Evacuation
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HMAS Stuart
The Navy would once again do a sterling job of trying to evacuate the troops from Crete, as they had done in April from Greece.

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This page looks at the evacuation of the troops from the island, touching briefly on their retreat from the front areas on the north coast of the island.  The retreat itself is covered on a separate page.

At 11:00 on Monday the 26th May Freyberg signaled Wavell "limit of endurance had been reached by troops under my command here at Suda Bay"

At 08:25 on the 27th Wavell to Churchill   "..feared we must recognize that Crete was no longer tenable and that troops must be withdrawn.."  The Chiefs of Staff agreed.

Again, as in Greece, the Army would depend on the Navy to evacuate them from a war theatre.  While Heraklion had the only port in Crete where naval warships could berth and take off men, the situation on the ground meant that the army was evacuating to Chora Sfakia, a tiny fishing hamlet on the south coast of the island.  The evacuation would take place from an open beach at the foot of a very steep 500 foot escarpment.  Even today this is a fairly hair raising drive down a hairpin mountain road.  In 1941 the road did not exist as such.  This tricky evacuation would have to take place with very limited RAF fighter cover.

RAF M.E.  (WO106/3241)
Night 26/7  7 Wellingtons and 2 Blenheims bombed Maleme.
Day 27  Blenheims and Hurricanes intercept JU52s and 88s en-route Maleme from Greece, destroy 3.  One Blenheim missing.  Hurricanes land at Heraklion.
Two squadrons Blenheims sent to bomb troops near Canea.  4 Blenheims missing though 3 known to cross Egyptian coast.

The intention for the evacuation was

-         Troops in Maleme/Chania/Suda Bay to pull back over the mountain road to Sfakia

-         Troops around Rethymnon to go to Plaka Bay

-         Troops at Heraklion would be taken off from the harbour there

-         Troops cut off south of Heraklion to make for Tymbaki on the south coast

All evacuation would take place at night and would be timed to allow naval vessels to be well on their way to Alexandria by the time the Luftwaffe flew reconnaissance sweeps.  During the evacuation a rear-guard force would hold the pursuing forces at bay.

Heraklion

Admiral Rawlings was put in command of Force B which was to evacuate the troops from Heraklion.  They left Alexandria at 06:00 on the 28th but around 17:00, some 90 miles from Scarpanto, the air raids started yet again.  During the attacks the cruiser Ajax, although only suffering a near miss, was reported to be so severely damaged that she needed to return to Alexandria.  The damage was later found to be less than had been reported to her captain, her carrying capacity would be sorely missed in the evacuation.

When the force got to Heraklion the destroyers were used to take on troops, which were then ferried out to the cruisers Orion and Dido.  By sometime after 03:00 4000 troops had been taken off and had started their escape run.  At 03:45 the rudder of the destroyer Imperial jammed hard over.  The Hotspur was assigned to take off all men from the Imperial, then sink her and rejoin the main force which would steam at reduced speed to the Kaso Straight.  When Hotspur rejoined the whole force was by then behind schedule and would have to survive the expected Stuka attacks as they made for Alexandria.

In the middle of the Kaso Straight, at about 06:30, the Hereward was attacked, she had some 450 evacuated troops aboard.  Damaged in the attack, Rawlings decided he could not risk the force by detaching a destroyer to her aid.  The force sailed on without her.  The Hereward later sank and her survivors were rescued by Italian vessels.  Both the Dido and the Orion came in for sustained and heavy attacks from Stukas, which resulted in heavy damage to the ships, and heavy losses among the men on board.  By the time the force arrived in Alexandria almost 3,500 troops had been rescued from Heraklion, but some 600 or so were killed or captured.

Sfakia

The main evacuation effort was to take place from Sfakia, and the first attempt to take off troops took place on the night of 28/29 May by a small flotilla of destroyers.  They landed supplies for the men on shore, then left for Alexandria with some 750 or so men on board.

Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mätauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Exhausted field engineers await evacuation from Sfakia
The following message is taken from WO 201/2661 (Evacuation of forces from Crete) in the National Archives and relates to evacuation from Rethymnon.
Most Secret from GHQ Middle East, Cairo to Officer Commanding troops, RETIMO, 28 May 1941

1. The following message has been received in cipher from Creforce:- "We are to evacuate Crete.  Commence withdrawal night 28/29 May leave parties to cover withdrawal and to deceive enemy.  If liable to observation move only by night and lie up by day.  Embark PLAKA Bay East end night 31st May/1st June essential place of embarkation be concealed enemy therefore you should be in embarkation area and concealed (by first?) light 31st May.  Make best arrangements you can for wounded.  Most regrettable we can do nothing to help in this respect.  (hand?) prisoners over to Greeks.  You and your chaps have done splendidly.  Evacuation is due to overwhelming enemy air superiority in this sector.  Cheerio and good luck to you."

2. You will comply with this order.  It is regretted that this message could not reach you sooner.

3. At Creforce's request £1,000 in Drachmas for assisting the evacuation of stragglers by caique and other incidental expenses is also being dropped.

4. A code is enclosed for communication with Mideast in case you are able to take a w/t set with you.  Creforce have a copy.

5. (this handwritten, not typed)  Any Greek soldiers who wish to be evacuated should accompany you.

The main evacuation was to start the night of 29/30 May, Freyberg believed that the last night that troops would be evacuated would be 30/31 May.  Cunningham's losses around Crete, up to this time, had been so high that he felt he had to warn London of the possibility of still higher losses during the evacuation, which went ahead anyway.  The operation continued smoothly and around midnight on the 30th the force arrived back in Alexandria with around 6,000 troops from Crete.  On the night of the 30th more troops were taken off by the destroyers Nizam and Napier.  

C-in-C  M.E. to War Office  01:20 30/5  (WO106/3241)

Most Secret.  Evacuation plan for night 28/29 May was to embark approx 1,000 from Sphakia and approx 4,000 from Heraklion.  Ships so far arrived Alex. tonight 29/30 May have disembarked total approx 3,000 of which some 550 believed from Sphakia and remainder from Heraklion.  Two further ships carrying troops now offloading.  Details not yet firm but will forward later.

There were now some 6,500 troops awaiting evacuation from Sfakia, of these Admiral King took off some 3,700 of these on the night of 31 May/1 June.  One of those was the father of David Sanders who emailed me, his father is 92 and was lucky enough to get off in the Abdiel.  Cunningham was requested by London to make a final run on the night of 1/2 June to take off the remainder of the men from Sfakia.  However, after all they had gone through so far, Cunningham decided that his force was too depleted and to exhausted to make the run.  He declined.  The remaining forces on the island, including those who had hoped to be lifted from Plaka Bay were left to become prisoners of war.  There were probably around 5,000 of them.
A signal in W) 201/2661 in the National Archives;

By phone from Base 21:30/31.  Most Immediate

"Following message for C in C Med.  To Mid East From Creforce

5500 repeat 5500 troops will be left after final evacuation [stop] Troops exhausted (?mainly?) by lack of food [stop] Further resistance impossible unless rations can be regularly supplied [stop] Failing this only hope of keeping those left behind alive is capitulation [stop] Whay action should I take [stop]"

One of those who was at Sfakia, but was not taken off, was Leonard Hayward, 1767 RM MNBDO.  He was wounded in both legs on the 20th May and taken prisoner at Sfakia on the 28th.  Leonard contacted me via the site guestbook.  He said that he returned to Crete for the 45th anniversary, and now lives in California.
From C-in-C to Admiralty  20:23 1/6  (WO106/3241)
The operation of evacuating troops from Crete has now terminated with the arrival of C.S 15 Force and 3,900 troops.  Consider total evacuated to be just over 17,000.
5,500 were left at Sphakia and had orders to capitulate and in addition must be added up to 2,000 from Retimo or in small parties who never reached the South Coast.  Total therefor left behind was about 7,000.

The Navy had done a sterling job of supporting the land forces during the Army campaign on the island, and during their evacuation from it.  Some men left on the island would spend time with resistance groups on the island, to continue to take the fight to the Germans during their occupation of Crete.

Secret Cypher  telegram 16:28 6/6/41  (wo106/3241)

Night 4/5 June.  One Wellington dropped eighteen sacks of provisions for party of our troops near Spakia.

One of those who did not get away on the evacuation ships was Myles Hildyard, and the following is from his obituary in the Times, August 31, 2005.  He died on August 13, aged 90, but unfortunately the article does not mention his rank.  

The obituary refers to him as a 'man of letters' and also refers to his homosexuality, which may be why he did not marry.  "He looked on the Second World War as the most interesting years of his life."  He joined the Nottinghamshire (Sherwood Rangers) Yeomanry and was sent to the Western Desert, the regiment was converted to artillery.  "With no action in prospect he took military duties lightly, making every opportunity to visit the archaeological sites in Palestine and Syria and the Pyramids at Giza."

"The spell the Middle East held for him was not broken when his battery was ordered to Crete for coastal-defence duties in February 1941.  'The island is quite lovely, am beginning to learn Greek,' he wrote home, while remarking snobbishly about having to share a mess with anti-aircraft artillery officers.  The German airborne invasion of Crete in May 1941, after the collapse of the Allied defence of Greece, brought an abrupt halt to this idyll and put Hildyard to severe test.

The fight for Crete was marked by acts of great gallantry and fortitude, but lack of air support against the Luftwaffe and the uncharacteristic hesitation of the overall commander, General Sir Bernard Freyberg, VC, led to disaster.  Hildyard and his friend, Michael Parrish, were among the thousands of Commonwealth troops obliged to surrender when the Royal Navy's capacity for evacuation was exhausted.  But he and Parrish slipped away from their loosely guarded prison camp as soon as they had overcome their own exhaustion from being marched there and had gathered a few basic provisions.

The frustrating saga of the ensuing three months until the pair reached Turkey in early September is candidly told, his fears, hunger and pain in particular, in Hildyard's diary kept in lieu of letters home.  The trauma of walking through the White Mountains with lacerated feet and doubts of escape was moderated by the brave hospitality of the Cretan peasants and his wonder at the beauty of the shepherd boys who brought them milk and grapes.  Getting off German-controlled Crete was dangerous and difficult but they hired a sailing vessel with two English bank cheques and got away in mid-August, first heading north to land some Greeks escaping from the island.

By coincidence, when their boat touched on the beach of Polyvos, Hildyard found the emaciated corpse of an acquaintance he identified by the signet ring.  After burying the corpse, the party - by then reduced to five and the Cretan captain - began an island hopping voyage to Turkey.  Fortunately the captain knew someone on every inhabited island, allowing replenishment of food stocks even in tiny ports where people were starving.  They were welcomed in Turkey and sent to Egypt without delay.

Hildyard was awarded the Military Cross for his escape.  Hildyard's war continued in North Africa and later he was involved in the Italian campaign on the staff of 7th Armoured Division.  A selection of his letters is to be published in October under the title It is Bliss Here."