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HERITAGE - 21: LIGHTNING STRIKE, Withdrawal Fiasco On Crete, May 1941

Updated on July 24, 2017

Pulling out of Greece with the Germans snapping at their heels, the Allies were in a shambles when they landed on Crete, without heavy guns, anti-aircraft...

Troops from the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force rest at Nauplion before embarking for Crete in May, 1941
Troops from the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force rest at Nauplion before embarking for Crete in May, 1941 | Source
Force strengths as on May 20th, 1941, after the first German parachute drops
Force strengths as on May 20th, 1941, after the first German parachute drops | Source
The onset of the German air drop on Maleme airfield on the north coast of Crete
The onset of the German air drop on Maleme airfield on the north coast of Crete | Source
20th May positions near Maleme of British and Commonwealth troops
20th May positions near Maleme of British and Commonwealth troops | Source

The lead-up to Allied land action on Crete began with a naval engagement against the Italians

[19th July, 1940: Australian (RAN) cruiser 'Sydney' and five RN destroyers sank italian cruiser 'Bartolomeo Colleoni' and damaged another off Cape Spada, Crete;

31st October, 1940 Drawn from North Africa, British troop reinforcements landed on Crete, weakening the garrison at Tobruk];

29th March, 1941 A RN task force under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham headed for Alexandria after a major naval victory over the Italian fleet off Cape Matapan, Greece. The admiral knew through Enigma that an Italian fleet had been sent to attack British convoys. He determined to lure them toward his three battleships, HMS 'Warspite', HMS 'Barham' and HMS 'Valiant'. The battleships had slipped quietly away from their moorings at Alexandria at night on 27th March and headed at full speed towards Crete. Meanwhile an advance squadron of four allied cruisers HMS 'Ajax' (of River Plate fame), HMS 'Orion', HMS Gloucester and HMAS 'Perth' left Piraeus and let themselves be pursued by Italian heavy cruisers towards the battle ships. The fleet's main target, the newly-built 35,000 ton 'Vittorio Veneto' began shelling the cruisers, now likely to be trapped between two superior forces. It was then that Swordfish aircraft (RN bi-planes known affectionately as 'stringbags') from the carrier HMS 'Formidable' attacked the Italian capital ship with torpedoes whilst RAF bombers attacked from 10,000 feet (3,048 m). A torpedo found the 'Vittorio Veneto' near her bow. Escorted by cruisers she limped towards Taranto. With radio location playing a key role for the first time at sea, Cunningham sank three cruisers, 'Pola', 'Zara' and 'Fiume', and two destroyers. 'Vittorio Veneto' was not sunk, however, although she played no major part thereafter in the Mediterranean Sea..

31st March, 1941 Italian submarine 'Ambra' sank RN cruiser HMS 'Bonaventure';

Anzac troops pause guarding a slit trench on Crete during late May
Anzac troops pause guarding a slit trench on Crete during late May | Source
Greek troops pose for the camera between action
Greek troops pose for the camera between action | Source
Group Captain Dudley Honor, flight commander in command .274 Squadron on Crete - his Hawker Hurricane fighters were pitched against Messerschmidt ME109 fighters
Group Captain Dudley Honor, flight commander in command .274 Squadron on Crete - his Hawker Hurricane fighters were pitched against Messerschmidt ME109 fighters | Source

Greece to Crete

After six months of fighting, first the Italians and then the Germans, Churchill agreed to a secret appeal from General Alexander Papagos, the Greek C-in-C for British and Commonwealth forces to withdraw from mainland Greece in order to save the country (in vain, as it turned out) from further destruction. Churchill insisted that Allied forces try to hold Crete. Greek, British, Australian and New Zealand troops counted on support from the Yugoslav army, now facing defeat at the hands of the Germans.

15th May, 1941: The Luftwaffe began to bomb Crete;

19th May, 1941: The last RAF fighters left the island for Egypt;

21st May, 1941: German aircraft sank the destroyer HMS 'Juno' off Crete;

22nd May, 1941: The destroyer HMS 'Greyhound' and cruisers HMS.'Gloucester' and HMS 'Fiji' were sunk, HMS 'York' was crippled. For two hours on May 20th waves of German bombers pounded the airfields of Maleme and Heraklion with thousands of tons of high explosives until most of the defending aircraft and anti-aircraft guns were destroyed. The few other aircraft stationed there had been flown to Egypt and the defenders had been obliged to leave most of their heavy weaponry behind in Greece. They only had Bren guns and rifles to face an airborne invasion they knew - from Enigma signals - was on the way.

The last wave of bombers had gone over the horizon when the air drummed with the roar of 493 Junkers JU52 transport aircraft, heavily escorted by fighters. The biggest airborne invasion - so far - had begun and German paratroopers landed on Maleme, Heraklion, Canea and Rethymnon. Australians and New Zealanders watched the parachutes, described by one New Zealander as being like 'thousands of soap bubbles from a child's bubble pipe'. They began firing at the paratroopers in their harnesses.

At Maleme the paratroopers were followed closely by glider-borne paratroops who found themselves under heavy fire as they scrambled out of their frail aircraft and ran to take their objectives - some succeeding fairly quickly. A vital bridge was taken. Others less successful were pinned down on open ground and picked off easily. A whole battalion landed unopposed west of the main airfield of Maleme and were able to form up without disturbance before going to help the glider-borne troops.

Hampered by poor communications - the telephone lines were cut in the bombing - and wireless links were almost useless in the mountainous terrain. Colonel George Andrews, the New Zealand battalion commander was unaware the battle was going reasonably well for his men. He ordered his reserves up, his infantry coming under a hail of machine gun fire that killed all but nine. When a German troop reinforcement convoy of small ships was badly mauled offshore by British cruisers - many cut in half by ramming - it seemed the invasion was doomed.

In one fiercely fought battle in the evening, German airborne troops took Maleme airfield. Despite a counter-attack in the night German transport planes landed thousands more.

Stukas sank two British cruisers.

.

Withdrawal from the island...

Operation Merkur outlined the German seizure of Crete
Operation Merkur outlined the German seizure of Crete | Source
Cretan irregulars drawn from islanders to take on the Germans
Cretan irregulars drawn from islanders to take on the Germans | Source
New Zealand troops rest in the shade of an olive grove
New Zealand troops rest in the shade of an olive grove | Source

Action at sea... and ashore

23rd May, 1941: Shortly after sinking two German supply ships close to Crete British destroyers HMS 'Kelly' and HMS 'Kashmir' were themselves sunk after continuous attacks by both high level bombers and Stukas. 'Kashmir' broke in two and sank immediately. Shortly after that 'Kelly' was hit by a 1,000 pound bomb just over the engine room. Her crew continued firing at the Stukas, refusing to abandon ship until ordered to by their captain, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Many survivors were picked up by HMS 'Kipling' after being strafed in the water by Luftwaffe gunners.

28th May, 1941: Heraklion - British soldiers fought their way to the sea under the constant mind-numbing scream of Stuka dive bombers, exhausted and beaten after a week of unrelenting battle. Would this be another Dunkirk, twelve months on? Under cover of darkness they were evacuated by the Royal Navy. More were taken off in the south, Anzac,British and Greek soldiers and Cretan irregulars fought hard since General Kurt Student's airborne troops established a bridgehead. Hindered by inadequate equipment - steel helmets had to be used to dig slit trenches - poor communications and an almost complete lack of air cover, they counter-attacked continually, despite being harassed by fighters.

German losses were high, over 40 percent of their airborne troops killed by the end of the first day. One German officer remarked,

"I never expected such bitter fighting. We began to despair of ever gaining our objectives, or indeed of surviving at all".

British commandos under Brigadier Robert Laycock* landed at Suda Bay on the south of the island on 27th May to cover the evacuation.

27th May, 1941: New Zealander, Major General Bernard Freyberg ordered his troops withdrawn as Canea and Suda fell to the Germans. The battleship HMS 'Barham' was damaged in an air attack.

*Brigadier Robert Laycock's 'Layforce' will feature in a continuation of this page under "HERITAGE - 22: WELL MET BY MOONLIGHT - 'Layforce' on Crete".

Taking the troops off... non-combatants were not a priority after several rescue ships were sunk by a ferocious Luftwaffe campaign...

Admiral Cunningham (right) and Major General Freyberg walk the deck aboard HMS 'Phoebe' off Crete
Admiral Cunningham (right) and Major General Freyberg walk the deck aboard HMS 'Phoebe' off Crete | Source
The state of play, 27th May, 1941, '42nd Street'
The state of play, 27th May, 1941, '42nd Street' | Source
Eastern Mediterranean RAF Map - after the RAF pulled out the fighters they had left after the mauling they'd had, the Germans had total air control over the island
Eastern Mediterranean RAF Map - after the RAF pulled out the fighters they had left after the mauling they'd had, the Germans had total air control over the island | Source
K Class destroyer HMS 'Kelly' is available as a 1/700 scale 'waterline' kit from Revell - see link below
K Class destroyer HMS 'Kelly' is available as a 1/700 scale 'waterline' kit from Revell - see link below | Source

Earl Mountbatten's K Class Destroyer HMS 'Kelly', sunk during the Crete campaign - the film with Noel Coward 'In Which We Serve', was based on the story of this ship. Revell kit 05120 1/700 scale plastic 'waterline', i.e., the hull down to the sea-level in calm waters. Modellers can model ship with mounting as a 'static' display if desired, or show some initiative and use modeller's license (foaming seas, pitching and yawing ship, you know).

Endgame, the calm after the storm...

29th May, 1941: British destroyers HMS 'Hereward' and HMS 'Imperial' were sunk;

31st May, 1941: The last British contingent of fighting men was evacuated from Sphakia;

1st June, 1941: Sphakia - at midnight an eerie silence fell on the bay where earlier bombs had rained on British troops as they waited patiently for the Royal Navy to take them off the beaches of Crete - a year almost to the day after the rescue at Dunkirk. Many were wounded, many more slept in the sun, exhausted after days of bitter retreat across rough mountain passes, harried by bombing and strafing from the air. A shuttle service of flat-bottomed boats took them to waiting ships, fifty at a time. There was, however, no feeling of humiliation as there was at Dunkirk. They had fought well and hard and believed they could have beaten the Germans, given proper air support. The Luftwaffe had lost over two hundred planes to the RAF's forty-six (Stuka dive bombers had a weak spot, from below the rear gunner and they had paid dearly in the Battle of Britain seven months earlier).

POWs led away to captivity

The picture says all. Several destroyers were sunk on their way to Crete, reducing the numbers of men withdrawn from the island. Mostly non-combatant units were left behind, although a large number of Layforce's commandos were unable to get away
The picture says all. Several destroyers were sunk on their way to Crete, reducing the numbers of men withdrawn from the island. Mostly non-combatant units were left behind, although a large number of Layforce's commandos were unable to get away | Source

Losses - the Germans suffered double Allied losses on land... at sea was a different story

British and Commonwealth losses numbered 1,742 dead and 1,737 wounded, whilst the Germans suffered 3,985 dead and missing with 2,131 wounded.

The Royal Navy took heavy losses, with three cruisers and six destroyers sunk, seventeen ships crippled with the loss of 2,011 lives.

By the time the last combat troops left the beaches in the night the Navy had rescued 18,000 men. 12,000 non-combatants and many commandos had to be left to be taken prisoner, due to the Navy's destroyer losses. Several had been sunk or had turned back because of the ferocity of Luftwaffe attacks, where they might have taken off a few thousand more.

Next: HERITAGE 22 - "WELL MET BY MOONLIGHT - 'Layforce' on Crete".

Through analytics, maps and images Kenneth Cox takes you back in time to Unternehmen Merkur (Operation Mercury), General Kurt Student's parachute drop on Crete, May 1941 - later in the war Kurt Student would organise the rescue of Benito Mussolini. A must for students of military tactics or war gamers.

The Battle for Crete - Operation Mercury

HERITAGE - 22: WELL MET BY MOONLIGHT', paraphrases Shakespeare's play title to follow Laycock's commandos back to North Africa and the metamorphosis of the company to SAS;

HERITAGE -28: 'DIRTY WAR', sees an SAS troop parachuted into France after D-Day to prepare the way and 'soften up' the Germans. They land amid an SS Panzer Group and although they cause mayhem are hunted down, most of the troop are murdered on the orders of Hitler. A small task force is sent to track down the war criminals

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    • alancaster149 profile image
      Author

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello Blossom, part 2 should 'go live' this evening (after midnight down under maybe).

      The Germans were not very happy fighting the Aussies and 'Kiwis' in the Med area (knuckle dusters, bush knives and bayonet charges and all that), as little as they wanted to be anywhere near the Gurkhas. They didn't like anyone who 'fought like gangsters' (ironic, considering what they did in Poland, France, Russia, Serbia, Greece...)

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 2 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      An interesting write. I'll be looking forward to Part 2.

    • alancaster149 profile image
      Author

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello CJ, thanks for dropping by.

      We suffered a bit from unimaginative thinking on the one hand, and untried experimenting on the other. The chain of command went through the 'old school tie' brigade for a long time. Churchill sacked several generals in North Africa before Monty came along, although his boss Earl Alexander stayed put in the 'hot-seat' whilst Connors and Auchinleck ('the Auk') were sent packing. Maj-Gen Freyberg was put in a 'sinking ship' and it was expected of him to pull the rabbit out of the hat.

      In sending troops to Crete and Greece the desert army was weakened. Rommel was only held back by the efforts of the Navy and the RAF in sinking his supply ships. We depended too much on the Jugoslav army (basically Serbs) against the highly mechanised and well-armoured Germans. We had to leave all our heavy equipment in Greece (shades of Dunkirk a year earlier).

      Watch out for part 2 soon.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Great job again, Mr. Lancaster.

      The Crete disaster has always fascinated me. There is no way the Germans should have been able to take that island. It is a microcosm of all that went wrong for the Brits/Commonwealth those first 2 years of the war despite their bravery. But because of the stubborn Anzacs, the Germans never deployed their paratroopers in a drop again. So they did their job. The people suffered a lot too (i.e. Kondomari). Shared as always.

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