It was obvious, however, that if Italy were to enter the war the situation would change for the worse. The war would then have reached the Mediterranean in a more immediate sense. And in Axis hands Crete's potentialities could be exploited to the detriment of the whole Allied position in this vital sea. As early as 25 April 1940, therefore, the British Chiefs of Staff considered a proposal for the seizure of Crete as soon as Italy should become a belligerent, and by May, in spite of the Greek Government's belief that any Italian attack on the island could be repelled by the British Navy and Cretan volunteers,1 the British and French were going ahead with plans for occupation;2 plans which, one may note, concentrated on denying facilities to the enemy rather than on use of those facilities by the Allies themselves.3
The Greek Government was not long in seeing that it would need more than naval assistance if war were to develop between Italy and Greece, and on 21 May gave the Allies leave to land troops anywhere in the island in that event. By 30 May the Allied plan for doing so was ready. So quickly, however, did the collapse of France follow Italy's entry into the larger war on 10 June (the former the cause of the latter, not vice versa) that when France made her armistice with Germany on 22 June the basis of the plan was gone while doubts about its adequacy were still being canvassed.
July and August passed in arguments for and against occupation by a British force. At first it was the arguments against that seemed the stronger: the British did not wish to be the first to violate Greek neutrality and in any case did not have the troops available. And so on 27 July the existing plan was cancelled.
2 General Wavell to Admiral Cunningham, 15 May; Cs-in-C to COS, 21 May; WO to ME, 7035.
On 9 October War Cabinet decided that the Secretary of State for War (Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden) should himself go to the Middle East. Meanwhile the situation grew continually more tense, and by 21 October the Chiefs of Staff Committee found itself considering a suggestion from the Joint Planning Staff that our growing strength in the Middle East and Graziani's reluctance to take the offensive in North Africa might make it possible ‘to earmark and prepare a small force and move it to reinforce Crete in the event of Greece becoming involved in war’. Their decision then was that assistance to Greece would have to be confined to this possibility, and a telegram was sent to the Commanders-in-Chief to ask whether and when, in the event of an Italian invasion of Greece, a force could be sent to Crete.
October the 28th brought matters to a head. For on that day the delivery of the Italian ultimatum, its rejection by the Greeks, and the Italian invasion of Greece succeeded one another. Reactions were prompt. The Defence Committee met the same day and agreed to do everything possible to help Greece defend Crete and secure our use of Suda Bay as a naval base and advanced aerodrome; and it decided to authorise the Commander-in-Chief Middle East to send there as soon as possible troops to the strength of a brigade with ‘some field and AA guns’.
The same day General Headquarters Middle East conferred to see what could be done, finally deciding to send a reconnaissance party to Crete by air. Subsequent action would depend on its report, but meanwhile 2 Battalion, the York and Lancaster Regiment, was to be at six hours' notice as from 6 p.m. 29 October to embark and 2 Battalion, the Black Watch, was to stand by. The codeword for the projected operation was to be ACTION.
1 Cs-in-C to WO, 25 Sep. It is interesting to notice that this message mentions the possibility of parachute attack.
But, though the Italian invasion of Greece thus produced a sense of emergency both in London and the Middle East and was bound to eliminate the last Greek scruples,1 it also raised the threat of yet a further call on British troops and materials already overtaxed by existing tasks. The possibility of a force being ultimately required for Greece itself would now have to be considered.
At the meeting in Alexandria on 28 October the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean had announced his intention of establishing a naval base in Suda Bay. A convoy was to leave Alexandria the following day carrying guns to be mounted there and naval personnel to man them. And at the same conference the Senior Air Staff Officer promised to see whether a few fighters could not be provided.
Reports from the island soon indicated that anti-aircraft defences and ground troops would be needed if the naval base were to be defended, and as the authority from the Chiefs of Staff for sending a brigade had now been received and the Greek attitude was welcoming, 2 Yorks and Lancs were ordered to move on 30 October. The occupation of the island was planned to take place in two phases of which this was to be the first, ACTION. The second, ASSUMPTION, was to consist of the move of Headquarters 14 Infantry Brigade, 2 Black Watch, HQ 52 LAA Regiment,2 151 HAA Battery,3 156 LAA Battery, 42 Field Company, and attached troops. These, a total of 2500 men, were to move some time after 4–5 November.
2 Light Anti-Aircraft.
3 Heavy Anti-Aircraft.
Back in London the wider aspects of assistance to Greece were being discussed. At the Chiefs of Staff conference on 2 November Sir John Dill opposed the despatch of an expeditionary force to Greece and advocated securing Crete as a naval and air base; and an appreciation was asked for from the Joint Planning Staff. This appreciation was ready on 4 November. It opposed the movement to Greece of forces vital to the security of Egypt but thought Crete ought to be kept available to ourselves. The Chiefs of Staff endorsed this view the following day.
The point is an important one. For if this line of action had been adhered to in the circumstances later to develop, the focus of British attention would have been Crete, and the troops sent to Greece might have been sent instead to Crete with consequences that can now be only the subject of conjecture.
Meanwhile, policy having been decided for the present in its broad lines, the problem became one of making Suda Bay, in the Prime Minister's words, ‘a second Scapa’.2 With this aim the question of how to supply anti-aircraft artillery and on what scale was under discussion during most of November. At the Chiefs of Staff meeting on 8 November a suggestion for collecting the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation (hereafter abbreviated to MNBDO) for service in Crete was already being considered, and at their meeting of 11 November it was proposed to invite the Vice-Chiefs of Staff to review the production plans for AA with a view to meeting the needs of Crete and the MNBDO.3
The plan at this stage was that immediate reinforcements in AA should be found from the Middle East and later replaced from the United Kingdom. Two types of defence were considered: the case of minimum defence where only occasional use of Suda Bay by the Fleet was envisaged; and the case of the Fleet having unrestricted access. For the first it was thought the minimum defence must be 24 HAA guns and 24 LAA guns, with two 6-inch coast defence batteries; for the second 32 HAA, 24 LAA and various supporting defences.
1 ME JPS Paper 30, 30 Oct. In the event a brigade would have been hopelessly little.
2 PM to General Ismay, 3 Nov.
3 The Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation was a Royal Marine formation intended to help build, defend, and operate a fleet base to be set up at short notice wherever required. It included a landing and maintenance group to build docks, roads, and storage facilities; a defence group with coast, anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries; and a land defence force including light artillery, machine-gunners, and riflemen. Only about a quarter (some 2200 men) of the total establishment was sent to Crete. This included the landing and maintenance group, anti-aircraft and searchlight units, and other details
The actual position at this time in Suda Bay was that there were 8 HAA and 12 LAA guns, a number of naval guns for coast defence, and the two 15-inch guns of HMS Terror. Because of the presence of the latter and the quiet prevailing, the Chiefs of Staff decided on 20 November that the 6-inch guns of MNBDO need not be sent and recommended that the 16 HAA and 12 LAA needed to make up the smaller complement should be sent from the Middle East.
General Wavell, however, had his own shortages; and these no doubt lay behind his message to the War Office of 26 November, which recommended that no more AA be sent to Crete for the time being and that the allocation of AA in the Middle East should be his responsibility with the advice of the Interservices Committee, on the general understanding that as much as possible be sent from the United Kingdom.1
The Prime Minister now called for definite proposals, and on 1 December the Chiefs of Staff again considered the matter. They provisionally earmarked 32 HAA and 36 LAA guns for Crete early in 1941. These, with the coast defence guns already in the island or to be directed there, they thought would be enough without the 6-inch batteries of MNBDO. And here for the time being the matter rested, with Suda Bay very far from being a Scapa Flow.
In January General Wavell, amid his many preoccupations, found time to counsel that the policy of holding Crete in all circumstances should be maintained even if Greece gave way to the new pressures threatening her. By February the threat of a German invasion of Greece was becoming increasingly probable, and the concern of the higher command for Crete became correspondingly acute. On 10 February the Joint Planning Staff recommended that our best response for the moment was to carry through a plan for reducing the Italian Dodecanese, strengthening Crete, and assisting the Greeks by naval and air action. Mr. Churchill was of similar mind. On 11 February he told the Commanders-in-Chief Middle East that, failing a satisfactory agreement with the Greeks, an attempt must be made to salvage as much from the wreck as possible. At all costs Crete must be kept and any Greek islands which could be used as air bases must be taken.
1 The Prime Minister disagreed with the first of these propositions.
On 6 April Germany invaded Greece and Yugoslavia. The almost immediate collapse of the insufficiently prepared Yugoslav armies enabled the Germans to drive down on to the left flank of the Allied line in Greece. Most of the British Expeditionary Force—6 Australian Division, the New Zealand Division, 1 Armoured Brigade and attached troops—was already in Greece. But even had it been fully deployed, and even if the swift penetration of the exhausted and ill-equipped Greek divisions on the left had not made its own positions untenable, the Expeditionary Force could hardly have turned the scale. As it was a series of rearguard actions became necessary almost at once. The force withdrew by way of Olympus to a line on Thermopylae and finally, after the surrender of the Greeks, to the beaches whence evacuation began on 24 April.1