John Matheson was killed in the defence of the Greek island of Crete, and we are fortunate to have a detailed account of his last action.
When he embarked for war John Matheson was a Quartermaster Sergeant in the 22nd Infantry Battalion, New Zealand Army, and in May 1941 was on Crete when the German invasion began. On 20 May 1941 overwhelming numbers of German troops poured onto the island by parachute, glider and transport plane. The job of New Zealand’s 22nd Battalion was to defend key positions around the town of Maleme, including the vital airfield.
The official history of the 22nd Battalion tells what happened to John Matheson that day:
“Headquarters Company (Lieutenant Beaven, three officers and about sixty men, mostly administrative staff not previously riflemen) was completely isolated all day from Battalion Headquarters. It was at once cut off when several gliders silently swam down between it and Battalion Headquarters, followed by perhaps ten, perhaps twenty, plane-loads of parachutists plus a small field gun. A second wave of parachutists fell about mid-morning.
“The invaders suffered severe losses, but the well-equipped survivors rallied to form awkward strongpoints in grape-vines and trees. These strongpoints made movement very difficult indeed. Within an hour the company suffered its most severe loss of the day. Sergeant-Major Matheson’s platoon, out on a limb to the south, was cut off and overrun. Details are slender, but a survivor, Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant Woods, describes the scene: ‘Over comes the Hun with Stukas, Junkers and gliders, not mentioning the [Messerschmitt] 109s. By the time the Stukas and 109s had left us the air round about seemed to be alive with Junkers, and believe me the birds that flew out of them were pretty thick. They looked impossible as the odds must have been easily 15 to 1.’ Shooting was good until grenades got the front trenches, Matheson received his mortal wound, and the platoon position fell.
“Private Cowling tells of Matheson’s stand. Just before the invasion broke, Matheson ordered Corporal Hall and Cowling over to the company cookhouse on fatigue. They had covered about half the distance when ‘we came across two signallers who said “The game is on you two; use that spare slit trench.”’ From the slit trench, facing towards Matheson’s men, Cowling saw ‘quite a few paratroops in this area, they were all easy meat, those that came around…. the Transport Platoon were using machine guns. Boy, and weren’t they using them too! We later found out they were enemy stuff they had conquered.’ Matheson’s men held their own with ease until the Germans got a good footing in an adjacent brick barn. Then the story changed abruptly. Fire and grenades from this commanding position brought the end. In their slit trench Hall and Cowling bagged several paratroops (one, caught in an olive tree, dangled helplessly but fatally only six inches from the earth), and at one stage Hall said: ‘Hey, you’re having all the fun, let’s change ends for a while.’ But after the capture of the barn snipers shot Hall through the right eye, and then Cowling was hit and fainted. He was picked up by Germans next day and, together with about a dozen other wounded, was taken to the battalion [regimental aid post], which had been captured by that time.
“Even after taking Matheson’s position, the enemy got no further towards Pirgos village; he was content to retain small patches among the olives and try to edge westwards along the coast to the focal point — the all-important airfield. Headquarters Company continued to hold Pirgos.”
Headquarters Company remained isolated during the day, and the officer in charge, Lieutenant Beavan:
“wrote this concise report and gave it to the indefatigable [signaller Private Frank] Wan, who was captured but hid and preserved the report in his boot until the war ended:
Paratroops landed East, South, and West of Coy area at approx 0745 hrs today. Strength estimated 250. On our NE front 2 enemy snipers left. Unfinished square red roof house south of sig terminal housing enemy MG plus 2 snipers. We have a small field gun plus 12 rounds manned by Aussies. Mr. Clapham’s two fwd and two back secs OK. No word of Matheson’s pl[atoon] except Cpl Hall and Cowling.
Troops in HQ area OK.
Mr Wadey reports all quiet. No observation of enemy paratroops who landed approx 5 mls south of his position.
Casualties: killed Bloomfield, wounded Lt Clapham, Sgt Flashoff, Cpl Hall, Pte Cowling, Brown.
Attached plans taken off Jerry.
G Beaven, Lt OC HQ Coy, 1650 hrs
At dusk the enemy began collecting and calling the roll where Matheson’s forward post had been. Forming a gun crew and manning the small field gun, Pender, Fraser and Hosking fired at point-blank range against the assembly point. ‘That quietened them down quite a bit,’ said Pender. ‘They were as cheeky as hell, shouting out to each other and giving orders, but the field gun quietened them down except that orders turned to squeals and yells, which was very good’.”
Headquarters Company retreated during the night of 20/21 May:
“Taking their four wounded with them (there were also three dead, apart from Matheson’s platoon), Headquarters Company left Pirgos.”
Though there were later accounts of what had happened to John Matheson and his small platoon, he was initially posted as missing in action. Remember that Lieutenant Beaven’s report was hidden by Private Wan until the end of the war — including the three and a half years he was a prisoner of war. It was almost two full years before John Matheson’s status was officially changed to “died of wounds, previously reported missing”. During that time his family must have known with increasing certainty that he was not returning, yet there would have remained the hope that John had either been taken prisoner or was one of the few soldiers who had eluded capture on the island with the help of local resistance.
The battle for Crete raged for 10 days before Allied forces either evacuated or surrendered, and New Zealanders made up more than one third of the 1,700 Commonwealth and Greek dead. The names of those Commonwealth servicemen who died on Crete and have no known grave are inscribed on the Athens Memorial, which stands in Phaleron War Cemetery in Athens. John Matheson’s name is one of them.
John was the son of Donald and Jessie Matheson of Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire, Scotland. When he enlisted John was single, and working as a tinsmith in Hawera in Taranaki. His next of kin was his sister, who lived in the same town.
Henderson, Jim (1958) 22 Battalion. Part of The official history of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. In the account of John Matheson’s action he is identified as holding the rank of Warrant Officer II (though holding the position of Sergeant-Major); born Scotland 16 June 1905, tinsmith, died of wounds 20 May 1941.
Photo of Athens memorial: New Zealand War Graves Project