Crete, the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean and the largest in the Aegean, occupies a central position in the Eastern Mediterranean. To the west, its nearest neighbours are Malta and Sicily; to the east, Cyprus and Syria beyond. Towards it from the north-west, and some fifty miles away, stretch the fingers of the Peloponnese, the most southerly point of which, Cape Malea, is only sixty miles from Cape Spatha, the northernmost point of Crete. North, also, is the island-speckled entrance to the Aegean proper, which Crete masks and to which it is the key; while less than one hundred miles to the north-east lie Rhodes and the Dodecanese and beyond them Turkey. Some two hundred miles south is Cyrenaica and the desert coast, which ends eastward in the Nile delta's fringe and Alexandria.
This central position has made Crete an island of strategic importance for so long as history records ambition and ambition has had ships. That position helped to make the Minoan civilisation which flourished there between 3000 and 1400 BC and is still survived by the ruins of its capital, Knossos. Since then Achaeans, Dorians, Romans, Arabs, Venetians and Turks have all fought in turn to control an island, the possession of which has usually coincided with the zenith of the controlling power, and the loss of which has marked that power's lapse. And, when the nineteenth century found the islanders demanding a voice in their own destiny, the sea-powers of a world grown immensely wider than that touched by the fleets of the legendary Minos watched one another jealously. A stalemate of these jealousies at first overcame the deference to national aspirations then becoming fashionable and, by the Treaty of London in 1830, Crete was given to Mahomet Ali. It was not till 1913 that the political situation was propitious to native hopes and union at last effected with a Greece already free.
About this very time developments of air power had begun in Europe which were in time to double the strategic importance of Crete; ironically enough, for it was from Crete that Daedalus and Icarus first flew. By the outbreak of war in 1939 this importance was patent to anyone who could read a map. To the bombers of whatever power possessed it all the surrounding lands were accessible; and from its air bases the passage between the East and West Mediterranean could be made perilous.
So long as Germany had no access to the Mediterranean and so long as the countries of South-Eastern Europe were neutral, the potentialities of Crete as a sea and air base were partly obscured; and in so far as they were realised they could not be put to use by page 3 either side. For the British the salient facts were that Suda harbour was the largest in the Eastern Mediterranean; and, if events were ever to allow this, a refuelling base could be established there which would save a long trip to and from Alexandria for ships operating in neighbouring waters.