We're standing in Chickalarion Street, a country lane running south from the main Hania-Suda road southwards towards the Malaxa escarpment. The dirt lane is now paved, and includes along its length a cold storage warehouse, a Peugeot dealership and several houses. But the earth banks and the olive groves are still there – many trees dating from at least sixty years ago – there and the lane still runs straight toward the escarpment.
On the morning of 27 May 1941 this was the site of one of the most remarkable charges not only in the Crete campaign, but in Australian and New Zealand military history.
First, why is it called 42nd Street? Late in 1940 a small British force had been sent from Egypt to garrison Crete. It included the 42nd Field Company of the Royal Engineers. The sappers bivouacked beside a dirt sunken lane running south from just west of the port of Suda. They christened the lane '42nd Street'. The name was inspired of course by the Ruby Keeler film 42nd Street, winner of the Oscar for best picture for 1933. British military maps duly recorded the sappers' little joke.
In the heart of little ol' New York you'll find a thoroughfare
It's the part of little ol' New York that runs into Times Square
A crazy quilt that Wall Street Jack built
If you've got a little time to spare I'd like to take you there
Come and meet those dancing feet
On the avenue I'm takin' you to - Forty Second Street
Hear the beat of dancing feet
It's the song I love the melody of - Forty Second Street
Within six months those maps had been issued to the Commonwealth units which arrived in Suda Bay from Greece. Some 10,000 Greeks, 6,500 Australians, 7,700 New Zealanders and 17,000 British troops formed 'Creforce' under the command of the New Zealand Brigadier Bernard Freyberg, VC. Even as the exhausted and ill-equipped defenders settled into rough camps in the island's villages and olive groves – many lacking blankets or even mess kit – Freyberg knew that he faced attack. British intercepts of German signals gave him 'Ultra' intelligence on the locations, strengths and timings of the coming attack.
The German plan, speedily drafted in the wake of the conquest of Greece, was intended to seize the island as an air base commanding the eastern Mediterranean. The Germans needed to capture a port or (given British naval strength) an airstrip. Their attack fell in three areas, from west to east around Malame, Hania, Retimo and Heraklion.
Weakened by the defeat in Greece and by commitments throughout the Middle East, including Tobruk, the British commander-in-chief Wavell could spare neither troops nor aircraft to reinforce Crete. Due to a misreading of 'Ultra' intelligence, Freyberg placed his force wrongly, an error which allowed the Germans to take the airstrip at Malame.
Though the British and Australians defeated the landing at Heraklion and the Australians at Retimo held off the German attack for a week, the German assault at Malame succeeded. The New Zealand commanders did not grasp how tenuous were the Germans' initial gains, and through confused command and poor communications failed to launch effective counter-attacks. Though a British naval force dispersed a German seaborne force, soon airborne and mountain troops arrived by Ju52 transport aircraft to reinforce the landings west of Canea. The Luftwaffe dominated the sky over Crete, making all movement in daylight hazardous and bombing the old Venetian town of Hania to rubble.
In the first week of May depleted New Zealand battalions, joined by the Australian 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions, withdrew towards Canea. All were weak, many down to less than half strength. By 27 May the survivors occupied a line running south from Suda Bay to the foothills of the Malaxa escarpment – 42nd Street.
The Commonwealth troops on Crete faced the elite of the German air force and army: paratroops of the Luftwaffe and soldiers of the 5th Alpine Division. The paratroopers – young, highly trained and motivated – had suffered terrible losses as they fell from their aircraft. With sections exterminated and companies reduced to platoons, the paratroops re-formed in several battle-groups, moving forward in loose co-ordination.
On the morning of 27 May the 141st Mountain Regiment was by-passing the ruins of Canea and moving toward 42nd Street, where the Australians and New Zealanders formed the rearguard of the Commonwealth force retreating southward toward the evacuation beaches at Sfakia. The troops on 42nd Street looked out from the cover of an earth bank through closely planted olive groves toward a creek, which the desert-wise Australians called a 'wadi'. Their commanding officers conferred, agreeing that if the Germans came close they would attempt a counter-attack.
As a note in the New Zealand official historian's working papers puts it: "Who started this bayonet charge?"
The New Zealand official history gives the credit to the Maori battalion, quoting its War Diary:
"We were openly fired on by Enemy Infantry at close quarters. However, no time was lost in replying with fire and in a few minutes our forward Coys had fixed bayonets and were charging the enemy with full vocal accompaniment[.] [M]any of the enemy after firing for a bit turned and fled, those that stayed were bayonetted; Our men shooting them in the back as they ran."
The New Zealand official history decided that "This spontaneous charge by the Maoris was the signal for the counter attack to spread across the whole front."1
The Germans approached, preceded by mortar and machine-gun fire. On the northern end of the line one of the 2/7th's company commanders, Major W.V. Miller, saw Germans enter an abandoned supply dump. Miler saw his chance and swiftly organised a counter-attack, seeking permission from the 2/7th's colonel, Theo Walker. Two of the 2/7th's companies suddenly charged, shouting and firing, taking the Germans in their flank. Startled by men erupting from dense cover, they ran before the Australians. At about the same time New Zealanders of the 28th (Maori) Battalion joined in the attack.
The New Zealand official historian decided that "the Australian version is quite reconcilable with the Maori version". He surmised that the left (or northern) wing of the German advance was ahead of the right wing, and that the two reactions occurred more-or-less spontaneously.
They ran forward, shouting and firing. "It was crazy, crazy", recalled Reg Saunders, the well-known Aboriginal member of the 2/7th, "the most thrilling few minutes of my life". He remembered them as "obsessed with this mad race to slaughter with the bayonet". Some pursued the Germans for over a kilometre before more open country beyond the wadi made further progress hazardous.
Private S.R. Carter wrote this account of the charge at 42nd Street shortly after escaping from Crete. It is preserved in the 2/7th Battalion war diary in the Memorial's Research Centre:
"I was platoon runner of No. 13 Platoon under command of Lieutenant McGeoch. About 1000 hours on 26 May, we were told that we were to attack the enemy who were then about 250 yards ahead of us ... Both C and D Companies attacked together. After covering about 200 yards we went to ground and opened fire at the enemy who were then very close. Major Miller called for the mortars who fired about six bombs, and the enemy started to run.
We immediately charged forward at them, on the order of Major Miller who went with us; during the charge some Maoris came up and joined us. We shot a considerable number of Germans.
German accounts of 42nd Street alleged that Australians had bayoneted or clubbed to death men attempting to surrender. There are references in the papers of the British military journalist basil Liddell Hart to rumours which circulated after Crete that the Australians had killed wounded Germans.2 A German investigation regarded as suspicious the fact that some of the German dead had "stab wounds or broken skulls".
Gavin Long, who investigated German claims while writing the official history, Greece, Crete and Syria, regarded the allegations as unfounded. Accepting that in the heat of battle that men were clubbed and bayoneted, he discounted allegations that Australians had killed Germans who sought to surrender.
Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker of the 2/7th Battalion also rejected claims that Germans had been killed unfairly: as the 2/7th's commanding officer I suppose he would. Reg Saunders described the fight as "a short range very bloody action". "Certainly skulls were broken and men stabbed ... it was hand-to-hand combat, and that's what happens."
The charge at 42nd Street stopped the 141st Regiment for the rest of the day: perhaps 200 Germans and four Australians died on the 2/8th's front: the Maoris estimated that they had killed another 80 Germans. (Though the figures are somewhat suspect: who could have counted accurately?) That afternoon, though, 42nd Street's defenders saw mountain troops moving across the foothills of the escarpment. Staying would lead to encirclement and the defenders withdrew to join the columns trudging south. Five days later, after the tortuous retreat through the White Mountains, the 2/7th reluctantly surrendered on the cliffs above Sfakia.
After the surrender a German officer told an officer of the 2/7th that the 42nd Street counter attack was "the only decent fight we gave them". It was not quite true. The New Zealand counter-attack against the village of Galatas – an epic in New Zealand military history – had been launched against a different German force two days before. The counter-attack at 42nd Street was not enough to turn the campaign around – by then it had been irretrievably lost – but it showed the spirit of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought alongside each other in Crete.
That night Warrant Officer Bill Foxwell of the 2/7th scribbled in his pocket diary a nine-word epitaph on the action: "Big battle at Suda. Gave Huns a good dishing".