April to May|
signal from C-in-C Middle East to the War Office in August of 1940 said
"We consider that it would be unwise to send to Crete if necessity
arose any force smaller than a brigade of infantry and that a
considerable scale of anti-aircraft defence and support of fighter
aircraft would be necessary to enable Crete to be held."
Unfortunately the island would not get the forces it needed.
Following some pressure from Churchill as a result of the Italian
ultimatum to the Greeks on the 28th October 1940, the 2nd
York and Lancs
Battalion left Alexandria for Crete on the 31st of that month. The
commander on Crete was Brigadier Tidbury, and he was told of the necessity to
build up the defences of Suda Bay so that it could be used as a naval fuelling
depot, Suda Bay was to be a 'Second Scapa'. As well as the British forces who would arrive there would also be
the Cretan 5th Division on the island as well as some 8,000 reservists.
The preparations for the defence of the island suffered as a result of the
changing priorities in the Eastern Mediterranean, The Balkans and North Africa,
and in late 1940 the Italians were the expected invaders, not the Germans. Anthony
Eden in a signal 1 November, 1940; "...full agreement here as to the
importance of preventing capture of Crete by Italians" but they were
reluctant to send Army and Air Force units to Crete at the expense of
operations in N Africa, "these units have only been spared with
difficulty and with detriment to our military effort in Egypt. No
more can be sent without considerable risk."
|The following is from Charles Lamb's book on
flying the Swordfish in the Med. He describes their detachment to
Crete in the early part of 1941, it gives a good 'bird's eye' view of the
nature of the island.
|"By 14 February Maleme airfield was
ready and we were given orders to fly to Crete to join Jago and the
advance party, who had been flying from Heraklion. After crossing
the flat Egyptian coast at Mersa Matruh, for nearly three hours we droned
along peacefully in open formation, flying to the north-west at 3,000
feet. For the last hour over the blue Mediterranean the misty heat
of the horizon nursed a low bank of cumulus cloud which grew larger as we
approached, and gradually solidified into the snowy peaks of the Cretan
mountains. The southern coast of Crete looks most forbidding to a
pilot approaching to land for the first time; flying towards the mountain
range the plateau stretches from east to west for 130 miles, which is
farther than the eye can see on a hot misty day, even at 3,000 feet.
The peaks seemed to grow taller as we drew close and then rose to meet us
until they were right ahead at the same height and we had to climb to pass
over them. Looking down I thrilled at the sight of the granite face
of the mountains below me, dropping sheer into the sea, a series of
shadowy clefts between sunlit crags of grey and brown, topped with white
snow; forbidding, yet strangely pleasing to the eye after three hours with
nothing ahead but the azure water concealing the depths of over a thousand
Once over the mountain range, Torrens-Spence
throttled back and let us down towards the Suda Bay and the flat plains
which form the north face of the island. Crete is only twenty-five
miles wide and in a few moments we were rumbling over the roofs of Canea,
the capital, little squares of white amongst the greenery, lit by the
sun. Continuing his turn to the west, for the first time we saw the
red earth of Maleme airfield, dead ahead, surrounded by little green hills
of unending olive groves. Our tents were nestling amongst the dark
green foliage and the wiry tree-trunks, and after the desert it all looked
The stream which gurgled through the
olive grove where our tents were pitched was pure melted snow and ice,
from the mountains. We bathed in it daily and boiled it in tin cans
over camp fires for shaving and tea-making. For twenty-two days we
lived an idyllic existence, interrupted by occasional air raids when a
huge bell, suspended from a gallows mounted outside our marquee
over-looking the airfield, would clang a doleful alarm, warning us to take
immediate cover. In the air, daylight anti-submarine patrols ahead
of the convoys were enlivened by the occasional attack by German and
Italian aircraft operating from their bases in the Dodecanese islands,
which were only about sixty to eighty miles to the north-east. The
enemy aircraft were the responsibility of Lieutenant-Commander Alan Black,
and his Brewsters and Fulmars, also operating from Maleme, and the RAF
Hurricanes from Heraklion, and during the attack we had to drop down to
sea level to avoid being seen." The Swordfish later flew off to
operate from Greece.
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.
Australian and New Zealand troops disembark at Suda Bay.
|On the 1st November 1940 the Joint Planning Staff had issued a paper on
Crete, outlining what they believed were the objectives for sending troops
1) To establish a permanent advanced refueling base for the
Mediterranean Fleet at Suda Bay, with adequate defences and fighter
2) The establishment of advanced landing grounds, from which our bomber
aircraft could attack objectives in Italy, and Italian forces in Greece
and North Africa.
3) To stiffen Greek resistance on the island.
On 5 November Churchill signaled General Ismay that "In principle
Suda is to be made a second Scapa." (CAB 121/537)
In November the Cretan Division was sent over to the mainland to join the
Epirus Front as part of the defence against the Italians. During November,
with events going pretty well in Greece and with an offensive being prepared in
North Africa Wavell was not minded to increase the garrison on Crete, in his
view "a small force is quite sufficient for Crete at present".
The period from November to April was one of changing priorities and
plans. The situation of Crete in this planning was complicated by Wavell's
operations in the North African desert, and the situation in Greece. The
infantry requirement for the defence of the island varied from "defence to
be planned on the basis of two or at most three infantry battalions", to
Wavell telling the Chiefs of Staff "administrative arrangements would be
made for the maintenance of up to one division in addition to the
garrison." This was to allow for the "possibility that Greece
itself might be overrun." By
the time that Tidbury was replaced by Major-General Gambier-Perry in January '41
the British force of two battalions was insufficient for the declared aim of
resisting an invasion, and with the Cretan Division in Greece no-one was
defending Heraklion. Commanders on Crete were to come and go quickly,
adding to the lack of focus on the issue of island defence. As the
Official New Zealand history commented; "The contrast between the desirable
and the possible is implicit in the whole preparatory period."
|During April and May, prior to the
attack, there was a belated effort to strengthen Crete against the
expected attack, but most of the focus did not come until the withdrawal
from Greece had started, and by then there was only a month until the
invasion arrived. During this time London was receiving vital
information via ULTRA, which gave them an accurate
picture of what would happen, but because of the sensitivity of the
source, the information and it's provenance had to be on very limited
Another of those commanders who spent a brief time on the island was General Weston, a Marine officer, and on the
15th of April he produced his assessment of the island defences. Although
he did not know it the Allied forces would be evacuating from Greece to Crete in
only a weeks time. When the troops began to evacuate from Greece, he
believed that they were only in transit on the island, and that 6 Division would
be coming from Egypt. It was Weston's assessment that two infantry brigade groups would be
needed to prevent loss of the island in the event of an invasion. One
group at Heraklion and one in the area from Suda to Maleme. Additionally
the AA defences would need strengthening and fighters and bombers should be
stationed on the island. Unfortunately other events in the area (Greece,
Libya and a coup in Iraq) caused Wavell and Churchill not to act quickly.
On the 18th April Churchill wired Wavell his priorities for the area, Crete was
not high up on the list.
|"Crete will at first only be
a receptacle of whatever we can get there from Greece. Its
fuller defence must be organized later."
This directive was not totally in line with his wire to Wavell only one day
earlier, 17th April.
"Crete must be held..... We
shall aid and maintain defence of Crete to the utmost."
On 28 April Churchill signaled to Wavell; "It seems clear from
our information that a heavy air borne attack by German troops and bombers
will soon be made on Crete. Let me know what forces you have in the
island and what your plans are. It ought to be a fine opportunity
for killing parachute troops. The island must be stubbornly
|The Official New Zealand
History summed up the state of Crete as; "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."
Events were to show that too little had been done to prepare the
island, too many other priorities had caused confusion. On the 27th
April General Wilson reached Crete and was asked for his assessment by
Wavell. He believed it needed a substantial force of some 12
battalions. By the 28th April Churchill was directing Wavell that
"the island must be stubbornly defended", and on the 30th
April General Freyberg was appointed commander of the forces in
defence of Crete.
|WO 231/2 has a section that comments on "Ambiguity as to the role
of the garrison" at Crete. Paragraph 4 says "The
appointment of five commanders in six months could hardly produce the best