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
The following is for the Chief of the Imperial General Staff from General Wavell; repeated to Wellington for General Duigan.
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
2 Not published.
3 In another version of this telegram ‘beaches’ is substituted for ‘prison’.
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 Our troops had withdrawn from the outskirts of Maleme aerodrome which, however, remained under fire.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
1 Another version of this telegram reads ‘… countered by fighter aircraft, which were not available.’
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.