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 on full retreat, awaiting for an 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 by 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 27 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 Coy on our right shouting ‘Charge!’ 19 Bn men at first hung back bunched behind olive trees.
Either just before or just after over-running HMG mounting (gun removed) there was close-quarter fighting with some Germans who stood their ground. Hemi bayoneted one – a weird scream -; 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.
(Hot and Confused) We were now alongside C Coy. A mass of enemy on ground, bloody and writhing (perhaps 6). They got tommy gun and bayonet as we went from my men and some C Coy – not from me, rifle only. Our men no doubt remembered tommy gunners at Maleme who shammed dead and then shot up Wood’s party in the back; or perhaps they had just run amok. Huns now running hard and we after them shouting ‘Charge! Charge!’ The – -s are running!
Huns had vanished. Stopped.
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 to 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 1 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: