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

443 — General Headquarters, Middle East, to the War Office

General Headquarters, Middle East, to the War Office

3 June 1941

The following is for the Chief of the Imperial General Staff from General Wavell; repeated to Wellington for General Duigan.

I have now seen Freyberg and several Brigadiers from Crete and think you might like to have a brief general summary of operations.

On the island our troops were disposed in three groups. The main group held the area from Maleme aerodrome, about ten miles west of Canea, to Suda Bay. The second and third groups were at Retimo and Heraklion respectively. The general composition of these groups was given in my O. 67416 of 25 May.2

The enemy launched his attack at approximately 8 a.m. on 20 May. The first and main objective was Maleme aerodrome which was subjected to extremely heavy bombing and machine-gunning attacks. The majority of the anti-aircraft artillery was put out of action practically at once. Following this, parachutists were dropped and gliders landed in the area between Maleme and Canea. Except for those who landed outside our defended area, principally at the prison,3 practically the whole of these were accounted for, the

2 Not published.

3 In another version of this telegram ‘beaches’ is substituted for ‘prison’.

page 317 greater proportion being killed. The number estimated to have been dropped on the first day was about 3500. The parachutists were dropped from heights varying from 300 to 600 feet. Although extremely well equipped, prisoners taken did not appear to be picked troops. They had obviously expected an easy victory and were completely surprised by the resistance encountered. A captured document showed the enemy's objectives in the Canea area for the first day, none being achieved. It appeared that after the initial failure at Canea and Maleme the enemy sought success at the two other aerodromes. Both Retimo and Heraklion were heavily attacked by bombers later in the day and there were parachute landings. About 1000 parachutists landed at Retimo and all but about 200 were accounted for during the first three days. Much the same occurred at Heraklion where about 2000 were dropped. Our troops buried 800, not including over 300 killed by the Greeks, and undoubtedly many others were killed. At the end of the first day the enemy had failed to gain control of any aerodrome.

On the second day bomber and fighter attacks were repeated and further parachutists were landed at Maleme and Canea outside the areas occupied by our troops. Our troops had withdrawn from the outskirts of Maleme aerodrome which, however, remained under fire. In spite of close-range artillery and mortar fire, troop-carriers began to land in the evening on the aerodrome, on the beaches, and on the area west of the aerodrome, which was then out of range of the guns. The enemy losses in personnel and machines were heavy. It was estimated by observers that there were at least 100 wrecked planes in the Maleme area. The arrival of these reinforcements made it necessary to reinforce the Maleme defences and plans for an attack in the Canea area had to be altered. In the night the Royal Navy were seen to deal satisfactorily with an attempt by the enemy at seaborne reinforcement.

On the third day troop-carriers continued to arrive and depart again at the rate of more than twenty an hour, and observers estimated that 600 arrived. Maleme became an operational aerodrome. As an enemy attack threatened to cut off troops in the western sector, the plan to counter-attack had to be dropped. A withdrawal to a new line was commenced. Meanwhile, the enemy had not attempted further attacks at Retimo and Heraklion, but had landed forces outside the range of our troops and had taken up positions with the object of containing them and pinning them to the ground until the battle in the Canea area was finished.

On the fourth day a new line was formed in the Maleme-Canea sector. On the sixth day, late at night, this position was broken after several attacks had been repulsed, and with the enemy through to Suda Bay the decision to evacuate Crete was taken. Both Retimo page 318 and Heraklion were secure, but at Retimo there was an acute shortage of food and ammunition and communications were severed.

Our positions during the whole of the operations were subjected to bombing and machine-gunning from enemy planes which is described by experienced officers who fought in the last war as far exceeding in severity any artillery barrage they had ever encountered. Very heavy bombs up to 500 and 1000 pounds were used. The enemy's method was to reconnoitre carefully at low height until the exact position of our troops had been ascertained and then to put down a relentless barrage. Directions to enemy aeroplanes in the air were also given by wireless.

The enemy infantry did not show high fighting qualities and did not face counter-attacks. Our counter-attacks were always successful, but once the enemy had ascertained our new positions dive-bombing attacks began and the infantry were blasted out. All counter-attacks had to take place at night. By these methods and by generally increasing the weight of numbers (it is estimated that the enemy landed approximately one division alone in the Maleme area) our troops, after six days' fighting, were driven from their positions and compelled to withdraw. The severity of the fighting in this area, the number of casualties, and the weight of the enemy bombardment are described as far exceeding anything seen in a similar space in the last war.

As you know, reinforcement of the island was not possible except in small numbers by warships, as enemy dive bombers made it practically impossible for any ship to remain afloat near the island during the hours of daylight, and only fast ships which could get in and out during the night stood any chance of survival. When it became obvious that Crete could no longer be held, orders were given for withdrawal and arrangements made to try to evacuate the force. The details of evacuation will be given in a subsequent cable.

The failure to defend the island was due to the enemy's complete superiority in the air and his persistence in continuing to land despite losses. The extremely heavy scale of air attack could only have been countered by fighter aircraft, which could not operate over Crete from the only air bases available—those in North Africa.1

The enemy was no match for our troops in close fighting. He was very quick to follow up a success but otherwise showed no particular tactical skill. His observance of the Red Cross seems to have been uncertain; generally speaking he respected it, but there were undoubtedly instances of attacks on hospitals. Captured Royal Air Force personnel were on one occasion driven in front of

1 Another version of this telegram reads ‘… countered by fighter aircraft, which were not available.’

page 319 the attacking lines. The report that enemy parachutists landed in New Zealand uniform apparently originated from an incident where parachutists drove some New Zealand walking wounded in front of their advance, and there appears to be no truth in it.1

1 The above text, taken from the GOC's files, differs in a number of respects from the telegram received in New Zealand by the Chief of the General Staff.