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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume I

440 — The Prime Minister of New Zealand (Cairo) to the acting Prime Minister

The Prime Minister of New Zealand (Cairo) to the acting Prime Minister

2 June 1941

Last night I returned from Alexandria after meeting Freyberg and some of the New Zealand troops coming back from Crete. I found them all in great heart, whether wounded or fit, and convinced of their superiority man for man over the Germans, given equal weapons and equal air support.

I had long dicussions in Alexandria with Admiral Cunningham and naval officers and am entirely satisfied that everything possible has been and is being done to facilitate the evacuation, indeed, that the greatest risks have been taken by the Navy with that object.

From General Freyberg's report it is clear that the fighting was of the most intense description, and though the proportion of dead to wounded is reported to be low we must, I fear, expect heavy casualties.2 As soon as possible you will be advised of the details as they become available, but you will understand that it will take a long time to clear up the situation. Most of the fit men and most of the walking wounded appear to have been evacuated, but a proportion impossible to estimate still remains in Crete, and it has been necessary to leave many wounded cot cases.

page 314

The following appears to be as accurate a summary of those factors that led to the loss of Crete as can be made at the present time:

Firstly, the complete air superiority of the Germans and the extraordinarily large aggregation of aircraft that they brought to bear. On the whole this was the decisive factor. Parachute troops were a failure and were almost entirely obliterated, but the dive-bombing of aerodromes and certain landing places, using bombs of up to 500 pounds, literally blasted our troops from the ground and facilitated the continuous arrival of troops in troop-carrying aircraft which came in like trams at intervals of about five minutes. Wherever our troops made a stand they were blasted out by dive-bombing, which was for all practical purposes completely unmolested, and as further German troops arrived it became impossible to hold the situation and evacuation was the only course.

Secondly, our troops had insufficient artillery and practically no transport or tanks, and those they had were destroyed by air attack as soon as they were discovered.

Thirdly, road communications on the island were extremely few and were soon destroyed, while wireless and other means of communication were rapidly destroyed by bombing.

The air attack appears to have been of an order of violence completely unprecedented, and although the Germans undoubtedly lost a very large number of planes and some 80 per cent of their parachute division and experienced very heavy casualties, all through the battle the outstanding lesson is that Germans working in sufficient numbers, and in co-operation with their air arm, can be countered only by fighter protection from the air, which in this case was not possible with the machines available here, whose range would not allow them to operate over Crete from Egypt and who could not be based in Crete owing to the contiguity and superiority of the German air force.

In my opinion the Navy has been beyond praise. Nothing could have been finer or more helpful than the attitude throughout of Admiral Cunningham. He has exceeded what the Middle East military and air commands considered advisable or possible; he has taken great risks and borne extreme losses, and, on one occasion, ignored an Admiralty order in an attempt to rescue our men. That to a large extent the Navy has succeeded in doing this is, I feel, greatly due to his personal efforts, for which we owe him a deep debt of gratitude. Naval losses have been severe as you probably know, but he has never failed, either on his own volition or from time to time at my request, to undertake further efforts, and he is still doing so.

The German troops' equipment is reported to have been remarkably complete. Motor transport, bicycles, guns, ammunition, page 315 food, a few light tanks, and even such details as razor blades and toilet paper were landed by troop-carriers. Our troops were able to obtain much of this for themselves by using German landing signs, but on the German side the operations appear to have been thought out to the most minute detail.

I feel that our men have done magnificently, particularly in view of the highly adverse circumstances they had to contend with against the most intense air attack that history has ever afforded, and this view is shared by General Wavell and all authorities here. All agree that the work of the Maoris has been outstanding.

A lengthy period of refitting is now obviously necessary and in the meantime Freyberg1 will devote his whole attention to this matter irrespective of whether or not an Anzac Corps is formed.

Your telegram of 1 June has just been received.2 The foregoing contains all the information that can be given at present. I have just been informed that news of the evacuation has now been released for publication.

2 New Zealand casualties in Crete were:

Died of wounds136
Died on active service (includes deaths through sickness, accident, &c.)10
Prisoners of war (includes 496 wounded and prisoners of war and 31 died of wounds while prisoners of war)2205

1 In a copy of this telegram on the files of the Prime Minister's Department ‘Wavell’ is substituted for ‘Freyberg’.

2 Not published. This telegram requested that the New Zealand Government be kept informed of the situation and emphasised the desirability that any major announcement concerning the New Zealand troops should first come from the Government rather than from Daventry or from Australian sources.