It is now time to turn to Crete itself, towards which all these events were tending. And justice to those responsible for the defensive preparations after the first landing of troops on 1 November, as well as to those who were finally to fight the defensive battle, makes a summary account of the island's topography essential at this stage: for Crete's physical features not only helped to determine the pace and character of defensive preparation but also governed directly and indirectly the conditions in which the battle was fought and so affected its course and outcome.2
Crete, then, is an island about 160 miles long from west to east and about 36 miles wide between north and south. Four mountain ranges dominate its horizons: in the west the Levka Ori (White Mountains), rising to over 8000 feet; in the centre the Psiloritis Mountains, also over 8000 feet; east of these again the Lasithi Range which rises to upwards of 7000 feet; and in the extreme east the Sitia Ranges, which at their highest are almost 5000 feet.
The position of these mountains determines the direction and fall of the rivers, the character of the coastlines, the forest and vegetation, and even to some extent the climate. The main watershed is on the whole nearer to the south coast, with the result that the harbours there are few and small, have little hinterland and are exposed to sudden winds of gale force. Their anchorages, page 9 moreover, are limited in value because of the rapid increase in depth off shore. A further consequence is that most of the streams flow to the north coast, cutting steep valleys as they go and offering serious obstacles to lateral communication.
The descent to this north coast is, however, more gradual and along the coast itself are strips of plain, especially near Canea. On the north coast, too, are the best harbours: Suda Bay, the largest in the eastern Aegean and one of the safest; Retimo; and Heraklion, the best equipped port in the island. In the neighbourhood of these ports existed in more or less embryo state the airfields and landing grounds which were to be the prizes of the battle.
The importance for an island of its harbours needs little emphasis and it will be of advantage to discuss them more closely. Suda Bay, with its main wharf and concrete pier along which ran a Decauville railway, could deal with two ships at a time directly. Its quays, however, could take only lighters and small boats. Across the Akrotiri Peninsula from Suda Bay lies Canea, the capital of Crete. Its small harbour could take only small vessels and ships had to be discharged by lighter.
Retimo, thirty miles farther east, is the third largest town, but its harbour could be used only by coastal vessels. Only in fair weather could larger vessels enter, and even then they had to discharge one at a time and by lighter. A further thirty-five miles to the east is Heraklion. Its harbour could take four ships up to 3000 tons alongside the jetty, could unload three by lighter, and could tie up a further three or four to the mole.
Apart from these only the two south coast fishing ports of Sfakia and Tymbaki need be mentioned; and that only for their inadequacy. They were suitable for nothing but fishing boats— a fact of considerable significance for the battle. It meant that troops on Crete had to be supplied from the north coast ports, which were far more vulnerable to air attack and the voyage to which would put a far greater strain on the Navy.
At the outset of the fighting the airfields were in an even rawer state of development.1 They consisted of two aerodromes—one at Maleme and the other at Heraklion—with a landing strip at Retimo and another under construction at Kastelli Pediada. At Maleme construction was still going on when battle broke out, and only fighters could operate from it. Heraklion, also under construction, could be used by all types of aircraft.
It followed that even if aircraft should be available for defence, as in the event they were not, the air effort would be hampered by page 10 the inadequacy in both numbers and condition of the airfields. There was the further difficulty that they were all on the north coast of the island, the one most vulnerable to attack. And the Mesara Plain, the most promising flat tract of country in the south, could not be developed in the time that might be counted on.
Communications were as primitive, a fact of no less prime importance. For airfields might help determine the amount of air protection; ports how fast troops, equipment, and supplies could be landed; but it was communications which would govern not merely the distribution of what was landed but the efficiency with which battle, once joined, could be fought.
Thus the fact that the important roads, like the ports and airfields, were in the north not only determined the enemy's probable objectives but forced the defenders to concentrate in a few quarters at a shallow depth from the coast. Even so, the roads along which they could move were so few that the enemy had no difficulty in keeping a continual air cover.
The same inadequacy in roads made it inevitable for the defence to be divided into sectors from which it would be impossible to concentrate the whole force should attack come in any single quarter; and should attack come in all quarters the various sectors could be cut off from one another with relative ease. There was only the one lateral east-west road, and along it at considerable distances from one another were strung out the main vulnerable points: Maleme, Suda Bay, Retimo and Heraklion, each in some way vital. For only by holding the airfields could the defence prevent the enemy from bringing his full strength to bear, and it depended for its supplies on the ports.
Again, the road itself, though the best in the island and having a metalled surface, was markedly inferior by the standards of Western Europe. It could not take more than one line of heavy traffic at a time (even had that traffic been available); it had frequent sharp bends, especially where it cut through hills; none of its bridges was safe for vehicles over seven tons; and for the greater part of its length it was vulnerable from the sea.
There were other disadvantages. There was no mesh of subsidiary roads running parallel with the main road which might have relieved the pressure of traffic; and its scope was shallow since the roads running south were few and bad. Of these latter the principal ran south from Canea, Retimo, and Heraklion respectively and might be expected to block or bottleneck as soon as battle put pressure on them.
Even of the roads that did run south not all went right across the island. Those that did so were Maleme–Palaiokhora, a poor road leading to a small bay accessible only to small boats; page 11 Vrises–Sfakia, also poor quality but because of its tactical position of great importance in the outcome; Heraklion–Tymbaki, potentially important and for similar reasons; and the road from Merabello Gulf to Ierapetra, far too removed from the actual operations to be of much account in the upshot.
There was no hope of supplementing roads by railways. Only three narrow-gauge lines existed. And these were purely local and of no use to the defence. Telephone and telegraphic facilities were little better. Even in normal battle conditions where troops have their full complement of signal services, the presence or absence of civilian fixtures is important. Where, as in Crete, the defence is well below the normal establishment of trained men and supplies, poverty in such arrangements becomes serious. Heraklion and Canea alone had automatic systems and the main line ran along the main coast road, like it vulnerable. Of radio transmitters there was one at Heraklion and there were four at Canea. For electric power the island depended on Lake Aghya, with power stations at Canea, Heraklion, Retimo, Ierapetra and Sitia.
Climate need not detain us: clear skies and bright sun characterise the early summer, and April and May of 1941 were to be no exception. The weather could usually be relied on to be good for flying—for those who had aircraft. The nights were clear but cold, a trial to troops who had no blankets.
The forest and vegetation were those characteristic of a rugged island in Mediterranean waters. Along the slopes that led down to the northern coast vineyards and groves of olive or almond trees were plentiful. These latter were invaluable throughout both the preparatory period and the battle for the cover they gave against enemy reconnaissance and ground strafing. The vineyards often offered good fields of fire; but after the first days this was an advantage which belonged to the defence only when they were not themselves attacking.
Finally, it should be added that the country between Maleme and Canea over which the main battle was fought was mainly a series of ridges running down towards the sea, and separated by narrow and deep gullies or sometimes by a broader valley. These offered many advantages for a withdrawing action; but they made it necessary, when a counter-attack was to be launched, for the main reliance to be put on the coast road. And, owing to the pattern of the enemy landings, the danger of outflanking was always present.