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A 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.

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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 fathoms.

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 beguilingly attractive.

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.

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.
British, 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 to Crete;

1) To establish a permanent advanced refueling base for the Mediterranean Fleet at Suda Bay, with adequate defences and fighter protection.

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 circulation. 

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 defended."

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 results."