Now that the tragic story of the battle is complete it may be useful to recapitulate some of the important points which, though implicit or explicit in the narrative, have perhaps been obscured by the length of the narrative or its detail. These can best be reviewed under the broad heads of preliminaries to battle, conduct of the battle, and consequences.
The main shortcomings of the situation that confronted General Freyberg from the first arose partly from the island's topography, partly from the inadequacy of the preparation and planning that had already taken place, and partly from the special circumstance that most of the force which was to do the fighting had just been evacuated from Greece.
The topography of the island has already been discussed and it will be enough here to repeat that Crete was 160 miles long by 40 miles deep and that its main road, its best harbours, its chief towns and its airfields all lay in the north, while the ports on the south coast and the roads communicating with them were few and undeveloped.
These facts permit the levelling of an important criticism against the policy of the first months of British occupation. The strategic value of the island had never been disputed and British troops had been landed there as early as October 1940. Why, in the six months between then and the beginning of the invasion, was not something done to develop the south coast ports and the roads to them and to construct less vulnerable airfields?
Part of this charge can be met only by a mea culpa. Middle East Command seems to have been to some extent bemused by the fact that Suda Bay and the Fleet's needs were the primary concern. And the consequence of this—that Suda Bay could not be held unless the island was held and that a defence policy for the whole island was needed—seems never to have been fairly and squarely grasped. Had it been, a careful appreciation would surely have been made and a single, energetic commander with the status and experience that would ensure a hearing, with a definite role and page 457 with the men and means to carry it through, would have been appointed.
These essential conditions were never present. Yet, having admitted so much, we should remember also the very heavy bur- ens General Wavell had to bear at this time: he was overworked and had to assist him a staff still not sufficiently experienced or decentralised, he was harassed by operations of the most urgent character which pressed behind one another without interval, he was constantly preoccupied with the problems of active battle areas, of administration, of supply and of Middle East politics. It is perhaps too much to expect him to have had the prescience to foresee that the quiet island of the 1940 autumn was to be the theatre of such dramatic events in the following May.
Even had the prescience been there and even if the appreciation had been made, it is doubtful whether really effective measures could have been taken to reverse the chief disadvantage of the defence— its vulnerability to attack from the north. To have done so would have meant enlarging the south coast ports, building new roads and airfields, and shifting the administrative and supply centre south from the front line which the north coast, in the event of invasion, must certainly become. Commitments in the Western Desert, in Greece, and in the other active areas of the Middle East meant that there was a complete insufficiency of engineers, material and transport.1 Labour could not be recruited in Crete itself because the able-bodied men had been mobilised, and to use the old men and boys who were left would have required transport, communications, and staff that were not to be spared. And the shipping was lacking also, especially once the expedition to Greece had been decided on.
1 Of the engineers who had been sent to Crete, many had to be taken off again and sent to Greece for the operations there. The above arguments are substantially those put by General Wavell to the War Office in a memorandum of 19 Aug 1941 in reply to criticisms made by an Interservices Committee.
It is against this background also that the difficulties of the seven successive commanders in Crete should be considered. They were without a clear directive and without effective forces. When it at last became clear that the hour was not far off, the conditions of shortage were as stringent as ever; and a shortage of time had been added. And now that it was too late another serious oversight was apparent: no plan had ever been laid down for action in the case where the Greek mainland was in German hands.
Once that had happened Wavell must have seen as clearly as General Freyberg that the difficulties of holding Crete in such conditions were most formidable. He must have seen that a force large enough to hold off invasion could hardly be supplied from the northern ports—so inadequate in themselves and so exposed to air attack—without an air force strong enough to match the Luftwaffe as the RAF had matched it over Britain after Dunkirk. Yet not only were the aircraft lacking; there were not enough airfields from which to operate them successfully. For such airfields as there were had been developed with an eye to the assistance of the Greek campaign, not to the defence of Crete itself. So they were too few, too exposed and far to the north, too undeveloped, and too easily saturated by enemy air attack.
The warning was sounded plainly enough in General Wilson's appreciation of 28 April: the sea approach was easy and probable in conjunction with air attack; the minimum defence force must be three brigade groups, each of four battalions, and a motor battalion, as well as MNBDO for Suda Bay; all should have field artillery and anti-tank guns; air protection would be necessary; and there would have to be the usual signals complement and a wireless company. ‘Finally, I consider that unless all three services are prepared to face the strain of maintaining adequate forces up to strength, the holding of the island is a dangerous commitment, and a decision on this matter must be taken at once.’1
But it was now too late. A large part of the force evacuated from Greece had been landed in Crete. To evacuate them and the original garrison was hardly possible. Shipping and time were too short. The island would have to be defended.