CHAPTER 12 — Conclusion
Now that the tragic story of the battle is complete it may be useful to recapitulate some of the important points which, though implicit or explicit in the narrative, have perhaps been obscured by the length of the narrative or its detail. These can best be reviewed under the broad heads of preliminaries to battle, conduct of the battle, and consequences.
The main shortcomings of the situation that confronted General Freyberg from the first arose partly from the island's topography, partly from the inadequacy of the preparation and planning that had already taken place, and partly from the special circumstance that most of the force which was to do the fighting had just been evacuated from Greece.
The topography of the island has already been discussed and it will be enough here to repeat that Crete was 160 miles long by 40 miles deep and that its main road, its best harbours, its chief towns and its airfields all lay in the north, while the ports on the south coast and the roads communicating with them were few and undeveloped.
These facts permit the levelling of an important criticism against the policy of the first months of British occupation. The strategic value of the island had never been disputed and British troops had been landed there as early as October 1940. Why, in the six months between then and the beginning of the invasion, was not something done to develop the south coast ports and the roads to them and to construct less vulnerable airfields?
Part of this charge can be met only by a mea culpa. Middle East Command seems to have been to some extent bemused by the fact that Suda Bay and the Fleet's needs were the primary concern. And the consequence of this—that Suda Bay could not be held unless the island was held and that a defence policy for the whole island was needed—seems never to have been fairly and squarely grasped. Had it been, a careful appreciation would surely have been made and a single, energetic commander with the status and experience that would ensure a hearing, with a definite role and page 457 with the men and means to carry it through, would have been appointed.
These essential conditions were never present. Yet, having admitted so much, we should remember also the very heavy bur- ens General Wavell had to bear at this time: he was overworked and had to assist him a staff still not sufficiently experienced or decentralised, he was harassed by operations of the most urgent character which pressed behind one another without interval, he was constantly preoccupied with the problems of active battle areas, of administration, of supply and of Middle East politics. It is perhaps too much to expect him to have had the prescience to foresee that the quiet island of the 1940 autumn was to be the theatre of such dramatic events in the following May.
Even had the prescience been there and even if the appreciation had been made, it is doubtful whether really effective measures could have been taken to reverse the chief disadvantage of the defence— its vulnerability to attack from the north. To have done so would have meant enlarging the south coast ports, building new roads and airfields, and shifting the administrative and supply centre south from the front line which the north coast, in the event of invasion, must certainly become. Commitments in the Western Desert, in Greece, and in the other active areas of the Middle East meant that there was a complete insufficiency of engineers, material and transport.1 Labour could not be recruited in Crete itself because the able-bodied men had been mobilised, and to use the old men and boys who were left would have required transport, communications, and staff that were not to be spared. And the shipping was lacking also, especially once the expedition to Greece had been decided on.
1 Of the engineers who had been sent to Crete, many had to be taken off again and sent to Greece for the operations there. The above arguments are substantially those put by General Wavell to the War Office in a memorandum of 19 Aug 1941 in reply to criticisms made by an Interservices Committee.
It is against this background also that the difficulties of the seven successive commanders in Crete should be considered. They were without a clear directive and without effective forces. When it at last became clear that the hour was not far off, the conditions of shortage were as stringent as ever; and a shortage of time had been added. And now that it was too late another serious oversight was apparent: no plan had ever been laid down for action in the case where the Greek mainland was in German hands.
Once that had happened Wavell must have seen as clearly as General Freyberg that the difficulties of holding Crete in such conditions were most formidable. He must have seen that a force large enough to hold off invasion could hardly be supplied from the northern ports—so inadequate in themselves and so exposed to air attack—without an air force strong enough to match the Luftwaffe as the RAF had matched it over Britain after Dunkirk. Yet not only were the aircraft lacking; there were not enough airfields from which to operate them successfully. For such airfields as there were had been developed with an eye to the assistance of the Greek campaign, not to the defence of Crete itself. So they were too few, too exposed and far to the north, too undeveloped, and too easily saturated by enemy air attack.
The warning was sounded plainly enough in General Wilson's appreciation of 28 April: the sea approach was easy and probable in conjunction with air attack; the minimum defence force must be three brigade groups, each of four battalions, and a motor battalion, as well as MNBDO for Suda Bay; all should have field artillery and anti-tank guns; air protection would be necessary; and there would have to be the usual signals complement and a wireless company. ‘Finally, I consider that unless all three services are prepared to face the strain of maintaining adequate forces up to strength, the holding of the island is a dangerous commitment, and a decision on this matter must be taken at once.’1
But it was now too late. A large part of the force evacuated from Greece had been landed in Crete. To evacuate them and the original garrison was hardly possible. Shipping and time were too short. The island would have to be defended.
Such was the train of events that led to the defence of Crete. In England the island's importance was realised but the detailed circumstances seem never to have been closely studied. In the page 459 Middle East its importance was acknowledged, but emergency pressed on emergency until Crete found itself with a garrison which owed its composition more to accident than design, with a plan that no longer fitted the strategic circumstances, and with troops who were to fight because they were there and not there because they must fight.
There was no time now to remedy radically the faults of the defensive layout, even had there been men, materials and shipping. All that could be done was to accept the fact that defence in depth could never be more than local and devise a front line which would protect supply areas as far as possible and would consist of a series of nodal points, each ready and able to fight for some time in isolation if the need arose.
Given the basic and by now unavoidable weaknesses the defence plan was, generally speaking, both simple and sound. The airfields had to be defended, the ports, the important heights, and the coast wherever it was most threatened. The main features of the plan need not again be recounted and it may suffice to recapitulate the weaknesses: the fact that the area between Kastelli and Maleme through lack of men and time was virtually undefended; the stringing out of 5 Brigade along the coast so as to guard against invasion; the lack of a strong, well-knit and mobile counter-attack force which would have no other task; the isolation of Heraklion and Retimo; and the distance between the various headquarters probably inevitable in itself but, where communications were exceptionally weak and a battle developing fast, a grave handicap to swiftness in decision and accuracy of judgment.
A particular case may be touched on, because the most important in the upshot: the distance between 5 Brigade HQ and Maleme. The narrative has shown how unfortunate were the consequences of this in the first two days of the battle. Yet Brigadier Hargest, were he alive to do so, could allege good reasons. If the sea invasion had got a footing his central position on the coast would have been an advantage; if the airfield had not been taken and the battle had developed by a thrust round the south flank of 22 and 21 Battalions and so up to the coast, or by a break north from the Alikianou Plain, he would have again been in a better situation to adapt himself to meet events. The Interservices Report does indeed suggest that it might have been wiser to concentrate a self-contained force in each sector. But this ignores the threat to the coastline in Hargest's special case and would still not have answered. For central control would have been more than ever difficult. The units were not mobile, a build-up against each sector would have page 460 been possible and would probably have ended in one or another sector being cut off with little chance of support from the others.
It seems clear that, given the disabilities which there was no means of evading, the original dispositions were sound. And the military intelligence which prompted or confirmed them did good service.
After what has gone before the woeful deficiencies in weapons and equipment scarcely need underlining. The same factors which had hampered the defence preparations in the earlier months plagued General Freyberg from the first: shortage of staff, heavy weapons, specialised equipment, transport, supplies and shipping. And the last of these shortages was intensified now by the fact that the Luftwaffe overhung the coast in watchful droves.
One shortage above all was conspicuous to the defenders, that of aircraft. The Interservices Report suggests that at least six fighter squadrons were needed. Wavell replies that they were not to be found. Even had six squadrons been available it is doubtful whether they would have been enough. Yet these six alone would have required an oil tanker a fortnight for maintenance. Such a service could hardly have been provided at that time; and would not have gone unscathed even had it been forthcoming.
By paradox, therefore, Freyberg was right to evacuate the last few fighters. But should not the airfields have been rendered unusable to the enemy? The enemy could still have crash-landed enough troops on the beaches to the west of Maleme to have seized its airfield and perhaps restored it. None the less his task would not have been easy and the effort to put the airfield out of action— difficult at any time and especially when engineers and engineer stores were so scanty—ought probably to have been made.
It does not follow that Freyberg must be held responsible for the omission. According to him the Chiefs of Staff wanted the airfields left intact against a time when they should be able to send aircraft which could use them. General Freyberg, against his judgment, had to comply. The explanation is consistent with the optimism which existed in quarters remote from the scene and is likely enough, though confirmatory evidence from London sources is not yet forthcoming.
With such qualifications as these observations entail, the historian can conclude that the preliminary measures taken on the island in May were reasonable in their character and as effective as could fairly be expected. Few enemy landed without men to oppose them. The men had weapons, knew what to expect, were in good heart, and fought magnificently.
In contrast at almost all points with the situation of the defence was that of the enemy. True, his plans were laid relatively late— though from the first the Germans had seen the importance of Crete and had tried to persuade the Italians to seize the island. The inertia of the Italians prevented these persuasions from being effective and the Germans had perforce to wait till Greece was practically overrun. But, the decision to invade Crete once taken, they had much in their favour. The only straitening circumstance was that the attack on Russia had high priority and must not be delayed. That condition had little effect on the battle of Crete except to quicken the tempo of its planning and compel the use of 5 Mountain Division instead of 22 Airborne Division which had been specially trained for such actions. Enough troops and ample air forces were available—the troops of the highest quality and the aircraft in such numbers as to have complete control of the sky. Heavy weapons must be lacking till the means could be found to get them across. But since the troops had a very high proportion of automatic weapons and since their aircraft could act as mobile artillery, this was not so serious a disadvantage as it might have been if the defence were not from the first as badly off.
The fault, in so far as there was a fault, lay with the enemy's intelligence and planning. He overestimated the sympathy of Crete's civil population, he underestimated the strength and sturdiness of the garrison. Worse still, he failed to locate its concentrations and, while full credit must be given to the excellent camouflage of the defenders, it may be added for the sake of the irony that it was the enemy's very strength in the air that was to help throw out his appreciation. For with strafing aircraft never far off, the defence was careful never to expose itself to observation by day.
Even allowing for these wrong estimates on the enemy's part, however, his plan of attack can hardly avoid disparagement. For it should surely have been assumed that the points which he most wanted to seize were those most likely to be defended. Yet he chose to land his striking force directly on top of them and thus lost his finest troops on a scale which would not have been necessary had he chosen areas farther away from the airfields. Thus had he concentrated the whole of Group West in the territory west of Maleme, they could have landed and organised without opposition and could still have been able to launch a formidable assault on the airfield during the first day.
Again, he chose to try and bring across under feeble convoy his two invasion flotillas by night. So complete was his control of the page 462 sky that he could have brought them across by day under an umbrella of aircraft, and Cunningham's ships would have been unable to interfere or at least unable to survive the attempt to do so. And the flotillas could have been beached west of Maleme without opposition; or, even if they had had to try and force a landing east of Maleme, they would at least have given the coast defences a sore trial. Instead the enemy elected to take his chance of dodging in the darkness a Fleet which the same darkness permitted to operate with all its usual fell efficiency.
Yet, it will be said, for all the defects in the German plan, it was successful. True, but successful only in its main objective and by a far narrower margin than circumstances really made necessary. If it be remembered that all plans aim to be successful with the minimum of time and loss, and that a plan under which Canea fell on 27 May and not on 20 May and only after losses in the neighbourhood of 7000 killed and wounded, it will be recognised that the success was too dearly paid for to be spoken of without serious qualification.
The question remains. Need it have been successful at all, given the conditions under which the battle opened? Supposing the enemy had failed at Maleme, would not the whole invasion have collapsed? The answer is doubtful. This was a time and a stage of the war when Hitler had had no practice in acknowledging failure and when prestige was one of his best weapons. Had his commanders decided on the evening of 20 May that Maleme was a failure, they might still have switched their effort to Heraklion or Retimo and devoted to reinforcement there the resources that were to go in the event to Maleme.
It is doubtful none the less. He might equally well have felt that with the losses already sustained in men and aircraft, with the chance of an immediate coup gone and with the invasion of Russia forbidding any delay, it was better to accept the rebuff and concentrate on making Crete untenable by using aircraft to cut the shipping route—as he might well have done. So the question recurs in narrower form. Need Maleme have fallen?
It may be said at the outset that Britain deserved to lose it. However justifiable in detail the reasons for pitting an ill-equipped, ill-armed and ill-organised force, without aircraft and without adequate preparation, against a highly trained and equipped force which had all the aircraft it needed and the initiative as well, the page 463 side that accepts battle at such disadvantage must attribute more to fortune than to merit if it holds what it set out to hold or gets what it set out to get.
Yet, for all this, the case may be made that Crete could have been held. Had 22 Battalion not fallen back on the night of 20 May, it can be said, had counter-attack come on 21 May or earlier on the night of 21 May, the enemy might have been driven off the airfield and the defence reorganised.
The reply must stand on the facts as they were known at the time; and the details have already been discussed. Given the circumstances at every vital stage, different courses from those actually taken have the strength and the weakness of hypotheses. They might have succeeded and it cannot be proved that they would have failed; but, on the other hand, it cannot be proved that they would have succeeded either. And in fact it is probable that things took the course they had to take. Each decision taken was the consequence of the concrete conditions of the battle: lack of artillery, lack of aircraft, and—perhaps most of all—lack of communications. These conditions determined the decisions of local commanders.
Thus at each crisis of the battle each commander could defend the decision he took in the light of what he knew at the time; and that is basically a stronger position than that of us who criticise the decisions in the light of what we know now and support other possible courses of action in the light of what we shall never know.
This is not to deny that criticism is possible. It is to suggest the background against which the critic must scrutinise his own criticism; and to remind speculation that the criticisms made or implied in the course of this narrative are always subject to similar reservations. And, lest the historian seem unwilling to commit himself, he may be permitted to say that, given all the disadvantages against which the commanders had to struggle, he does not doubt that mistakes were made but does not think they were more numerous or more culpable than the mistakes made, say, at Alamein. Only the odds were greater and mistakes correspondingly more dangerous.
One thing at least can be said roundly, in a field where little is certain. Soldiers never fought better than they fought on Crete; and not least among them the soldiers of the New Zealand Division. No blame for the loss of the island can fall on the rank and file. Nor should this be taken as implying discredit to commanders. No men ever held positions of responsibility in page 464 conditions more inimical to success than did the senior officers in Crete; and no men ever discharged their responsibilities more devotedly.
Crete, then, fell. The focus of the war shifted elsewhere. The loss of the island and the loss of so many good men was a serious blow. Prestige was hurt when a success was badly needed. And the enemy won a position from which he could threaten the British forces at every point in North Africa and the Levant, and from which he could virtually bar a passage to the Eastern Mediterranean to our convoys.
Against this it is mere speculation to set any delay to the opening of the campaign against Russia; and even should it be proved such a delay was caused by the battle, credit could be claimed only doubtfully since delay to the invasion of Russia was not a motive for the defence of Crete. It is better simply to consider the facts: after Crete the enemy concentrated on attacking Egypt from the Western Desert. Student had argued that from Crete the Germans could go on to seize Cyprus and ultimately Suez. There is no evidence that Hitler was ever persuaded of the need to go further than Crete; and his general treatment of the North African front does not suggest that he ever discerned its true importance. But, in the words of General Student, ‘Crete was the grave of the German parachutist’; and the victory of our defeat was that never again, against Cyprus or elsewhere, were the parachutists launched from the air en masse to gain victory at the cost of crippling losses.