Such was the train of events that led to the defence of Crete. In England the island's importance was realised but the detailed circumstances seem never to have been closely studied. In the page 459 Middle East its importance was acknowledged, but emergency pressed on emergency until Crete found itself with a garrison which owed its composition more to accident than design, with a plan that no longer fitted the strategic circumstances, and with troops who were to fight because they were there and not there because they must fight.
There was no time now to remedy radically the faults of the defensive layout, even had there been men, materials and shipping. All that could be done was to accept the fact that defence in depth could never be more than local and devise a front line which would protect supply areas as far as possible and would consist of a series of nodal points, each ready and able to fight for some time in isolation if the need arose.
Given the basic and by now unavoidable weaknesses the defence plan was, generally speaking, both simple and sound. The airfields had to be defended, the ports, the important heights, and the coast wherever it was most threatened. The main features of the plan need not again be recounted and it may suffice to recapitulate the weaknesses: the fact that the area between Kastelli and Maleme through lack of men and time was virtually undefended; the stringing out of 5 Brigade along the coast so as to guard against invasion; the lack of a strong, well-knit and mobile counter-attack force which would have no other task; the isolation of Heraklion and Retimo; and the distance between the various headquarters probably inevitable in itself but, where communications were exceptionally weak and a battle developing fast, a grave handicap to swiftness in decision and accuracy of judgment.
A particular case may be touched on, because the most important in the upshot: the distance between 5 Brigade HQ and Maleme. The narrative has shown how unfortunate were the consequences of this in the first two days of the battle. Yet Brigadier Hargest, were he alive to do so, could allege good reasons. If the sea invasion had got a footing his central position on the coast would have been an advantage; if the airfield had not been taken and the battle had developed by a thrust round the south flank of 22 and 21 Battalions and so up to the coast, or by a break north from the Alikianou Plain, he would have again been in a better situation to adapt himself to meet events. The Interservices Report does indeed suggest that it might have been wiser to concentrate a self-contained force in each sector. But this ignores the threat to the coastline in Hargest's special case and would still not have answered. For central control would have been more than ever difficult. The units were not mobile, a build-up against each sector would have page 460 been possible and would probably have ended in one or another sector being cut off with little chance of support from the others.
It seems clear that, given the disabilities which there was no means of evading, the original dispositions were sound. And the military intelligence which prompted or confirmed them did good service.
After what has gone before the woeful deficiencies in weapons and equipment scarcely need underlining. The same factors which had hampered the defence preparations in the earlier months plagued General Freyberg from the first: shortage of staff, heavy weapons, specialised equipment, transport, supplies and shipping. And the last of these shortages was intensified now by the fact that the Luftwaffe overhung the coast in watchful droves.
One shortage above all was conspicuous to the defenders, that of aircraft. The Interservices Report suggests that at least six fighter squadrons were needed. Wavell replies that they were not to be found. Even had six squadrons been available it is doubtful whether they would have been enough. Yet these six alone would have required an oil tanker a fortnight for maintenance. Such a service could hardly have been provided at that time; and would not have gone unscathed even had it been forthcoming.
By paradox, therefore, Freyberg was right to evacuate the last few fighters. But should not the airfields have been rendered unusable to the enemy? The enemy could still have crash-landed enough troops on the beaches to the west of Maleme to have seized its airfield and perhaps restored it. None the less his task would not have been easy and the effort to put the airfield out of action— difficult at any time and especially when engineers and engineer stores were so scanty—ought probably to have been made.
It does not follow that Freyberg must be held responsible for the omission. According to him the Chiefs of Staff wanted the airfields left intact against a time when they should be able to send aircraft which could use them. General Freyberg, against his judgment, had to comply. The explanation is consistent with the optimism which existed in quarters remote from the scene and is likely enough, though confirmatory evidence from London sources is not yet forthcoming.
With such qualifications as these observations entail, the historian can conclude that the preliminary measures taken on the island in May were reasonable in their character and as effective as could fairly be expected. Few enemy landed without men to oppose them. The men had weapons, knew what to expect, were in good heart, and fought magnificently.