Battle of Crete 2

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The naval war of the Mediterranean 1939-1945

The battle of Crete - Part II

(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,"The Conclusions of

the Naval War of the Mediterranean 1939-1945", Athens 1961)

 

“In spite of the adverse evolution of land operations in Crete, the British continued sending reinforcements till the last minute.  On the night of May 23 – May 24 1941, 2 destroyers transported and successfully landed absolutely necessary ammunitions to the Suda naval base.

 

A quite strange intervention of the British Admiralty to the job of the Commander in Chief of the Fleet was noticed during these days.  On May 22, a troops transport ship carrying military reinforcements had left Alexandria escorted for Tymbaki on the south coast of Crete.  However, because of the very intense action of the enemy Air force in that area, Admiral Cunningham in agreement with General Wawell ordered the troops transport ship to return to his base, because as he writes it would consist pure murder.  Next, the Admiralty gave direct orders to the ship to pursue its course towards the initial destination and an hour later with a signal addressed to Admiral Cunningham an order was given the reinforcements to land at night, in case this was possible.  As it was too late for this to take place, the Admiral reverted to his previous order and ordered the ship to change course and head to Alexandria.

 

On that same day, with another signal of the Admiralty, the C.I.C. of the Mediterranean Fleet was ordered to stop the following days, no mater at what cost, the sea transport of enemy reinforcements to Crete. In addition, the Committee of Staff Officers in London asked the Admiral to submit an evaluation of the situation. Admiral Cunningham replied that, because of the intensity of the enemy air attacks, he didn’t consider possible the Fleet to operate by daylight in the Aegean Sea and near Crete. 

 

Nevertheless, the Committee of Staff Officers came back insisting that it was absolutely necessary to block the dispatch to the Island of enemy reinforcements, independently of the size of the losses.  The Admiral replied presenting the losses incurred up to that moment, adding that if they continued at the same rate the British Fleet would lose control of East Mediterranean.  And anyhow, there was no way to stop the enemy air transports.

 

In the meantime, the British Fleet had additional losses. To disable the airport of the island of Carpathos used by the enemy to attack Crete, it was decided to attack it by airplanes of the aircraft carrier HMS FORMIDABLE.  The aircraft carrier left Alexandria on May 25 escorted by 2 battleships and 8 destroyers.  The airport was successfully bombed at dawn of the following day and the naval force remained at a distance of 100 miles southwest of Carpathos.  On their way back to Alexandria enemy airplanes attacked the ships and the aircraft carrier and 1 destroyer suffered very serious damages.

 

There was one more attempt to send reinforcements to Tymbaki.  On May 26, airplanes attacked the troops transport ship and caused to the ship serious damages.  It was finally forced to reverse course and return empty-handed to Alexandria.  Nevertheless, the British succeeded in the night of May 26- May 27 to land at Suda troops and ammunitions, safely transported by 1 mines-layer and 2 destroyers.  This was the last dispatch of reinforcements.  However, bombers attacked the force covering these ships and hit -causing several damages- the battleship HMS BARHAM.

 

On May 26, it became apparent that the battle of Crete would be lost.  To the appeal of the British Prime Minister to spare no effort to keep the Island, General Wawell replied that there was no hope left.  Thus, on May 27, it was decided to evacuate Crete.

 

It is a strange coincidence because, according to an Italian source, on that exact day –May 26- the German Air force had come to the conclusion that with only the paratroopers it couldn’t break the British resistance and had asked permission to abandon the operation. Hitler’s reply to this request was that the operation should go on at any price.

 

The situation of the British Fleet o the Mediterranean at the time of evacuation of the British troops from Crete was such that this operation was much more difficult than the previous evacuation of mainland Greece.  Several ships of the Fleet had been sunk, many had suffered damages and were undergoing repairs and those in operation were in need of inspection and engine repairs, after operating continuously for 2 months, and their crews had reached the limits of human endurance.  The C.I.C., who was so reserved concerning the utility of the continuation of the struggle in Crete, without hesitation took up this mission, considering that saving the maximum number of British troops –at whatever cost- was a mater of honor for the Navy.

 

22,000 men had to be taken aboard the ships at night, especially from open coastlines of South Crete, with the exception of those located in Heraklion that were scheduled to board in that port. About 4,000 men boarded at Heraklion port the night of May 28- May 29 on 2 cruisers and 6 destroyers, without being detected by the enemy.  The enemy Air force had already attacked that force, while on her way to Heraklion.  1 of the 3 cruisers of the force had suffered damages – the HMS AJAX that was ordered to return to Alexandria- and the destroyer HMS IMPERIAL.  Just after departing from Heraklion, damage in the steering gear of the destroyer was detected, due to previous bombing, and the ship had to be sunk, once those onboard were transferred to another destroyer.

 

While sailing towards Alexandria, the remaining ships were attacked at dawn of May 29.  The destroyer HMS HEREWARD was hit and had to reduce speed.  The force commander, Rear-Admiral Rawlings was then obliged to take the tough decision to abandon that ship with those on board because, if he remained near, it would increase the risk for the remaining ships.  Later, an Italian torpedo plane sank that ship and Italian torpedo boats rescued the shipwrecked.  The attacks were continuing and the destroyer HMS DECOY and the cruisers HMS DIDO and especially the HMS ORION suffered serious damages.

 

Thus, from a force of 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers, all the cruisers and 1 destroyer suffered damages and 2 destroyers were sunk.  Given that the ships were overcrowded with troops, human losses were also very important. From the 1,100 men that boarded the HMS ORION, 260 were killed and 280 injured.

 

The departure from the south coast of Crete –that benefited from a certain degree of air coverage by fighters- was made with much less losses. On the night of May 28 – May 29, about 700 men boarded at Sfakia 4 destroyers and 1 troops transport ship and safely arrived to Alexandria with only light damages to a destroyer.  The main operation took place the following night, when about 9.000 men boarded at Sfakia 4 cruisers, 6 destroyers and 1 troops transport ship.  During their sail to Egypt they faced 3 air attacks, but only 1 cruiser was damaged.  Another 4,000 men boarded on the night of May 30 – May 31, 2 destroyers, one of which was damaged, and the following night the last evacuation took place with 1 cruiser, 1 mines layer and 3 destroyers, on which 4,000 men boarded.  This force didn’t face an air attack.  The ships however that had been sent to reinforce its protection, the antiaircraft cruisers HMS CALCUTTA and HMS COVENTRY, were attacked a few hours after their departure from Alexandria and the HMS CALCUTTA was sunk.

 

A number of British that still remained on the Island were authorized to surrender, because there was not any possibility for further action.  The British Fleet of the Mediterranean had in active service at that precise moment only 2 battleships, 1 cruiser, 2 antiaircraft cruisers, 1 mine layer and 9 destroyers. About 16,000 men had been safely transported to Egypt and about 5,000 men remained in Crete.

 

Under similar conditions escaped to Egypt the ships of the Hellenic Navy that were saved after the occupation of Greece.  The King of Greece and his retinue boarded on the night of May 22 – May 23 at the south coast of Crete the British destroyers HMS DECOY and HMS HERO and were transported to Alexandria.  Because the British battle Fleet was also sailing towards Alexandria at the same time, the destroyers were ordered to join its coverage, so as to avoid being the target of an isolated air attack.

 

During the battle of Crete the British Fleet of the Mediterranean lost 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers.  2 battleships, 1 aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers and 2 destroyers were in need of many months of repairs and 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers of several weeks.  Naval manpower losses had reached 2,000 dead.

 

All these losses were exclusively due to the German Air force.  The Navy, alone, couldn’t save Crete; plentiful and suitable air forces were needed.  In spite of insufficient antiaircraft means, it is estimated that German losses during the battle of Crete reached 400 aircrafts and around 20,000 men.

 

In this case also, the Italian Fleet was completely absent.  Once more it didn’t take advantage of an excellent opportunity, when the British ships were operating under the shadow of the German Air force and the Mediterranean force was vastly reduced.  It is however possible, as previously explained, that the Germans preferred to complete this operation without any assistance, fearing that active involvement of the Italians would create rights in the Aegean for them.

 

Thus ended the operations caused by the Greek resistance against the Axis.  The price paid was heavy, for both the Greeks and the British, but as counterweight the German attack against Russia was delayed and this had an important effect on the final outcome of the War.

 

Following these operations, with the enemy already holding the airports in mainland Greece and in Crete and the naval forces of the Mediterranean significantly reduced, the strategic situation in Eastern Mediterranean had become very adverse for the British.  The Navy had still to re-supply Tobruk and the destroyers and other small ships that it disposed to that end had suffered many losses from air attacks.  Its main objective was to interrupt the re-supply of Libya from Italy, but it was impossible for surface ships to remain in Malta and for that reason this task was carried out by submarines and airplanes.  After the incapacitation of the aircraft carriers of the Mediterranean Fleet, there was no air coverage of convoys and the re-supply of Malta was becoming impossible.  Only small quantities of fuel and of some indispensable supplies were sent with 2 submarine-mine layers.  For all practical reasons, the Mediterranean sea-ways of the British Empire had been rendered useless.

 

Reporting the above to the Admiralty, Admiral Cunningham maintained that there was mainly need of presence of strong air forces, fighters for air coverage of the ships and bombers for continuously attacking the enemy airports of the Aegean.  He also repeated his previous suggestion for the creation of a coastal air force disposing torpedo planes, bombers and reconnaissance planes that would take over the mission of the missing aircraft carriers.  The need for fighters and bombers for land operations in Libya was equally pressing.  If all the above weren’t realized soon, he was predicting a catastrophe.   

 

In June 1941, the British Fleet of the Mediterranean had another mission to fulfill.  It undertook to support from sea the British operations in Syria, where there was danger of German infiltration, because of the doubtful attitude of the French Vichy forces stationed there.  The British force with 2 cruisers, 4 destroyers and a few airplanes faced the French naval forces of 3 flotilla leaders and 3 submarines.  Following the operations that took place, 3 British destroyers suffered important damages and from the French ships, 1 flotilla leader and 1 submarine were sunk, while the other 2 flotilla leaders were damaged.”