointed his staff in the direction of the enemy). Chaaarge! And there’s Sam doing like a wero next to him. And of course everybody just got up and into it and boy you get those Tuhoe fellas yelling in Maori, not in English!”
(Soutar, Monty. Nga Tamatoa, The Price of Citizenship- C Company of 28 Maori Battalion 1939-45. David Bateman 2008, pp. 147-148 ).
Photo Source: Soutar, Monty. Nga Tamatoa, The Price of Citizenship- C Company of 28 Maori Battalion 1939-45. David Bateman 2008
Situated between the 2/7th and the Maori Battalion, 21 Battalion charged forward. The War History for the Battalion reported the charge as follows:
“The forward Companies of 21 Battalion had scarcely lined the sunken road when they heard yells that could only come from Maori throats. It was a blood stirring haka. The Australians produced a scream even more spine chilling than the Maori effort and the sight of the Maori Battalion charging with vocal accompaniment sent the whole line surging forward. The forward elements of the enemy did not wait. They threw away their packs and ran. They were shot from the hip and those who hid in the scrub were bayoneted. Some mortar teams that tried to get into action were over- run and dealt with.”
(Cody J F, 21 Battalion, Historical Publications Branch, 1953.
The bayonet charge continued for about 1500m with the Germans in full flight. As the attackers were running out of cover from an air attack the charge was halted and the Anzacs returned to 42nd Street. However, their stay at 42nd Street was short as German forces were seen in the hills to the west attempting to encircle the retreating Anzacs. That night the Anzacs continued their retreat to Hora Sfakion on the south coast fighting a series of valiant rear-guard actions over the next 4 days. These courageous rearguard actions enabled 12,000 troops to be evacuated from Hora Sfakion over the period from 28 May to the early morning of 1 June, thanks to the sterling efforts of the Royal Navy.
Most of those who took part in the bayonet charge at 42nd Street were evacuated. However, those in the 2/7 Battalion were not so fortunate. Scheduled to be evacuated late in the evening of 31 May, their progress from the rearguard perimeter was hindered by the thousands of troops seeking to be evacuated and the rocky and precipitous descent to the shoreline. When the 2/7 Battalion left Alexandria in March 1941, it had a full complement of 759 men. As a result of the campaigns in Greece and Crete, only 72 arrived back in Alexandria by 2 June 1941. Lt.-Colonel Walker was taken prisoner by the Germans. This was a casualty rate of over 90%. From these ashes the battalion was reformed and gained its name as the ‘Fiery Phoenix’.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING: 1, 2, 3, 4