|The Battle of Crete is no different to any
other in that people will revisit it with the benefit of hindsight to
say what could have been done differently. Some of the views are
my own, with some from official documents.
looking back on the events of May 1941 in Crete, it is easy to see where
some of the mistakes were being made, hindsight works that way.
The situation on Crete was to a large extent influenced by the
events in Greece following the Italian and German invasions of that
country, and in North Africa where General Wavell, C-in-C Middle East,
could not afford to fail.
Following the defeat in Greece
the Allies had to retreat via Crete to North Africa, as a result units
were split up depending on whether or not they all got away, but also
according to the convoy they were able to get on; some went to Crete
some to Alexandria.
Also, they were not all able to take their equipment so that many
of the units on Crete would have to be used as infantry because they no
longer had their specialized equipment.
Having gone through one defeat and evacuation, many could see
another poor situation developing when they arrived on Crete to find
that again there was limited air support available.
Not only was air support very
limited in the build up to the invasion, but also some of it was old (Gloster
Gladiator biplane fighters) and operating from airfields that needed
considerable improvement to support any large air arm.
The aircraft were finally all withdrawn, but as the airfields
were not destroyed they now had to be defended against the expected
The Germans needed the airfields, especially Maleme, as a large
part of their air landing force would be flown in by Ju52 transports.
Had these air-transported troops been unable to land, with their
heavier equipment, paratroops alone would have been unlikely to be able
to have taken the island.
Military commanders in the
Middle East, as well as those in London, were aware of the intentions of
the Germans through the invaluable ULTRA intercepts, unfortunately the
conflicting priority of North Africa prevented the air support being
available in sufficient numbers to meet the invasion.
Also, intelligence has to be interpreted, and Freyberg assessed
the seaborne invasion mentioned in the intercepts as being as large a
threat, if not larger, than the air-borne threat.
This meant that he had to position a large part of his force to
protect the beaches as well as the airfields, so reducing the force
directly available to meet the paratroop threat when it was most
vulnerable; in the air or forming up.
The lack of air support had a
serious effect on the Navy, events around the island showed how
vulnerable large naval vessels were to land based attack aircraft
operating close to their own bases, and with no opposition from enemy
The vulnerability surprised Naval commanders who had not expected
their ships to be so easily sunk or damaged.
This vulnerability pretty much limited the Navy to night
operations, so seriously affecting their ability to support and
re-supply the island.
When the invasion started the
limitations of motorized transport available to the troops and the poor
wireless communications between units exacerbated the problems of mutual
support between the defence areas.
The only communication between them was the single road running
along the north coast of the island.
Freyberg and his senior
commanders have been criticized for operating too far back from the
changing front line, and so being unable to respond quickly and
effectively when counter attacks by the Allies might have been decisive.
had been keen to have Freyberg command the troops on Crete, was critical
of him later; "I am far from reassured about
the tactical conduct of the defense by General Freyberg.... There
appears to have been no counter-attack of any kind in the Western sector
until more than 36 hours after the airborne descents had begun.
There was no attempt to form a mobile reserve of the best troops....
The whole seems to have been of static defence of positions, instead of
the rapid extirpation at all costs of the airborne landing
|In 1943 the Chief
of Naval Operations released a large document which was a
strategic analysis of the conduct of the battle, including a
comprehensive section on the geography of the island, its coastline, and
a lot of detailed maps and photographs. The document is available
in the Public Records Office, Kew, under WO 252/1201. Also a short
7 page document was drawn up by the War Office for distribution among
officers and Staff Groups, "Notes on the Fighting in Crete, and
lessons to be drawn from it." Also available in the PRO under WO
|The following are a number of extracts from
the Chief of Naval Operations study.
|The analysis by the office of the Chief of
Naval Operations in April 1943 (WO 252/1201) stated that they believed
there were two alternatives open to Freyberg;
a) Partially to disperse his force with a view to protecting both the
aerodromes (Maleme & Heraklion) against an airborne and the beaches
in their vicinity against a sea-borne attack.
b) To concentrate his force in four self-contained groups for the
immediate defence of the three aerodromes and the base area at Suda.
Freyberg adopted the first. In order to meet the sea threat
considerable dispersion was necessary west of Canea where the enemy
might land at any point on the 12 miles stretch of beach.
Dispositions of the NZ Division was influenced by that factor. The
Commander of the 5th NZ brigade was very anxious about the area west of
Maleme aerodrome and it was unfortunate that his intention to place a
Greek battalion there had not been put into effect before the attack
They also wrote that "Perhaps the major lesson of this campaign
was that to defend with a relatively small force an island as large as
Crete, lying under the permanent domination of enemy fighter aircraft
and out of range of our own was impossible."
|Expanding on the Air Factor as they called it
the study went on to say; "As an example of
this close support and the detail with which its preparation is worked
out, the following may be instanced. One glider company that
landed in the Canea area had a whole flight of Stukas to support
it. The task given to the flight was to bomb anti-aircraft and
artillery positions and a group of houses which was the company's
objective for three minutes. In addition, this company's operation
was covered by twelve Me109 and six Me110 whose task was to neutralize
anti-aircraft batteries and enemy ground troops.
It is considered that Crete could only have been
defended if at least six fighter squadrons could have been kept up to
strength. Was this possible? In view of the lamentable lack
of preparation during the preparatory period, it was certainly not
possible, at the last moment. But if, from the outset, the problem
had been tackled with vision, something might have been achieved."
To be fair, there had been many requests for aircraft to be based on the
island, but these had been turned down in favour of the needs in North
Africa. How well the airfields were equipped to handle these
squadrons is a moot point.
|"The committee are of opinion that until
the eleventh hour no Service gave due weight to the preponderating
factor affecting this problem, which was the overwhelming superiority of
the German Air Force."
|However, whatever the effect of the German air
power, the study also had to have a passing swipe at discipline;
"lax discipline has permeated many units ........ officers failed
to exert the control that might have been expected of them.
....Drill still has its place, and should not, as it is by some, be
associated solely with bows and arrows." This sentiment would
probably be worthy of some study at some time, given that a large part
of the force on Crete was made up of New Zealand and Australian forces
who have a different approach to 'discipline' from the British Army,
although this does not stop them fighting (Gallipoli and the Western
Front). Many of the units had been evacuated from Greece, they
were ill-equipped and knew they had no fighter cover. They
probably felt ill-served by the various Army Staff units in Egypt and
|Turning to some of the comments in WO
287/164. The lack of equipment, not helped by the fact
that many of the troops had only recently evacuated from Greece, was
noted; "Tools were totally inadequate, and wire was very
limited." But they felt that "Middle East sent what they
could in the way of supplies and equipment, but the impossibility of
landing stores except for a few hours at night, combined with sinkings,
prevented any substantial improvement of the situation being
made." The short document went on to give a brief summary of
the elements of the German attack, and then summarized it; "The
defences were very light and owing to the lack of the necessary
resources the ground opposition to air attack was not strong. In
spite of this, very heavy losses were inflicted on the enemy. It
is reported that our troops found the German infantryman no match in
close fighting. [I think this is a little 'rich' on the part of
the documents author, and not borne out by many of the individual
records from soldiers. J Dillon] The capture of Maleme
by the enemy was due as much to the intense air bombardment as to ground
attack. The Germans made no landings or attacks by night.
The deciding factors were the lack of fighter cover and the
determination of the German air attack in the face of heavy
|In Part II the short document gives "The
Main Lessons Derived from the Airborne Attack on Crete", of which
the following are extracts.
|Fighter support is again stressed as
essential, and reinforces the view many had that the only way the
defence could have succeeded was if they had had this resource.
|Morale of Parachute troops when dropped.
The study recognizes that paratroops are at their most vulnerable before
and shortly after they land, they need to be dealt with quickly before
they have the opportunity to retrieve their weapons and form up into
their units; "the general principle governing all operations
against parachute troops must be an intense determination to seek them
out and destroy them at once, and risks must be taken freely in order to
do this." The assessment contains one sentence that should
probably be viewed as having been written for an audience used to
receiving war time propaganda; "The German parachute troops
exhibited in marked degree the well known characteristics of their race
- an intense dislike of the bayonet." I would suggest that
most troops, British as well would not be partial to facing a bayonet
attack, but then this was written in June 1941, a month after we had
been forced off the island.
|Artillery is recognized as necessary to allow
defence in depth, and that this would have been useful for the defence
of the airfields, but very little was available; "it was not as
effective at Maleme because the only guns available were Italian 75's
with indifferent Italian ammunition. The bursts of these
pip-squeaks were very local and the shell fragmented very
poorly." The paper also goes on to stress the need for
concealment against the air attacks, and the need for trenches to be as
small as possible.
|It is difficult to see this particular War
Office document adding a lot to the store of knowledge for the defence
of an island against invasion. There is no real mention of tanks,
communication equipment or how to co-ordinate the defenders who are in
separate defence areas with limited transport and ability to offer
the outcome inevitable? Probably.
|Without fighter cover
the Allies could not have held and re-supplied the island, the navy had
already suffered heavy losses to their Eastern Mediterranean fleet and
would have had a severe job to continue running supplies to the north of
the island under constant air attack.
Whenever the Germans had been able to make landings on the island
the Allies would always have had a problem to hold Suda as a refueling
base, or any of the airfields. Air
support was too critical during the invasion and consolidation phases;
however, the invasion need not have succeeded.
|The German airborne
invasion nearly failed. Very
heavy losses were inflicted on the parachute troops during the crucial
phases just before and just after they landed.
These troops were lightly armed, and could not collect their main
weapons until they had landed and recovered their weapon containers as
they were dropped separately. Also,
troops who have just landed, but have not yet found their weapons or the
rest of their unit are very vulnerable to fire from ground troops. The German attackers were very surprised by the level of
resistance they met on the ground, both from the Allied soldiers and from
Cretan peasants using any weapons to hand.
While some 10,000 parachute troops jumped in the attack, many were
killed just before or just after they landed, but many also died because
they were dropped too low, or over the sea or over very rough ground.
|The airborne attack
also included some 750 glider borne troops and 5,000 air transported men.
These troops were less vulnerable to fire before they were off-loaded
than were the parachute troops, also they had heavier weapons.
Unfortunately the airfields were not destroyed or sufficiently
obstructed to prevent their landing.
At Pegasus Bridge the German used Ďasparagusí or spikes to rip
gliders open on landing, nothing like this was done on Maleme or the other
airfields. Preventing the
air-transported troops would have had a very severe impact on the outcome
of the battle. It must be
remembered that the sea-borne invasion was effectively smashed when the
navy broke up both convoys en-route to Crete on the evening of the 20th
May. That meant that the
invasion would have to succeed with the airborne forces, and they can only
succeed if they overwhelm the defenders in the first few days, or receive
substantial support within days.
|The parachute troops
were badly mauled in their landings and by the end of the first day and
into the second they were becoming exhausted as well as suffering badly
from lack of water. Even with
the troops who had flown in on transports, if the Allies had been able to
quickly and effectively mount a counter attack in the Maleme area they
could still have defeated the Germans on the ground, but this did not
happen. If they had prevented
the JU52 transported troops from landing then they would have stood an
excellent chance against the parachute troops.
|Hitler and the German
General Staff had allowed General Student to go ahead with his plan for
the invasion of Crete, but it must not impact the schedule for the
invasion of Russia. Had the
initial invasion failed there would have been no more parachute troops to
send, and the aircraft and seasoned troops were needed for Russia.
It is unlikely that there would have been a second attempt.
After the invasion had succeeded there were at times up to 50,000
German troops on the island, but many of these were troops who were
resting, rather than first class units.
The island diverted German troops, but not the best ones.
|So, to return to my
initial point. The airborne
invasion could have been stopped if the airfields had been made unusable
for the transport aircraft, and if there had been a determined counter
attack at Maleme. However,
the north of the island and the Navy would have continued to be subjected
to heavy and effective air attack making it unlikely that the island would
be held as a refueling base, unless the Allies had been prepared to put in
substantial air support operating from the island airfields.
Without this support why would any ship want to use Suda as a
fuelling stop when by so doing it risked sinking like so many others.
Though the airborne invasion could have been beaten off, the island, or
small pockets of it, could not have been held to serve any useful
purpose for the Navy without a radical change in air defence forces
assigned to the island. The required forces would not be assigned
given the needs of the Allied forces in North Africa.