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

453 — Supplementary Report by the Rt. Hon. P. Fraser on the Evacuation of Troops from Crete — [Extract]

Supplementary Report by the Rt. Hon. P. Fraser on the Evacuation of Troops from Crete

5 October 1948

… On Thursday, 29 May, along with Mr. Berendsen, I was visiting Helwan Hospital when I received a telephone message from page 330 General Wavell informing me that he wished to see me urgently on most important matters…. As soon as we could return to Cairo I called upon General Wavell. He informed me that at a meeting of the Middle East General Staff, at which Admiral Cunningham and Air Marshal Tedder1 were present, it had been decided that our men would have to be evacuated from Crete and that no more ships would be sent to rescue the New Zealanders, Australians, and British troops who were still fighting there. However, Admiral Cunningham had expressed the wish to send another ship and that had been agreed to, but it would be the last.

After the interview with General Wavell, I, accompanied by Mr. Berendsen, motored to Alexandria and that evening met the first of our men returning from Crete. The number of injured British ships of war of various kinds which lay at the docks in Alexandria was convincing evidence of the seriousness of the situation and an indication of the risks that would have to be run by any ship crossing to Crete.

On Friday, 30 May, Mr. Berendsen and myself visited the wounded from Crete at various hospitals in Alexandria, and at a camp fifteen miles out of Alexandria2 we interviewed the first contingent of New Zealanders who had returned from Crete the previous night.

On my return to the Hotel Cecil about four o'clock in the afternoon I was informed that there was a message from General Wavell asking me to ring him immediately. This I did. General Wavell said that he had expected me back in Cairo that day and was anxious that I should sign a cablegram to General Freyberg in regard to the question of the cessation of hostilities in Crete. He asked me to go to Admiral Cunningham's headquarters where I would find General Evetts,3 who would give me a copy of the cablegram which he, General Wavell, wished me to sign.

In Admiral Cunningham's office General Evetts handed me a copy of a cablegram to General Freyberg which General Wavell wished me to sign. He also informed me that General Blamey had signed the cablegram on behalf of the Australian Command. The cablegram was one informing General Freyberg that no more ships were to be sent to take men off Crete and that he was to issue appropriate orders in regard to surrender. I understood General Evetts to say that the cablegram had been agreed to by the Chiefs of Staff, Wavell, Tedder, and Cunningham.

1 Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, GCB; AOC-in-C, Royal Air Force Middle East, 1941–43; AOC-in-C, Mediterranean Air Command, 1943; Deputy Supreme Commander under General Eisenhower, 1943–45; Chief of the Air Staff, 1946–to date.

3 Military Liaison Officer on Admiral Cunningham's staff.

page 331

I read the cablegram and then informed General Evetts that I could not possibly sign it. I asked him to inform General Wavell that I was unable to sign such a cablegram as I considered that a further effort should be made and that another ship, or ships, should be sent to Sphakia, where a large number of our men were congregated, for the purpose of taking as many of them as possible back to Egypt. I stated that while the United Kingdom with its 45,000,000 people could sustain a heavy loss of men without very disastrous effects, and that even Australia could sustain a large loss much better than New Zealand, it would be a crushing disaster for our country and its war effort if such a large number of our men fell into the enemy's hands without every effort being made to rescue them. I repeated a number of times that a further effort should be made to evacuate a large number of our men from Crete.

Admiral Cunningham, who had been listening to the brief discussion between General Evetts and myself, suddenly broke into the conversation and said, ‘Mr. Fraser is right.’ He said he did not know how much he could do to help but felt that every human effort should be made. Admiral Cunningham said that his resources were very limited and that he could not do very much to meet the situation. The only ship he had which could be used for the purpose was the cruiser Phoebe1 which was on her way from Crete with a full load of passengers, and the crew, doctors, and nurses were very tired. The Phoebe had been bombed but, fortunately, it had not been hit. He said he would replace the ship's company of officers and men, and doctors and nurses, and send the ship back as soon as possible after it arrived and the men on board went ashore.

General Evetts rang the Commander-in-Chief, General Wavell, and was informed that a modified cablegram had been sent to General Freyberg and that, as there was delay in reaching me, officers of the General Staff had attached my name to it. I immediately stated that this should not have been done. Next morning General Freyberg was very much relieved to know that I had not authorised my signature to that particular cablegram.

That night (30 May) between 11 and 12 p.m. Admiral Cunningham, with his officers, came down to the dock at Alexandria to meet the Phoebe, and gave the necessary instructions for her to be turned about and sent back to Crete to rescue as many of our men as possible. At midnight, accompanied by Mr. Berendsen, I went by motor-car to Aboukir airport to meet General Freyberg, Brigadier Stewart, and others who had returned to Egypt from Crete in accordance with orders from General Wavell.

Early next morning, along with General Freyberg and Mr. Berendsen, I waited on Admiral Cunningham, and after General

1 HMS Phoebe, 5450 tons, ten 5·25-inch guns.

page 332 Freyberg had described events in Crete we requested Admiral Cunningham to issue instructions to the Commander of the Phoebe to take aboard at Sphakia every man he could pack on to his ship. Admiral Cunningham most readily agreed to do this and sent the necessary orders forthwith.

As a result of this extra voyage of the Phoebe agreed to by Admiral Cunningham, in spite of the General Staff decision that no more ships would be sent, over 3000* New Zealand soldiers were rescued from the Germans.

P. Fraser,

Prime Minister

* *I think the specific number is mentioned in Admiral Cunningham's Despatch.1

1 The despatch reads: ‘The force [Phoebe, Abdiel, Kimberley, Hotspur, and Jackal] sailed at 0300 on 1 June, having embarked nearly 4000 troops.’