All this time the build-up had been going on, rather too slowly. When General Wavell came on 13 November the garrison consisted of HQ 14 Infantry Brigade, 2 Yorks and Lancs, 52 LAA Regiment, 151 HAA Battery, 156 LAA Battery, 42 Field Company RE, and 189 Field Ambulance. Wavell came to the conclusion that a larger force was unnecessary at this stage (even though the Greek garrison was now to be withdrawn) and plans for moving in Australian and New Zealand forces were cancelled; 2 Black Watch, however, and perhaps some more AA would be sent. After that there would be no more infantry for Creforce, and the defence was to be planned on the basis of two or at most three infantry battalions.
The 2nd Black Watch was duly sent and disembarked on 19 November. Meanwhile the Greek garrison had begun to leave for the mainland and their departure occasioned a request from Creforce for another British battalion. This was refused. Instead, 50 Middle East Commando was sent, arriving on 26 November, with the dual role of raiding the coast of North Africa and the Dodecanese and assisting the defence of the island.
Though no further infantry was promised, the possibility that Greece itself might be overrun was not left out of account, and Wavell told the Chiefs of Staff that administrative arrangements would be made for the maintenance of up to one division in addition to the garrison. This was later modified, and a conference at Middle East Headquarters on 26 November considered the case of a division which would include the garrison: it was decided to send to Crete a reconnaissance party to determine the amount of covered space required to accommodate 60 days' reserve supplies for this division, it being assumed that the division would have attached eight HAA batteries, eight LAA batteries, and one CD battery.2
2 Report of conference, 26 Nov. CD, coast defence.
From this time till the evacuation of Greece and the arrival of MNBDO, though plans for the reinforcement of Crete were continually discussed,1 the only important alterations in the order of battle that in fact took place were the arrival of 51 Middle East Commando in the middle of December and the exchange of 1 Battalion, the Welch Regiment, for 50 Middle East Commando in March. Meanwhile, up till the middle of December, withdrawal of Greek troops continued until by that time fewer than a thousand were left; and the question of arming irregulars to replace them, though argued, remained undecided, being all the less urgent in appearance for the fact that there were no weapons with which to arm them.2
Such then was the strength of the garrison measured in terms of units. The build-up in guns was hardly better. Ever since the decision had been taken on 28 October to secure Suda Bay as a naval base, the Chiefs of Staff had been concerned with the problem of providing the island with AA and CD. The obstacles, of course, were a slowly expanding production, great need at home and in the Middle East great shortage, complicated by the necessity to defend the base at Alexandria and the Suez Canal.
The minimum envisaged by Middle East HQ in November and approved by the Chiefs of Staff was 32 HAA guns, 24 LAA guns, and 72 searchlights. When evacuation from Greece took place and the situation was far more threatening than the one foreseen in November, the actual armament was 16 HAA guns, 24 LAA guns (mobile) and 12 LAA guns (static), and 24 AA searchlights. This was later to be reinforced by a further 16 HAA guns from MNBDO. Even so the anti-aircraft defence was nothing like what would have been required to put any serious check on the German Air Force, then in its prime and in undisputed control of the air.
In the event, the need for coast defence guns was to prove of less importance. But they, too, were scarcely adequate for what might have been. They consisted of 15 Coast Defence Regiment with one battery of two 12-pounders, two batteries of two 6-pounders, and two batteries of two 4-inch guns. The arrival of MNBDO added two batteries each of two 4-inch guns.
1 The basis of the garrison envisaged seems to have been fairly constant at a strong brigade capable of reinforcement by a further brigade.
2 The last Greek troops left on 4–5 February.
After 23 November, when ultimate reinforcement to the strength of a division was contemplated, planning and construction of a suitable base became the garrison's main preoccupation: for without it the reception of large reinforcements, if ever they became available, would not be possible. Planning even for this, however, was not made any easier by the absence of a clear operational plan as the difficulties of the OC Signals already referred to show.2
The reconnaissance party sent to Crete to examine the potentialities for a base reported on 14 December that the plain between Suda Bay and Canea, though with few suitable buildings and outside the existing defence scheme for the area, was the only possible site. It would require the laying of a Decauville railway, a good deal of roadwork, and the erection of 336,000 square feet of covered accommodation. And there was little local labour and practically no civilian transport.3
The reconnaissance party recommended a plan which entailed the fullest use of existing buildings, and this was approved. The maintenance tonnage of the existing force was to be reduced from the 350 tons a day estimated by the reconnaissance report to 300 tons, and the difference between this amount and the 500 tons a day which was the maximum to be spared would go towards the stocking of the base.4
By 6 January Tidbury was able to report that all sites except that of the hospital (it was part of the plan to make this one of 600–800 beds) had been decided, that 4000 square feet of the workshop site were already in use, and that work on the Decauville track had begun. The building of huts, the laying of ammunition standings, and work on other storage facilities had been held up by transport shortage and bad roads.
4 Decisions on Crete Base, 20 Dec. The reconnaissance had estimated Suda Bay's capacity at 550 tons a day.
The prospect of having to deal with supplies on this scale and men in these numbers now raised the question of transport in an even more acute form, and Brigadier Chappel, the commander of the moment, sent an appreciation to GHQ Middle East which stressed the need for more MT.1 But this was only one of his difficulties. Apart from those already glanced at, there was still the major shortcoming that, although progress with the divisional base had struggled so far, nothing had been laid down on the question of how the division if it arrived was to be disposed. And so no work had been either done or projected on its accommodation, in spite of repeated attempts by CRE2 to get the succession of commanders to decide locations for camps. The larder was ready but not the means to accommodate its defenders.3
1 Mechanical transport.
2 Commander Royal Engineers.