As so often in war, actions in one theatre are rarely taken in isolation from others.
Crete was to be no exception. On the 23rd of August, 1939, a non-aggression
pact was signed between Germany and Russia. Hitler could now move on Poland with his
Eastern flank secure. However, as in the First World War, so now in the Autumn of
1940 the Balkans would influence events. Bulgaria made demands on Rumania, Hitler
compelled the Rumanians to comply but in return he had to give the Rumanians a territorial
guarantee. This brought German military commitments into an area which the Russians
considered to be their "sphere of influence". The Russians began to
interpret this move by Germany as a violation of the non-aggression pact.
At a conference in Bad Reichenhall on the 29th July, 1940, Colonel General
of Staff of the German Forces told a small planning group of Hitler's intention to
"take action against this menace of the Soviet Union". This was the
beginning of the planning of Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. The start of
Barbarosa, and the timing of the invasion of Crete were to be closely linked. Hitler
had also allied Germany with Italy, and her histrionic leader, Mussolini, El Duce as he
liked to be called. Mussolini was keen that Italy should be seen in the alliance to
also cover herself with military glory. He was keen for a military victory
somewhere, and soon. Hitler however did not want Italy upsetting the delicate
balance in the Balkans. Unfortunately Hitler decided that the situation in Rumania
required that he should move his troops into that country, but he would not inform
Mussolini, a decision that caused great resentment when Mussolini heard of it. At
this same time Hitler had received a setback to his plans on his Western Front. The
Luftwaffe had failed to defeat the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, and
consequently he had also had to postpone indefinitely his plans for an invasion of
Mussolini, put out by Hitler's move into Rumania, decided in October 1940 to invade
Greece. On October 28th the Italian Minister in Athens presented an ultimatum to
General Metaxas. At the same time the Italian army in Albania invaded Greece.
The result of this was that Greece invoked the guarantee given to them by Chamberlain in
April 1939. The 2nd Battalion of the York &
Lancaster Regiment as well as the Black Watch were put on 6 hours notice to
move, as of 6pm on the 29th October. The invasion did not go well for Italy. Mussolini's plans were ill
thought out, and there were not adequate forces deployed for the invasion. The
result was a humiliation for Mussolini, with significant follow on effects. The
invading Italian army was forced to retreat and a Fleet Air Arm attack on the Italian
Naval Base at Taranto resulted in the loss of three Battleships and two heavy
Cruisers. In North Africa where, in September Italian forces had invaded Egypt from
Libya, there was a further reversal of fortunes. In December the British Army attacked the
Italians at Sidi Barani and drove the Italians back.
Prior to the British defeat of the Italians in N Africa, there were very real
differences of opinion between Churchill and his Mediterranean commanders over strategy.
Churchill was keen to move forces to Greece and Crete to defend the Eastern end of
the Mediterranean. At the same time he was convinced that General Wavell,
Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, was planning only for defence. Wavell was in fact
planning a daring attack against the Italians, but would not communicate this to Churchill
by signal, only by word of mouth. Anthony Eden ( Minister of War ) was in Egypt at
this time and received a number of telegrams from Churchill putting forward his views on
the need to assist Greece, and strengthen Crete, "no one will thank us for sitting
tight in Egypt with ever-growing forces while Greek situation and all that hangs on it is
cast away". He said he was "trying to send substantial bomber and fighter
reinforcements to Crete and Greece...". The British commanders in the Middle
East held the strong view that the defence of Egypt was absolutely paramount, forces
should not be diverted to Greece when they were needed for an offensive in the
desert, and that included Air Force units.
This view was supported by an appreciation written by the Joint Planning
Staff on the 4th November. An offensive of which Churchill was unaware. Admiral Cunningham, who
commanded the Navy in the theatre, believed that a large military garrison on Crete was
not necessary. One Battalion and A.A. defences would be adequate. It
was felt that the minimum defence should be 24 HAA (Heavy A.A.) guns and
24 LAA (Light A.A.) guns, with two 6-inch coast defence batteries.
The actual position at that time at Suda Bay was 8 HAA and 12 LAA guns
with some naval guns for coast defence, and the two 15-inch guns of HMS
Terror. Because of the presence of the latter, it was felt not
necessary to send the 6-inch batteries.
On November 8, 1940, Eden arrived back in London to brief Churchill and his military
staff on the offensive plans of Wavell, the plans that had been too secret to send by
signal. The Italians were to be attacked and destroyed in the desert.
Churchill was delighted "Here was something worth doing." The operation
was code named COMPASS.
Towards the close of 1940 Hitler's thinking was more and more pre-occupied with his
growing intent to invade Russia. With the collapse of the Italians in Greece and
North Africa, both Crete and Greece took on a new priority for Hitler. Operation
MARITA was the plan for the occupation of all of Greece if needed, as well as an airborne
invasion of some of the Greek islands. He intended a short, one month, campaign,
starting in March. On successful completion, the troops would be re-assigned to
Russia. The priorities of Barbarossa would determine the timing of events in Crete.
Strategically placed across the sea routes between Britain's North African bases, and
the destination of the Commonwealth troops in Greece, lay the island of Crete. The
island had a magnificent natural harbour at Suda Bay, and two much smaller harbours at
Heraklion and Rethymnon. However, these were the only harbours capable of
accepting vessels larger than fishing boats and as they lay on the north coast
it meant that the Navy would be vulnerable to air attack from Greece while
supplying these ports. There were also three airfields, one at Maleme to the west of
Hania, another at Rethymnon and the third at Heraklion. There were no railways on the island (that remains
true today), and only one decent road along the northern coast. Behind the coastal
road is a range of mountains rising to some 9000 ft, a very rugged area, as the troops
were later to discover. Only one road crossed the mountains from north to south,
finishing on the steep cliffs above the fishing village of Sfakia.
The geography of the island meant that defence would take place in
pockets, with mutual reinforcement difficult. Also, while the need
to defend the island had been accepted there would be other priorities,
Greece and North Africa, that would also be contesting for the scarce
resources available to the C-in-C Middle East, General Wavell.
critical strategic island was not adequately strengthened while the Commonwealth forces
moved into Greece. This neglect would have serious consequences when the German
forces invaded. Churchill, in his "The Second World War", later wrote that
"it remains astonishing to me that we should have failed to make Suda Bay the
amphibious citadel of which all Crete was the fortress".