Chapter 1: Crete till the Evacuation of Greece
ON the morning of 20 May 1941 the British forces in Crete and their Greek allies stood by their arms to meet the German invasion, expected since the fall of Greece and now at length about to begin. Thirteen days later, on 1 June, the evacuation of these forces was as complete as the heroism of rearguards and of the Royal Navy could make it; while the capitulation or dispersal of those who had had to be left behind ended organised resistance. Between the two dates took place one of the bitterest battles of the war, one notable on many counts and not least because it marked the first and, for good reasons, the last time that the enemy used parachute and airborne troops on the largest scale. It was a battle in which the New Zealand Division played a conspicuous part; and of that part this book attempts the history.
To make such a history intelligible the historian must do more than merely relate the course of the fighting. For, just as a move in chess is conditioned by what has gone before and is seen in its full implications only through its consequences, so this battle arose out of and was largely determined by circumstances that long preceded it; and its outcome involved far more than local success or failure.
But the task of tracing causes backwards is as infinite as that of tracing their consequences; and, unless limits are accepted, both are ultimately vain. In both the historian must address his judgment to the problem of what is immediately relevant. The preliminaries of this history will therefore be confined to a summary account of Crete’s strategic situation in the Mediterranean, the increasing importance of this during the early stages of the war, the political and strategic decisions which led to our occupation of it, the topographical features of the island itself which determined the dispositions of the defence and helped to determine the outcome of the battle, and the state which defensive preparations had reached when the first of the troops evacuated from Greece began to arrive.
Crete, the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean and the largest in the Aegean, occupies a central position in the Eastern Mediterranean. To the west, its nearest neighbours are Malta and Sicily; to the east, Cyprus and Syria beyond. Towards it from the north-west, and some fifty miles away, stretch the fingers of the Peloponnese, the most southerly point of which, Cape Malea, is only sixty miles from Cape Spatha, the northernmost point of Crete. North, also, is the island-speckled entrance to the Aegean proper, which Crete masks and to which it is the key; while less than one hundred miles to the north-east lie Rhodes and the Dodecanese and beyond them Turkey. Some two hundred miles south is Cyrenaica and the desert coast, which ends eastward in the Nile delta’s fringe and Alexandria.
This central position has made Crete an island of strategic importance for so long as history records ambition and ambition has had ships. That position helped to make the Minoan civilisation which flourished there between 3000 and 1400 BC and is still survived by the ruins of its capital, Knossos. Since then Achaeans, Dorians, Romans, Arabs, Venetians and Turks have all fought in turn to control an island, the possession of which has usually coincided with the zenith of the controlling power, and the loss of which has marked that power’s lapse. And, when the nineteenth century found the islanders demanding a voice in their own destiny, the sea-powers of a world grown immensely wider than that touched by the fleets of the legendary Minos watched one another jealously. A stalemate of these jealousies at first overcame the deference to national aspirations then becoming fashionable and, by the Treaty of London in 1830, Crete was given to Mahomet Ali. It was not till 1913 that the political situation was propitious to native hopes and union at last effected with a Greece already free.
About this very time developments of air power had begun in Europe which were in time to double the strategic importance of Crete; ironically enough, for it was from Crete that Daedalus and Icarus first flew. By the outbreak of war in 1939 this importance was patent to anyone who could read a map. To the bombers of whatever power possessed it all the surrounding lands were accessible; and from its air bases the passage between the East and West Mediterranean could be made perilous.
So long as Germany had no access to the Mediterranean and so long as the countries of South-Eastern Europe were neutral, the potentialities of Crete as a sea and air base were partly obscured; and in so far as they were realised they could not be put to use by
either side. For the British the salient facts were that Suda harbour was the largest in the Eastern Mediterranean; and, if events were ever to allow this, a refuelling base could be established there which would save a long trip to and from Alexandria for ships operating in neighbouring waters.
It was obvious, however, that if Italy were to enter the war the situation would change for the worse. The war would then have reached the Mediterranean in a more immediate sense. And in Axis hands Crete’s potentialities could be exploited to the detriment of the whole Allied position in this vital sea. As early as 25 April 1940, therefore, the British Chiefs of Staff considered a proposal for the seizure of Crete as soon as Italy should become a belligerent, and by May, in spite of the Greek Government’s belief that any Italian attack on the island could be repelled by the British Navy and Cretan volunteers,1 the British and French were going ahead with plans for occupation;2 plans which, one may note, concentrated on denying facilities to the enemy rather than on use of those facilities by the Allies themselves.3
The Greek Government was not long in seeing that it would need more than naval assistance if war were to develop between Italy and Greece, and on 21 May gave the Allies leave to land troops anywhere in the island in that event. By 30 May the Allied plan for doing so was ready. So quickly, however, did the collapse of France follow Italy’s entry into the larger war on 10 June (the former the cause of the latter, not vice versa) that when France made her armistice with Germany on 22 June the basis of the plan was gone while doubts about its adequacy were still being canvassed.
July and August passed in arguments for and against occupation by a British force. At first it was the arguments against that seemed the stronger: the British did not wish to be the first to violate Greek neutrality and in any case did not have the troops available. And so on 27 July the existing plan was cancelled.
During September evidence of projected Italian action against Greece grew strong enough for the Greeks to invite discussions between their own and British service attachés. But all that emerged from these discussions, which began on 4 October, was that though ‘no promises could be made’ a British battalion then or
a brigade later might be made available from the Middle East; that the Greeks would resist any British landings made before Italy declared war; and that the existing garrison consisted of little more than an infantry division. The Middle East Commanders-in-Chief, however, could hardly have been much disturbed by this: for, according to a message sent by them on 25 September 19404 to the Chiefs of Staff, the Greek garrison might be expected to hold out for quite a long period; and, while they thought that Suda Bay, Canea, Candia (Heraklion), Merabello Gulf and Sitia should be protected whatever the cost, they thought that our most immediate form of help would have to be from the air – backed later perhaps by the Fleet Air Arm – and that even this help, like that of troops, would be limited.
On 9 October War Cabinet decided that the Secretary of State for War (Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden) should himself go to the Middle East. Meanwhile the situation grew continually more tense, and by 21 October the Chiefs of Staff Committee found itself considering a suggestion from the Joint Planning Staff that our growing strength in the Middle East and Graziani’s reluctance to take the offensive in North Africa might make it possible ‘to earmark and prepare a small force and move it to reinforce Crete in the event of Greece becoming involved in war’. Their decision then was that assistance to Greece would have to be confined to this possibility, and a telegram was sent to the Commanders-in-Chief to ask whether and when, in the event of an Italian invasion of Greece, a force could be sent to Crete.
October the 28th brought matters to a head. For on that day the delivery of the Italian ultimatum, its rejection by the Greeks, and the Italian invasion of Greece succeeded one another. Reactions were prompt. The Defence Committee met the same day and agreed to do everything possible to help Greece defend Crete and secure our use of Suda Bay as a naval base and advanced aerodrome; and it decided to authorise the Commander-in-Chief Middle East to send there as soon as possible troops to the strength of a brigade with ‘some field and AA guns’.
The same day General Headquarters Middle East conferred to see what could be done, finally deciding to send a reconnaissance party to Crete by air. Subsequent action would depend on its report, but meanwhile 2 Battalion, the York and Lancaster Regiment, was to be at six hours’ notice as from 6 p.m. 29 October to embark and 2 Battalion, the Black Watch, was to stand by. The codeword for the projected operation was to be ACTION.
But, though the Italian invasion of Greece thus produced a sense of emergency both in London and the Middle East and was bound to eliminate the last Greek scruples,5 it also raised the threat of yet a further call on British troops and materials already overtaxed by existing tasks. The possibility of a force being ultimately required for Greece itself would now have to be considered.
At the meeting in Alexandria on 28 October the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean had announced his intention of establishing a naval base in Suda Bay. A convoy was to leave Alexandria the following day carrying guns to be mounted there and naval personnel to man them. And at the same conference the Senior Air Staff Officer promised to see whether a few fighters could not be provided.
Reports from the island soon indicated that anti-aircraft defences and ground troops would be needed if the naval base were to be defended, and as the authority from the Chiefs of Staff for sending a brigade had now been received and the Greek attitude was welcoming, 2 Yorks and Lancs were ordered to move on 30 October. The occupation of the island was planned to take place in two phases of which this was to be the first, ACTION. The second, ASSUMPTION, was to consist of the move of Headquarters 14 Infantry Brigade, 2 Black Watch, HQ 52 LAA Regiment,6 151 HAA Battery,7 156 LAA Battery, 42 Field Company, and attached troops. These, a total of 2500 men, were to move some time after 4–5 November.
Meanwhile, both in the Middle East and Cairo brains were being much exercised on the best way of helping Greece. On 1 November the Secretary of State for War reported from Cairo on the action already taken in regard to Crete, adding that Italian invasion hardly seemed likely till Greece had been overrun, that the island was very vulnerable to air attack, that British air squadrons could be ill spared from the desert, and that if they were sent they would be subject to heavy losses on the ground. His conclusion was that the defence should rest mainly on the Mediterranean Fleet, that to make sure of Suda Bay and encourage the Cretans, however, we should be prepared to reinforce up to the strength already planned for in troops and AA, and that we should not further deplete the air forces in North Africa. This appreciation presumably reflected the opinion of the Commanders-in-Chief; and, it is interesting to notice, Middle East Joint Planning Staff also thought that the use of a whole brigade might be necessary in the
case of a Greek collapse. Even if the mainland were German-occupied, they declared, and Suda Bay usable only by night, Crete was so important that its occupation ought to be ensured.8
Back in London the wider aspects of assistance to Greece were being discussed. At the Chiefs of Staff conference on 2 November Sir John Dill opposed the despatch of an expeditionary force to Greece and advocated securing Crete as a naval and air base; and an appreciation was asked for from the Joint Planning Staff. This appreciation was ready on 4 November. It opposed the movement to Greece of forces vital to the security of Egypt but thought Crete ought to be kept available to ourselves. The Chiefs of Staff endorsed this view the following day.
The point is an important one. For if this line of action had been adhered to in the circumstances later to develop, the focus of British attention would have been Crete, and the troops sent to Greece might have been sent instead to Crete with consequences that can now be only the subject of conjecture.
Meanwhile, policy having been decided for the present in its broad lines, the problem became one of making Suda Bay, in the Prime Minister’s words, ‘a second Scapa’.9 With this aim the question of how to supply anti-aircraft artillery and on what scale was under discussion during most of November. At the Chiefs of Staff meeting on 8 November a suggestion for collecting the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation (hereafter abbreviated to MNBDO) for service in Crete was already being considered, and at their meeting of 11 November it was proposed to invite the Vice-Chiefs of Staff to review the production plans for AA with a view to meeting the needs of Crete and the MNBDO.10
The plan at this stage was that immediate reinforcements in AA should be found from the Middle East and later replaced from the United Kingdom. Two types of defence were considered: the case of minimum defence where only occasional use of Suda Bay by the Fleet was envisaged; and the case of the Fleet having unrestricted access. For the first it was thought the minimum defence must be 24 HAA guns and 24 LAA guns, with two 6-inch coast defence batteries; for the second 32 HAA, 24 LAA and various supporting defences.
The actual position at this time in Suda Bay was that there were 8 HAA and 12 LAA guns, a number of naval guns for coast defence, and the two 15-inch guns of HMS Terror. Because of the presence of the latter and the quiet prevailing, the Chiefs of Staff decided on 20 November that the 6-inch guns of MNBDO need not be sent and recommended that the 16 HAA and 12 LAA needed to make up the smaller complement should be sent from the Middle East.
General Wavell, however, had his own shortages; and these no doubt lay behind his message to the War Office of 26 November, which recommended that no more AA be sent to Crete for the time being and that the allocation of AA in the Middle East should be his responsibility with the advice of the Interservices Committee, on the general understanding that as much as possible be sent from the United Kingdom.11
The Prime Minister now called for definite proposals, and on 1 December the Chiefs of Staff again considered the matter. They provisionally earmarked 32 HAA and 36 LAA guns for Crete early in 1941. These, with the coast defence guns already in the island or to be directed there, they thought would be enough without the 6-inch batteries of MNBDO. And here for the time being the matter rested, with Suda Bay very far from being a Scapa Flow.
In January General Wavell, amid his many preoccupations, found time to counsel that the policy of holding Crete in all circumstances should be maintained even if Greece gave way to the new pressures threatening her. By February the threat of a German invasion of Greece was becoming increasingly probable, and the concern of the higher command for Crete became correspondingly acute. On 10 February the Joint Planning Staff recommended that our best response for the moment was to carry through a plan for reducing the Italian Dodecanese, strengthening Crete, and assisting the Greeks by naval and air action. Mr. Churchill was of similar mind. On 11 February he told the Commanders-in-Chief Middle East that, failing a satisfactory agreement with the Greeks, an attempt must be made to salvage as much from the wreck as possible. At all costs Crete must be kept and any Greek islands which could be used as air bases must be taken.
It is no part of this book to discuss the decision to send an expeditionary force to Greece. It will suffice therefore to say that after much anxious discussion the decision to do so was taken. Before we turn to the larger strategic scene, however, and trace
The consequences of this decision as they affected the build-up of the defence of Crete, it will be best to follow the progress of events in Greece down to its evacuation and the end of that campaign.
On 6 April Germany invaded Greece and Yugoslavia. The almost immediate collapse of the insufficiently prepared Yugoslav armies enabled the Germans to drive down on to the left flank of the Allied line in Greece. Most of the British Expeditionary Force – 6 Australian Division, the New Zealand Division, 1 Armoured Brigade and attached troops – was already in Greece. But even had it been fully deployed, and even if the swift penetration of the exhausted and ill-equipped Greek divisions on the left had not made its own positions untenable, the Expeditionary Force could hardly have turned the scale. As it was a series of rearguard actions became necessary almost at once. The force withdrew by way of Olympus to a line on Thermopylae and finally, after the surrender of the Greeks, to the beaches whence evacuation began on 24 April.12
It is now time to turn to Crete itself, towards which all these events were tending. And justice to those responsible for the defensive preparations after the first landing of troops on 1 November, as well as to those who were finally to fight the defensive battle, makes a summary account of the island’s topography essential at this stage: for Crete’s physical features not only helped to determine the pace and character of defensive preparation but also governed directly and indirectly the conditions in which the battle was fought and so affected its course and outcome.13
Crete, then, is an island about 160 miles long from west to east and about 36 miles wide between north and south. Four mountain ranges dominate its horizons: in the west the Levka Ori (White Mountains), rising to over 8000 feet; in the centre the Psiloritis Mountains, also over 8000 feet; east of these again the Lasithi Range which rises to upwards of 7000 feet; and in the extreme east the Sitia Ranges, which at their highest are almost 5000 feet.
The position of these mountains determines the direction and fall of the rivers, the character of the coastlines, the forest and vegetation, and even to some extent the climate. The main watershed is on the whole nearer to the south coast, with the result that the harbours there are few and small, have little hinterland and are exposed to sudden winds of gale force. Their anchorages,
moreover, are limited in value because of the rapid increase in depth off shore. A further consequence is that most of the streams flow to the north coast, cutting steep valleys as they go and offering serious obstacles to lateral communication.
The descent to this north coast is, however, more gradual and along the coast itself are strips of plain, especially near Canea. On the north coast, too, are the best harbours: Suda Bay, the largest in the eastern Aegean and one of the safest; Retimo; and Heraklion, the best equipped port in the island. In the neighbourhood of these ports existed in more or less embryo state the airfields and landing grounds which were to be the prizes of the battle.
The importance for an island of its harbours needs little emphasis and it will be of advantage to discuss them more closely. Suda Bay, with its main wharf and concrete pier along which ran a Decauville railway, could deal with two ships at a time directly. Its quays, however, could take only lighters and small boats. Across the Akrotiri Peninsula from Suda Bay lies Canea, the capital of Crete. Its small harbour could take only small vessels and ships had to be discharged by lighter.
Retimo, thirty miles farther east, is the third largest town, but its harbour could be used only by coastal vessels. Only in fair weather could larger vessels enter, and even then they had to discharge one at a time and by lighter. A further thirty-five miles to the east is Heraklion. Its harbour could take four ships up to 3000 tons alongside the jetty, could unload three by lighter, and could tie up a further three or four to the mole.
Apart from these only the two south coast fishing ports of Sfakia and Tymbaki need be mentioned; and that only for their inadequacy. They were suitable for nothing but fishing boats – a fact of considerable significance for the battle. It meant that troops on Crete had to be supplied from the north coast ports, which were far more vulnerable to air attack and the voyage to which would put a far greater strain on the Navy.
At the outset of the fighting the airfields were in an even rawer state of development.14 they consisted of two aerodromes – one at Maleme and the other at Heraklion – with a landing strip at Retimo and another under construction at Kastelli Pediada. At Maleme construction was still going on when battle broke out, and only fighters could operate from it. Heraklion, also under construction, could be used by all types of aircraft.
It followed that even if aircraft should be available for defence, as in the event they were not, the air effort would be hampered by
The inadequacy in both numbers and condition of the airfields. There was the further difficulty that they were all on the north coast of the island, the one most vulnerable to attack. And the Mesara Plain, the most promising flat tract of country in the south, could not be developed in the time that might be counted on.
Communications were as primitive, a fact of no less prime importance. For airfields might help determine the amount of air protection; ports how fast troops, equipment, and supplies could be landed; but it was communications which would govern not merely the distribution of what was landed but the efficiency with which battle, once joined, could be fought.
Thus the fact that the important roads, like the ports and airfields, were in the north not only determined the enemy’s probable objectives but forced the defenders to concentrate in a few quarters at a shallow depth from the coast. Even so, the roads along which they could move were so few that the enemy had no difficulty in keeping a continual air cover.
The same inadequacy in roads made it inevitable for the defence to be divided into sectors from which it would be impossible to concentrate the whole force should attack come in any single quarter; and should attack come in all quarters the various sectors could be cut off from one another with relative ease. There was only the one lateral east-west road, and along it at considerable distances from one another were strung out the main vulnerable points: Maleme, Suda Bay, Retimo and Heraklion, each in some way vital. For only by holding the airfields could the defence prevent the enemy from bringing his full strength to bear, and it depended for its supplies on the ports.
Again, the road itself, though the best in the island and having a metalled surface, was markedly inferior by the standards of Western Europe. It could not take more than one line of heavy traffic at a time (even had that traffic been available); it had frequent sharp bends, especially where it cut through hills; none of its bridges was safe for vehicles over seven tons; and for the greater part of its length it was vulnerable from the sea.
There were other disadvantages. There was no mesh of subsidiary roads running parallel with the main road which might have relieved the pressure of traffic; and its scope was shallow since the roads running south were few and bad. Of these latter the principal ran south from Canea, Retimo, and Heraklion respectively and might be expected to block or bottleneck as soon as battle put pressure on them.
Even of the roads that did run south not all went right across the island. Those that did so were Maleme–Palaiokhora, a poor road leading to a small bay accessible only to small boats;
Vrises–Sfakia, also poor quality but because of its tactical position of great importance in the outcome; Heraklion–Tymbaki, potentially important and for similar reasons; and the road from Merabello Gulf to Ierapetra, far too removed from the actual operations to be of much account in the upshot.
There was no hope of supplementing roads by railways. Only three narrow-gauge lines existed. And these were purely local and of no use to the defence. Telephone and telegraphic facilities were little better. Even in normal battle conditions where troops have their full complement of signal services, the presence or absence of civilian fixtures is important. Where, as in Crete, the defence is well below the normal establishment of trained men and supplies, poverty in such arrangements becomes serious. Heraklion and Canea alone had automatic systems and the main line ran along the main coast road, like it vulnerable. Of radio transmitters there was one at Heraklion and there were four at Canea. For electric power the island depended on Lake Aghya, with power stations at Canea, Heraklion, Retimo, Ierapetra and Sitia.
Climate need not detain us: clear skies and bright sun characterise the early summer, and April and May of 1941 were to be no exception. The weather could usually be relied on to be good for flying – for those who had aircraft. The nights were clear but cold, a trial to troops who had no blankets.
The forest and vegetation were those characteristic of a rugged island in Mediterranean waters. Along the slopes that led down to the northern coast vineyards and groves of olive or almond trees were plentiful. These latter were invaluable throughout both the preparatory period and the battle for the cover they gave against enemy reconnaissance and ground strafing. The vineyards often offered good fields of fire; but after the first days this was an advantage which belonged to the defence only when they were not themselves attacking.
Finally, it should be added that the country between Maleme and Canea over which the main battle was fought was mainly a series of ridges running down towards the sea, and separated by narrow and deep gullies or sometimes by a broader valley. These offered many advantages for a withdrawing action; but they made it necessary, when a counter-attack was to be launched, for the main reliance to be put on the coast road. And, owing to the pattern of the enemy landings, the danger of outflanking was always present.
Such then were the conditions and the country which the first British troops found when they landed on 1 November. A summary
account of the defensive preparations made by them and their successors up till the evacuation of Greece must now be given. Such an account will be most intelligible if we begin with the successive commanders, their orders and their plans. These were in the main affected by two major external circumstances, themselves fluctuating: the strategic role of the island as conceived in a continually worsening situation (and one worsening always more swiftly than was expected); and the resources available for carrying out this role in its various changing conceptions.
The prevailing strategic conception in November 1940 was that the island should be built up into a ‘second Scapa’. Accordingly, when Brigadier O. H. Tidbury was appointed on 3 November to command the forces already in the island or about to move there, his orders were to defend the naval fuelling base at Suda Bay and, in co-operation with the Greek forces in the island, to prevent and defeat any attempt by hostile forces to get a footing.
This being his task, it was natural that he should concentrate on the first part of his orders and dispose his force in and around Canea and Suda Bay; his strength was not great enough to do more. Hardly had he done this, however, when the Chiefs of Staff agreed to Greek proposals that we should undertake the defence of the whole island and thus free Greek troops for use on the Albanian front. Plans were then set in train to reinforce the island with Anzac troops in Egypt.
But resources in the Middle East – with the desert offensive already pending and in early December due to be launched – were in too much demand for diversion to Crete to be contemplated. General Wavell himself visited the island on 13 November and carried away the impression that ‘a small force is quite sufficient for Crete at present’. That this view was influenced by the prospects of fighting in the desert is probable enough, and it was reinforced by the anxiety of the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean to avoid the difficulties of transporting and maintaining larger forces. In the upshot Tidbury had to content himself with the addition of 2 Black Watch, 50 and 51 Middle East Commandos,15 and the prospect of further AA reinforcements.
Operationally Brigadier Tidbury had appreciated that any attack would most probably be airborne, with Suda Bay for its objective, and that landings might be expected at the Maleme, Retimo, or Heraklion airfields. Such an attack would raise the problem of communications in its most acute form, and the Brigadier favoured concentrating his force on Suda Bay and leaving the defence of the
airfields to the local Greeks. If Maleme were to be defended, a separate and independent force would be needed.
Even for this limited role, which was all he considered his limited force capable of, Tidbury favoured a policy of night and day digging on defensive positions. On 8 January, however, he was succeeded by Major-General M. D. Gambier-Parry, MC, a change of command which must have entailed further delays to any forward policy.
No fresh operational line followed a second visit by General Wavell on 17 January, and the attention of the new commander seems to have been engrossed by plans for the administrative build-up which would be an essential preliminary to any enlargement of the garrison. Nor was he allowed much time even for that. On 2 February he was recalled to command 2 Armoured Division in the Western Desert, leaving Lieutenant-Colonel C. H. Mather, CO 52 LAA Regiment, in charge until the arrival on 19 February of his successor, Brigadier A. Galloway.
The new commander’s instructions gave him a sufficiently complex task: he was to be Fortress Commander, Suda Bay, and to command all British personnel in Crete. He was to defend Suda Bay as an advanced fuelling base, in co-operation with the local Greek forces; he was to be responsible for the operations then projected against the Dodecanese; he was to hurry on with the completion of an administrative base which could accommodate the increase of the garrison to a division if deterioration of the situation in Greece should make it necessary. The defence of the island as a whole was not mentioned in his directive.16
He, too, was to have less than a month in which to shoulder these responsibilities. For the situation in Greece drew him off on 7 March to become BGS of W Force (the expeditionary force to Greece). And in Crete Lieutenant-Colonel Mather resumed command.
Time was running out, but the situation from a planning point of view became no clearer. On 17 March OC Signals Creforce reported that, because of the ill-defined operational policy, he could have no clear signals policy. His report suggests that, on the island at least, the current view was scarcely dynamic: Crete was regarded as an RAF and Navy transit base with the Army in the static role of garrison troops and air defence.
The situation was improved somewhat by the appointment on 19 March of Brigadier B. H. Chappel to command 14 Infantry Brigade. But as he remained in doubt whether or not his commitments included the defence of Heraklion, his original directive can hardly have been very clear.
He and his perplexity were soon to be relieved. The Vice-Chiefs of Staff had decided on 4 January to send at least the AA component of MNBDO to the Middle East, and on 2 April Wavell told the Chiefs of Staff that he had decided to establish it at Suda Bay and develop Suda Bay as a fleet base and not just a base for refuelling. For the movement of troops and aeroplanes occasioned by events in Greece had enhanced the port’s importance, while because of the German aerodromes in Bulgaria it was impossible to create a base farther to the north. He went on to say that because resources had been lacking defences so far were thin. And he concluded that Major-General E. C. Weston, who commanded the MNBDO, should have his command extended to take in all the military units of the garrison.
The defence measures taken up to this time, apart from the administrative, may be summarised as follows: by 12 February a defence scheme for Suda Bay was in operation; by 13 March Suda Island had telephones and a mine-spotting post and was equipped as a Forward Observation Post against a seaborne landing; by 19 March 2 Black Watch had been sent to Heraklion to guard the aerodrome; on 27 March an exercise for the defence of Maleme was undertaken, and on 31 March there was a further exercise against parachute attack on Maleme. Finally, on 10 April an exercise was conducted against parachute attack on Galatas.
Thus, it is plain, the occupying garrison had come by March to appreciate correctly the kind of attack to be expected and some likely targets, even although the garrison had increased very little since Tidbury’s time.
General Weston had learnt of the destination of MNBDO and his own role as GOC Creforce on his arrival in Cairo on 29 March. He at once set off for Crete. On 15 April he submitted his appreciation. It saw the defence as involving two problems: defending the fleet and air bases as things were; and defending the island against invasion in the event of German victory in Greece. And, naturally enough in a worsening situation, it concentrated on the second aspect. Suda Bay and Heraklion were both vital since the enemy’s possession of either would nullify to us the advantages of holding the other. Even without holding Greece the enemy could attempt an invasion with airborne forces; with Greece in his hands he could invade by sea as well.
Weston therefore thought the defence required an infantry brigade at Heraklion, with a detachment at Retimo and a second brigade group for the Suda-Maleme sector. Headquarters 14 Infantry Brigade should be organised separately from Creforce and able to function independently as a brigade headquarters. Any
Greek troops available should be used to defend the eastern end of the island and to help at Retimo. Aircraft would be needed and so full-scale airfields should be constructed, sited with an eye to the weaknesses of the ground defences. And large quantities of supplies would be needed.
Now that the loss of Greece was already inevitable these recommendations, sensible as they were, hardly went far enough, even had there been time or resources to implement them. But Middle East Joint Planning Staff, which had now begun to take a belated interest, was hardly more prescient. In a paper issued on 21 April and designed to consider the forces required to defend the island should Greece be overrun, attack was considered imminent but likely to be deferred till airborne invasion could have the support of simultaneous invasion by sea. This would hardly be before three or four weeks after the British forces had evacuated Greece.
The planners appreciated that a garrison of three brigade groups would be needed, composed of fresh and fully equipped British troops. A further brigade group should be sent at once and artillery to bring the group already there up to strength. Troops evacuated from Greece to Crete should be sent on to Egypt as soon as possible to simplify maintenance problems. All prisoners of war should also be evacuated. A recommendation of General Weston’s that three further HAA batteries as well as the AA of MNBDO should be sent, and that 156 LAA Battery already on the island should be retained, was approved. Royal Air Force fighter strength should be raised to three squadrons during the evacuation and not allowed to drop below two thereafter. Two months of reserve supplies should be sent at once. And the command should be British.
But by this time the enemy offensive in the Western Desert was forcing General Wavell back to the Egyptian frontier, and there was mopping up still to be done in Italian East Africa. He therefore decided to send no more troops to Crete for the present, except for one mountain battery when available. When evacuation from Greece was complete the question would be reconsidered. But AA reinforcements to raise the garrison to six HAA and three LAA batteries and reserve supplies for two months were to be landed as soon as possible.
This decision or, more fairly, the shortage of troops that dictated it, was probably responsible ultimately for the presence of the New Zealand Division in the battle of Crete. For events were to move too swiftly from now on and there would be no better opportunity of bringing in fresh troops, however bad the present occasion might be.
Meanwhile General Weston’s own position was none the clearer. He had been warned of the impending evacuation of Greece and had flown again to Crete on 21 April; but by 25 April the garrison was still under Brigadier Chappel. Rear HQ of W Force was also there. Was MNBDO to take over the whole defence?17 Wavell replied at once. Weston was to command both MNBDO and 14 Brigade. And on 27 April a formal order gave him command of all British troops. Three days later the task of the defence was at last seen and stated as a whole ‘to deny to the enemy the use of air bases in Crete.’
All this time the build-up had been going on, rather too slowly. When General Wavell came on 13 November the garrison consisted of HQ 14 Infantry Brigade, 2 Yorks and Lancs, 52 LAA Regiment, 151 HAA Battery, 156 LAA Battery, 42 Field Company RE, and 189 Field Ambulance. Wavell came to the conclusion that a larger force was unnecessary at this stage (even though the Greek garrison was now to be withdrawn) and plans for moving in Australian and New Zealand forces were cancelled; 2 Black Watch, however, and perhaps some more AA would be sent. After that there would be no more infantry for Creforce, and the defence was to be planned on the basis of two or at most three infantry battalions.
The 2nd Black Watch was duly sent and disembarked on 19 November. Meanwhile the Greek garrison had begun to leave for the mainland and their departure occasioned a request from Creforce for another British battalion. This was refused. Instead, 50 Middle East Commando was sent, arriving on 26 November, with the dual role of raiding the coast of North Africa and the Dodecanese and assisting the defence of the island.
Though no further infantry was promised, the possibility that Greece itself might be overrun was not left out of account, and Wavell told the Chiefs of Staff that administrative arrangements would be made for the maintenance of up to one division in addition to the garrison. This was later modified, and a conference at Middle East Headquarters on 26 November considered the case of a division which would include the garrison: it was decided to send to Crete a reconnaissance party to determine the amount of covered space required to accommodate 60 days’ reserve supplies for this division, it being assumed that the division would have attached eight HAA batteries, eight LAA batteries, and one CD battery.18
From this time till the evacuation of Greece and the arrival of MNBDO, though plans for the reinforcement of Crete were continually discussed,19 the only important alterations in the order of battle that in fact took place were the arrival of 51 Middle East Commando in the middle of December and the exchange of 1 Battalion, the Welch Regiment, for 50 Middle East Commando in March. Meanwhile, up till the middle of December, withdrawal of Greek troops continued until by that time fewer than a thousand were left; and the question of arming irregulars to replace them, though argued, remained undecided, being all the less urgent in appearance for the fact that there were no weapons with which to arm them.20
Such then was the strength of the garrison measured in terms of units. The build-up in guns was hardly better. Ever since the decision had been taken on 28 October to secure Suda Bay as a naval base, the Chiefs of Staff had been concerned with the problem of providing the island with AA and CD. The obstacles, of course, were a slowly expanding production, great need at home and in the Middle East great shortage, complicated by the necessity to defend the base at Alexandria and the Suez Canal.
The minimum envisaged by Middle East HQ in November and approved by the Chiefs of Staff was 32 HAA guns, 24 LAA guns, and 72 searchlights. When evacuation from Greece took place and the situation was far more threatening than the one foreseen in November, the actual armament was 16 HAA guns, 24 LAA guns (mobile) and 12 LAA guns (static), and 24 AA searchlights. This was later to be reinforced by a further 16 HAA guns from MNBDO. Even so the anti-aircraft defence was nothing like what would have been required to put any serious check on the German Air Force, then in its prime and in undisputed control of the air.
In the event, the need for coast defence guns was to prove of less importance. But they, too, were scarcely adequate for what might have been. They consisted of 15 Coast Defence Regiment with one battery of two 12-pounders, two batteries of two 6-pounders, and two batteries of two 4-inch guns. The arrival of MNBDO added two batteries each of two 4-inch guns.
Administrative preparations went on concurrently with the rest. The difficulties of administration were to play a considerable part in both the early and later stages of the campaign and became apparent from the beginning. Local supplies were found inadequate even for the first troops to arrive, as Brigadier Tidbury in his
despatch of 10 November was soon to confirm.21 And the same report dwelt on the shortage of transport, of labour and of storage.
After 23 November, when ultimate reinforcement to the strength of a division was contemplated, planning and construction of a suitable base became the garrison’s main preoccupation: for without it the reception of large reinforcements, if ever they became available, would not be possible. Planning even for this, however, was not made any easier by the absence of a clear operational plan as the difficulties of the OC Signals already referred to show.22
The reconnaissance party sent to Crete to examine the potentialities for a base reported on 14 December that the plain between Suda Bay and Canea, though with few suitable buildings and outside the existing defence scheme for the area, was the only possible site. It would require the laying of a Decauville railway, a good deal of roadwork, and the erection of 336,000 square feet of covered accommodation. And there was little local labour and practically no civilian transport.23
The reconnaissance party recommended a plan which entailed the fullest use of existing buildings, and this was approved. The maintenance tonnage of the existing force was to be reduced from the 350 tons a day estimated by the reconnaissance report to 300 tons, and the difference between this amount and the 500 tons a day which was the maximum to be spared would go towards the stocking of the base.24
By 6 January Tidbury was able to report that all sites except that of the hospital (it was part of the plan to make this one of 600–800 beds) had been decided, that 4000 square feet of the workshop site were already in use, and that work on the Decauville track had begun. The building of huts, the laying of ammunition standings, and work on other storage facilities had been held up by transport shortage and bad roads.
These handicaps to progress were felt throughout the preparatory period, but in spite of them progress was made and by the end of March the administrative base for a single division was reported to be 80 per cent complete. There was still uncertainty about just what the strength of the defence was likely to be, and on 18 April Middle East HQ ordered that the island should be stocked for a figure of 90 days’ supplies for 30,000 men; but on 25 April it was ruled that this figure would be temporary and that when the
critical situation in Greece had passed the figure would revert to supplies for 20,000 men, the garrison’s normal strength.
The prospect of having to deal with supplies on this scale and men in these numbers now raised the question of transport in an even more acute form, and Brigadier Chappel, the commander of the moment, sent an appreciation to GHQ Middle East which stressed the need for more MT.25 But this was only one of his difficulties. Apart from those already glanced at, there was still the major shortcoming that, although progress with the divisional base had struggled so far, nothing had been laid down on the question of how the division if it arrived was to be disposed. And so no work had been either done or projected on its accommodation, in spite of repeated attempts by CRE26 to get the succession of commanders to decide locations for camps. The larder was ready but not the means to accommodate its defenders.27
Since the absence of fighter defence proved so major a factor in the enemy’s success, this preliminary chapter may close with an account of the developments in the air defence in these early months of the ‘build-up’.
From the first Crete was envisaged as being an air base as well as a naval one. And as early as 13 November the Chiefs of Staff, accepting a policy of holding Crete ‘whatever happens on the mainland’, had foreseen that if the Germans overran Greece the island would be subject to air attack. They knew therefore that air defence was vital. But from shortage of aircraft – all available planes had to be sent to Greece in the event – the consequence of their foresight has to be looked for mainly in the concentration on AA defence that has already been revealed.
Indeed, the contrast between the desirable and the possible is implicit in the whole preparatory period. On 4 January, for example, the Joint Planning Staff accepted a memorandum from the Chief of Air Staff which ran: ‘the foundation on which we should base our assistance to Greece is Crete, which must be held at all costs. Strong air forces established there would both delay the German advance through Greece and be well sited for covering our air support to Turkey.’ But, as the Interservices Report points out, neither staff nor machines were available in the Middle East and RAF policy, no doubt for this reason, was never clearly defined.28
In consequence, by 27 March the RAF still had ‘no permanent fighter commitments in Crete’ and still had not settled the problems of co-ordination with the Fleet Air Arm and Army. With the former it had not amalgamated or harmonised its supply arrangements and with the latter it had not co-operated on the problems of siting and defending aerodromes. The garrison commanders could get no clear directives on airfield policy; and the OC RAF was a flight lieutenant equally without directive on his tasks and his needs.
Thus the situation found by Wing Commander Beamish on 17 April when he arrived29 to take command of the RAF on the island was far from reassuring. There was only one squadron. The only planes there were at Maleme and belonged to 805 FAA30 Squadron. Their primary role was to provide fighter defence for Suda Bay. But the squadron was operating at a reduced strength and consisted of a mixed force of Fulmars, Gladiators and Brewsters, of which the last could be flown only in an emergency.31
Of the two aerodromes, Maleme and Heraklion, only the latter could be used for all types of plane. Construction was still going on at both. At Retimo the aerodrome was no more than a landing strip; and at Pediada Kastelli there was a landing ground. The fact that the RAF was responsible for the construction of its own airfields, and the absence of co-ordination with the military in the initial stages, were all the more important because it was the position of these aerodromes that largely determined the dispositions of the defence.
At Maleme also was 252 AMES32 in full operation and feeding information to a Gun Operations Room at Canea, ultimately developed to control the fighter and AA defences of Suda Bay area but still without RAF controllers or operations officers, being served by FAA staff. And there was no R/T33 between Gun Operations Room and aircraft. A second (220) AMES at Heraklion was in the final stages of erection but its Gun Operations Room was not yet complete. These deficiencies and shortcomings were to some extent offset by an efficient Greek observer system, which reported to a centre in Canea from which reports were relayed to the Canea Gun Operations Room.
Staff also, Beamish found, was inadequate, though he was able later to improve it from the evacuated personnel arriving from
Greece. Maintenance, too, was unsatisfactory. There were stocks of fuel and ammunition at both Maleme and Heraklion but there were no spares or repair facilities. The main RAF W/T34 station was at Heraklion, and there was one telephone line between Heraklion and the Gun Operations Room in Canea and another from Canea GOR to Maleme and the two AMES. Communications generally were poor and the shortage of materials precluded much hope of bettering them.
By 21 April, if we are to judge by JPS Paper 49 which recommends the retention of the existing two RAF fighter squadrons and their reinforcement by a third, the situation had somewhat improved. But theirs may have been a somewhat academic view and we shall probably do better to follow Beamish’s account. His force seems to have been increased almost at once by the basing of Sunderlands of 230 General Reconnaissance Squadron at Suda Bay. These were intended to assist in evacuating troops from Greece to Crete and from Crete to Egypt. Further reinforcement came with the move out of Greece of the squadrons that had been operating there. No. 30 Squadron, with 14 Blenheims I, arrived on 18 April and was subsequently supported by 203 Squadron from Egypt with nine Blenheims IV. And between 22 and 24 April came the remnants of 33, 80, and 112 Fighter Squadrons, all in a low state of serviceability which on Crete could hardly be remedied. Among them they could muster at the most 12–14 Hurricanes and about six serviceable Gladiators. All of these were engaged in the protection of convoys from Greece and so had little chance of preparing for an attack unless it should be most improbably delayed.
Thus, whatever the reasons and however good, it could not be said that the six months since British troops had first landed on Crete had been put to good use. The existing garrison was quite inadequate to sustain an attack of the kind that might now be expected. No carefully prepared plan or scheme of defence on the scale required existed. The armament in anti-aircraft and coast defence was below the scale that had from the first been contemplated. Transport was scarce and the roads were still bad. Signals communication was, to say the least, sketchy. Supplies had not been accumulated on the scale that was bound to be necessary. Accommodation for even fresh and fully equipped troops scarcely existed. Aerodromes were not developed and, more important still, the planes were not available to use them.