ONE MAN'S WAR
(Note by Paul Wise
These articles were scanned from The Natmap News of August & October 1979. The quality of the photos suffered from being photocopied then scanned so they were replaced and added to from the Internet while keeping to the original intent.
As shown by the articles, Reg was an intensely private person so none of those he worked with ever got to know much about him, mores’ the pity. Adding these articles to our website help to rectify this.)
When Australia entered the Second World War on 3 September 1939, Reg Ford was twenty-five years of age, and had been employed as a shop assistant in a Department Store in Melbourne from the time he had left school in 1930. He felt that with Australia now in the war, he had an opportunity to decide the type of society that Australians should enjoy, and not to leave this decision to the dictators of the world. With such sentiments he joined the army during that first month of the war, and he was assigned as a Signaller to the 2/2 Field Regiment (artillery) Sixth Division. Although he was to be eventually involved in many of the Sixth-Division's actions during the war, he regards the Battle of Crete as the most remarkable encounter of them all. Reg recognises that it was a bitter defeat for the British and Dominion forces, but with better communications it might well have been an outstanding victory for them.
Reg arrived at Suda Bay in Crete on 26 April 1941 after being evacuated from Greece by the British destroyer DECOY. The island of Crete is 160 miles long and 40 miles across at its widest part, and the Commander-in-Chief of its defence, Major General B.C. Freyberg, decided that the areas to be defended against an Axis invasion would be the island's north coast and the three airfields adjacent to it. As part of this defence plan, Reg was stationed as a signaller for the Australian 2/2 Field Regiment between Canea and Megala Khorafia to monitor telephone messages, and to ensure that there were no breaks in the telephone line adjacent to Suda Bay.
British shipping under attack in Suda Bay
On 2 May, Major General Freyberg addressed the troops in the Suda Bay area, and Reg remembers that Freyberg expressed no doubts that the Germans would attempt within the next two weeks an airborne invasion of Crete. Freyberg had also been warned by Middle East Headquarters of the probability of large scale seaborne operations but the shallow depths along the coast, the poor types of landing craft available to the Germans, and the presence of the Royal Navy precluded any real threat of invasion from the sea.
As the invasion of Crete grew more imminent, the German air-attacks increase in their intensity. These attacks restricted movements by Reg and his fellow signallers during the daylight hours, as the main target of the German bombers and fighters was the shipping in the nearby Suda Bay. After heavy air-raids at dawn on 20 May, Reg saw German transport aircraft, at about 9 am, drop parachutists on to the Seventh General Hospital near Canea. He could not help but wonder at the colourful spectacle of the sky filled with red, white, blue and yellow parachutes. But these parachutes were part of "... the spearpoint of the German lance" pointed against the defenders of Crete.
Ju-52s drop Fallschirmjäger
Although Reg was not in the forefront of any fighting centred around the important landing field at Malame, about fifteen miles west of Suda Bay, he was involved in the transmission of messages for its defence. As communications to the Malame sector broke down, Freyberg’s knowledge of the disposition of defenders and attackers became more vague, which meant that he could not launch counter-attacks effectively against the German troops near the airfield. Reg reported that breakdowns in communications led to the premature withdrawal on the first night of the battle, of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion from Malame airfield. He also reported that better communications would have coordinated the reinforcement of the 22nd Battalion by companies of the 21st, 23rd and 28th New Zealand Battalions later that same night. This would have made it extremely difficult for the troop-laden JUNKERS - JU.52 transports to land at Malame on the following day. The gradual build-up of the German forces, as more members of their Fifth Mountain Division were flown by the JU.52's to Malame, eventually caused the defence to yield. By 26 May the front at Canea had collapsed, and Suda Bay itself was then threatened by the German advance.
Shortly before 26 May, Reg overheard two ‘very’ British voices that obviously belonged to senior officers, being carried on the Australian telephone link. The officers were discussing, in cryptic conversation, the proposal to evacuate the British and Dominion forces from Crete. This information was accurate, as on 26 May Freyberg recommended to General A.P. Wavell the embarkation of a certain proportion of the forces in Crete.
On 27 May Wavell ordered Freyberg to evacuate the island without regard to losses of material.
Maleme airfield. This photograph was taken after the battle for Crete was over, and shows British bombs exploding on the airfield.
On the evening of 26 May, Reg and his comrades were told to make their own way along the mountain road across the island. This road from Suda to Sphakia, on the south coast of Crete, is about thirty miles long and it provided a difficult walk for the weary troops. Thirst and fatigue were the major hardships suffered by the men, but fortunately there was little interference from German aircraft in the retreat. One incident during the walk is still remembered by Reg, which did not warm him to British discipline. While Reg was slaking his thirst at a convenient well, he noticed a group of Royal Marines being marched briskly by their commanding officer towards the well, who without any examination if it declared the water was not fit to drink. The marines, who appeared to be exhausted, had to march past the well and continue along the road, described by Freyberg as "...a via dolorosa indeed", to Sphakia.
On Reg’s arrival at Sphakia he waited until the early hours of 30 May, when he was evacuated by the British troop-ship GLENGYLE. At dawn, German dive bombers attacked the evacuation units. Reg was appalled to see the Australian cruiser PERTH enveloped in yellow smoke following a direct bomb-hit; however, his dismay turned to a feeling of pride when he saw that the PERTH’S guns were still firing as the smoke cleared. By midday the air attacks ceased, and the GLENGYLE then proceeded to safety at Alexandria.
It has been a difficult campaign for Reg, with communication failures and the lack of transport vehicles. But these same problems proved even more disastrous for Freyberg in his defence of the island. However, the compensation to the British Middle East Command for this defeat, was that no more 'Cretes' would be suffered by them. The heavy losses inflicted on the German glider-troops and parachutists on 20 May 1941 caused Hitler to refuse permission for any similar operations in the future. Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Malta, Suez, and Bastogne were to be safe from any airborne assaults.
Today Reg has again made a retirement, this time a somewhat more pleasant one as it is from the work-force. His memory, if sufficiently prompted, can still project the image of those torrid days at Crete during May 1941. But in 1979 there are few people associated with Reg, who would grasp the significance of a battle fought, so long ago, for a landing field called Malame.
As we all know our colleague Reg Ford recently retired from Natmap on 26 October 1979. Before Reg left I sought his permission to 'publish' the above account of a part of his life that few of us would have known. We were all familiar with Reg's contribution to the mapping of our country, but the above story illustrates the stage on which he played a very different role for his country.
Reg agreed to the release of this story on the condition that I should make readers aware that firstly, this article was originally written at my request for my own purpose, and secondly, to advise his friends that another former 'Natmapper' in Ted Caspers was also in Crete during the campaign in 1941.
RAV (Rom Vassil) October 1979
As most of you already know, I will be proceeding on Recreation Leave during September prior to my retirement on 26 October 1979. After 50 years of working life including almost 30 years with National Mapping, I will find my last days very difficult, particularly as I am not socially inclined.
For this reason I have requested my friends that there be no farewells of any sort and they have agreed. Instead I will move around amongst you on my last day and say a personal goodbye.
It is my earnest hope that you will all understand my feelings at this time without any necessity for a fuller explanation than the few brief and inadequate words above.
Reg in the Great Sandy Desert W.A. near Well 35 in 1962.
The photo shows a completed recovery mark.
Dear Bob (Bobroff)
Many thanks to you and all my friends for the retirement present and the sentiment you have all expressed in the form of such an outstanding gift - one that I truly appreciate and which will, in my main living room, always be a reminder to both myself and my friends of the many interesting years I have spent at National Mapping.
At this juncture I feel it is very appropriate to mention that although I do not easily make close friendships, nevertheless I have always felt a warm "at home" feeling while working among you.
I know it is traditional at retirement to spend a convivial hour or two celebrating the occasion with one's workmates. As it is not in any nature to do this I thank you all for agreeing to my request that there be no farewell function of any kind.
In place of this I would like to make a small donation to the funds of the Social Club which I hope can be used to advantage on a suitable future occasion. Would you please pass the enclosed cheque to the President?
In saying a final goodbye I would like to wish all of you the best of health, happiness and a rewarding time ahead. Also please accept my assurance that if, in the future, I can be of assistance to any of you or to National Napping, I will do my best to help.
Reg Ford (October 1979)