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III: Defensive Decisions

III: Defensive Decisions

The decision to evacuate Greece had at once made the question of whether Crete should or could be held a vitally important one. The attitude of the Defence Committee was made plain on 17 April in a message to General Wavell which authorised him to proceed with his plans for evacuating Greece, ordered him in redistributing his forces to provide for the holding of Crete, and stressed the importance of establishing there strong elements of the Greek army together with the Greek King and his government. The political advantages of having a Greek government in being on Greek soil seemed hardly less important than the strategic issues involved.

On the same day RAF HQ Middle East assured the Air Ministry that the best air protection possible would be provided, and on 22 April Air Marshal Longmore himself flew to Crete to estimate the chances of providing effective fighter defence. On 24 April he was back in Egypt and reported to the Chief of Air Staff that one squadron of Hurricanes, with 100 per cent reserve of pilots and 100 per cent rate of replacement, ought to be able to keep Suda Bay open for the Navy. But he thought it questionable whether the squadron could in fact be kept up to strength, what page 31 with the demands in North Africa and the wastage there would be on the spot; and the squadron itself was still only an idea. The fighter strength in fact there was as has been described.1

Meanwhile the attack itself became more and more likely. On 27 April the War Cabinet Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee presented an appreciation. According to this, attack was certain and soon; as soon in fact as the conclusion of operations in Greece freed the German army to support it. It would probably be made by sea and air simultaneously. Two hundred transport aircraft were being collected in Bulgaria and 100 more in the heel of Italy. The area from Larisa to Athens was being stocked up with fuel and supplies. An air-landing division was already in the Balkans and the aerodromes round Athens were available. As many as 3000 fully equipped troops could be carried in the first wave and, if gliders were used, the number could be raised to 4000. And the necessary ships could be assumed to be available.2

In this view the Prime Minister at the War Cabinet meeting in London on 28 April concurred. The enemy no doubt wanted to use Crete and Rhodes as air bases to beat us out of the Eastern Mediterranean and attack our surface ships off Libya—both useful preliminaries for a further attack on Egypt itself. Though at this meeting the Prime Minister showed himself doubtful of our ability to hold Crete against a prolonged attack, his message on the same day to General Wavell showed him in his usual pugnacious temper: a stubborn defence was necessary and the invasion promised some good killing of parachutists.

None the less and properly enough, there were still doubts whether the effort to hold the island should be made. The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Portal, thought that if the Navy attached great importance to holding the island the risk of keeping forces for its defence should be taken; otherwise it would be better to keep the fighters in Egypt; and evidently it was felt more information was required, as the Chiefs of Staff decided to ask for General Weston's appreciation of the situation, for Admiral Cunningham's plans, for the probable date when MNBDO would arrive, and for a report on the state of the evacuated troops.

Wavell had already been asked by the Prime Minister in his message of 28 April for a report on forces and plans, and on 29 April Admiral Cunningham was asked for the information already specified. In a further message of the same day from the Admiralty he was asked what importance he attached to holding Crete, bearing in mind its nuisance value to the Germans, the limited extent to

1 See pp. 1921; see also p. 50.

2 JIC 181. The substance of this was passed on in a War Office telegram to General Wavell on 29 April.

page 32 which a Suda Bay only weakly defended by AA could be used, and the risks for Egypt of dispersing fighters and AA; and the message went on to point out that if by concentrating planes and AA in Egypt and the desert Benghazi could be regained, the importance of holding Crete would not be so great.

To this message Cunningham replied on 1 May with an appreciation that may have decided the matter. He pointed out that the RAF force in Crete would make no difference to what happened in the desert but might make the difference between keeping and losing Crete. He thought only that scale of defence which would allow Suda Bay to be used as an occasional night refuelling base was justified, but that it was necessary to deny the island's use to the enemy as long as possible; for in enemy hands its aerodromes would increase the difficulties of supplying Malta and would enable him to bring larger air forces to bear on the coast of North Africa; while its naval facilities would enable him to operate light craft against Cyprus. Cunningham concluded, therefore, that we should maintain on the island a force strong enough to keep the enemy out until adequate AA and air defences could be established, but that, so far as the latter was concerned, the needs of North Africa must be considered prior. He added that it was not proposed to send the whole of MNBDO and that a proportion of its AA armament might be retained in Egypt.

It is curious that, while Cunningham felt and expressed in this message an uneasiness about supplying Crete, he seems not to have grasped that the only scale of defence which could keep Suda Bay would have to be one which could deny the whole of the island to the enemy, and that, since adequate air and AA defence were essential to any successful defence, it was hardly reasonable to speak of maintaining a force there sufficient to hold the island till adequate air and AA defence could be provided.

But, whatever the outcome of these considerations, arrangements had to proceed meanwhile on the assumption that the island was to be held, and the Prime Minister's message of 28 April to General Wavell had not indicated any doubts that the Chiefs of Staff might feel. Indeed it seems likely that they expected that whatever reply they got from Admiral Cunningham would be in favour of a stand. They therefore now began to consider whether General Weston, a Marine, had the right kind of experience to fit him for such a difficult command. In a message of 29 April they put this question to Wavell and asked him to report if he thought a change necessary.1 The same day Wavell, in response to a request for

1 COS to General Wavell, 29 Apr; CIGS in 64174 to Wavell on 30 Apr definitely suggested that General Freyberg take over.

page 33 a report on the state of the troops from Greece, telegraphed to the War Office that besides the standing garrison there were at least 30,000 troops from Greece and that these were being disposed to defend the vital points: Suda Bay, Canea, Retimo, and Heraklion; that MNBDO would reach Crete in the first fortnight in May, and that he himself was going to visit Crete the following day. He added that there was still the possibility that the threat to Crete might be a cover for a projected attack on Syria and Cyprus.

On 30 April Wavell duly flew to Crete and there gave General Freyberg command of all the troops in Crete, including at the request of the Greek Government, which had arrived on 23 April, command of all Greek troops. In reporting this to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff on his return to Egypt next day he made it clear that his visit had impressed him with the difficulties ahead. He was struck by the enemy's complete air superiority and far from confident that he could prevent a landing on the scale envisaged by the appreciation of the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee.1 He hoped to repair the complete lack of field artillery on the island by sending some at once, but saw clearly that all three services were going to be heavily committed.

The figures for the probable scale of air attack had in fact been relayed to General Wavell on 29 April and were impressive enough: the enemy was estimated to have about 285 long-range bombers in the Balkans and about 30 in Rhodes; about 60 twin-engined fighters which would not need extra petrol tanks; about 270 single-engined fighters which would need extra tanks if based north of the Corinth Canal; and 240 dive-bombers with a similar limitation. But both dive-bombers and single-engined fighters could operate from Rhodes without extra tanks.

Wavell, while he agreed that early and simultaneous attack by land and sea was probable, repeated in an answer to this appreciation on 1 May his view that the whole threat might be merely a cover plan for operations in Cyprus, Syria or Iraq, and went on to dispute the figures which he considered excessive, being based on establishment. His own information suggested that the numbers of aircraft actually available would be smaller: 150 single-engined fighters, 40 twin-engined fighters, 150 long-range bombers, and 100 dive-bombers.

On 2 May the Chiefs of Staff were confronted with a further view, that of the New Zealand Government. General Freyberg, as in duty bound, had informed the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr. Fraser—he left for Egypt on 3 May—of the situation, and had said that the island could not be held unless with full support from

1 See p. 31 and next para.

page 34 the Navy and Air Force. He had pointed out that there was no artillery, not enough tools, little transport, and inadequate reserves of equipment and ammunition. In the opinion of the New Zealand Government either the troops should be supplied with adequate means to defend the island or the decision to hold it at all costs ought to be reconsidered.1

Faced with this clear alternative the Chiefs of Staff decided to postpone decision until they had had an appreciation from General Wavell.2

Wavell's appreciation came with his next message and was not reassuring. The defence of Crete, he said, was a difficult problem for all three services. As the ports and aerodromes were in the north aircraft and shipping were exposed to the enemy attack; the only good road ran along the north coast and so was also vulnerable; there were no good roads north and south and no harbours in the south, though if time permitted something might be developed; transport was very short; food for the civilian population would have to be imported in considerable quantities; and if the towns were heavily bombed and we could not provide air protection a political problem might develop. At least three brigade groups would be required for an effective garrison and a considerable number of AA units. The garrison in fact consisted of three British regular battalions, five New Zealand battalions, one Australian battalion, and two weak composite battalions from Greece. There was no artillery and the AA was inadequate. Greek troops were mostly unarmed and untrained and their morale in many cases doubtful. There were no modern aircraft.

Nevertheless, all these difficulties were being tackled and if time allowed would be overcome. But the air, he foresaw, would always be a difficult problem.3

On the following day the Chiefs of Staff again deliberated. They ended by deciding that they must reach a decision soon, and, no doubt to have the material for it, they instructed the Joint Planning Staff to include a consideration of policy for the defence of Crete in an appreciation of policy in the Middle East and Mediterranean then being prepared. At the same time they asked General Wavell for an appreciation of the defence of Crete taken in relation to the whole Middle East situation and viewed in two aspects: as a fuelling base and as an island which had to be

1 PM NZ to PM UK, 2 May; Documents, Vol. I, No. 394.

2 It ought perhaps to be said that every such delay made the decision more inevitable; for with every day that passed evacuation of the island became more difficult—if it was not already too late.

3 Wavell to CIGS, 2 May.

page 35 denied to the enemy. Thus even at this date it seems to have been possible for them to believe that the two cases were in some essential respect different.

Meanwhile Mr. Churchill did his best to reassure the New Zealand Government. Every effort would be made to re-equip the troops, particularly in artillery. Some guns were already being sent and General Wavell was strong in this respect. The same message stressed the defence of Crete as one of the most important elements in the defence of the Middle East, and explained what were the difficulties of the RAF and how hard it was to send them aircraft and personnel. The disposition of such air forces as were in the Middle East was to be at the discretion of the Commanders-in-Chief on the spot.1

It was at this stage, too, that the problem of whether or not to arm the Cretan population came up again. But that question brought its difficulties: danger to the Government was feared; and, perhaps more important, the weapons might not be available. The Greek Government itself and the Greek King meanwhile were reported by Sir Michael Palairet, the British Minister to Greece, to be determined to stay on as long as possible, though disturbed at the totally inadequate scale of the British air forces.

From now on the question of whether or not to try and hold Crete seems to vanish from the records. The problem became one of means only. It seems to have been regarded as impossible to evacuate the troops who had arrived in Crete from Greece—the stimulus of defeat was apparently needed for the Navy's ungrudging response to emergency to be fully called upon. Since they were there and since there was a shortage of troops elsewhere, the prospect of replacement lapsed.

Circumstances so largely deciding the question of the ground garrison, there was still the inadequacy of air force that Sir Michael Palairet had drawn attention to. Air Marshal Portal was emphatic that it would be dangerous to maintain an active air defence over the island at the expense of the Western Desert and elsewhere. The soundest course was to rely on AA, dispersion and concealment, and at the same time to maintain a ground organisation which would permit aircraft to fly in from Egypt if seaborne attack was attempted. The Chiefs of Staff decided to wait for the views of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Air Marshal Longmore.2

The Chiefs of Staff may have had before them at this meeting a spirited message from General Freyberg to Mr. Churchill sent on 5 May. Freyberg expressed confidence in the ability of his

1 PM to PM NZ, 3 May; Documents, Vol. I, No. 396.

2 Air Marshal Portal's last point throws some light on the decision not to destroy the airfields. See p. 51.

page 36 troops to deal with airborne attack alone, though the combination of airborne and seaborne attack would be a different matter. But he felt that, provided he got artillery and transport and a few extra fighters, it ought to be possible to hold the island.

Air Marshal Portal's view was strengthened on 8 May when Longmore gave further particulars of the Cretan airfields. Their state was such that casualties would be high from lack of repair facilities; and lack of cover made dispersion of aircraft difficult. He was against the permanent stationing of squadrons but thought that the airfields might be used as advanced landing grounds for fighters. And he stressed the losses incurred in Greece.

The Chiefs of Staff had also considered a proposal for the dropping off in Crete of twelve tanks from the convoy then on its way to the Middle East. But it was decided that the better course was to have tanks sent from the Middle East and replace them there from the convoy. This was the advice given to General Wavell in a message sent on 9 May. The same message suggested that there were two courses of action possible on the initial parachute landings: the defenders might either lie low till the enemy was committed or they might go all out to destroy him at once. In either case additional troops and a few tanks should be provided if possible from Egypt for counter-attack purpose. Further suggestions were for dawn attack by air against emplaning points, a naval feint, rapid repair of aerodromes to enable reorganisation of our own air force at a later stage, and the use of dummy aircraft and defences on the aerodromes.1

Wavell replied next day that he had already arranged for the sending of six I tanks and fifteen light tanks which should reach Crete within a few days, that he had reinforced the island with artillery and was sending additional equipment and reinforcements of army and staff officers. In a further message the same day he referred the War Office to Admiral Cunningham's appreciation of 1 May2 for the naval situation, and went on to give his views about that on the ground and in the air. The main threat was in the air, where the enemy would be able to maintain a very heavy attack without slackening his operations elsewhere. Wavell himself, on the other hand, having already had heavy losses in Greece and the Western Desert and having Iraq as a fresh commitment and Syria as a possible one,3 would have to maintain a strong air defence at his base in Egypt. Until he got reinforcements he could not give Crete adequate fighter protection, and he foresaw serious interruptions to his use of its naval and air bases. What allocation

1 COS 101 to Cs-in-C ME and Med, 9 May.

2 See p. 32.

3 The campaign in Iraq began at the end of April; that in Syria on 8 June.

page 37 of fighters he would be able to make when reinforcements did arrive would depend on the situation in Cyrenaica, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. But he thought that there was a reasonable chance of keeping Suda Bay open for the Navy with a squadron of Hurricanes, given 100 per cent reserves in pilots and 100 per cent replacement rate for machines; though, if the enemy really concentrated, he had little doubt but that the harbour could be made untenable.

Meanwhile the existing air defence was supplied by the mixed squadron of Gladiators, Hurricanes and Fleet Air Arm aircraft. Some fighters it would be advisable to maintain on the island for political reasons; but full fighter protection could not be justified if our policy was only to hold the island.

General Wavell went on to give the present garrison, and to repeat that the minimum garrison necessary was three brigade groups and that he hoped to relieve the Anzacs eventually with British formations, which might themselves be relieved ultimately by the 11,000 Greek troops on the island, though the Greeks needed three months' training and re-equipment

The tendency to think in terms of ‘eventually’ was continued in his approach to the question of armament. Guns and tanks were being sent; but for anti-aircraft defence three heavy and two light batteries would eventually be required in addition to the 16 HAA and 36 LAA then in the island and the MNBDO armament intended for it. But at present AA could not be diverted from other vital needs.

Tension by now was rapidly mounting. One of the questions much debated was whether or not the Greek Government and King should stay and for how long. General Wavell and the Foreign Office thought he should stay; General Freyberg favoured his going; the Chiefs of Staff agreed with Freyberg on the ground that his presence was bound to be an embarrassment; the Defence Committee concurred with Wavell; the King himself favoured departure since his going would be less exposed to criticism if it took place before attack than after. Responsibility was in the end left to General Wavell, and the King stayed.1

The Prime Minister in these days was able to devote some of his energies to the problems of the defence. He rather favoured at one point a plan for letting the enemy take the dromes and then fiercely counter-attacking with tanks and assault parties, and Wavell reported on 12 May that he had sent a special officer to present Mr. Churchill's views on SCORCHER (the code-name for the expected operation) to General Freyberg.2

2 PM's minute to First Sea Lord, CIGS, and CAS, 10 May.

page 38

Mr. Churchill was also concerned about tanks for the defence and on 13 May suggested to Wavell that twelve more should be sent. But Wavell did not think more could be got there in time. Those already being sent were to arrive that evening and this ought to be enough. Further evidence of the Prime Minister's anxiety was his suggestion at the Defence Committee meeting of 14 May that Admiral Cunningham should be told that SCORCHER was prior even to interrupting enemy supplies to Tripoli; and the First Sea Lord undertook to warn Cunningham of the operation's supreme importance.

On the same day the Prime Minister told General Wavell that all the evidence pointed to SCORCHER taking place any day after 17 May and that enemy preparations were going forward very deliberately. Reinforcements sent now might well arrive in time, and even if they were late would be useful in case the enemy won a bridgehead. In this message also he dwelt on his hope that the three Commanders-in-Chief were working in close concert. And he returned to the theme on 15 May, saying that the scale of threatened attack impressed him more and more and that he hoped all possible reinforcements had been sent.

To this General Wavell replied that he had done his best. Amongst other reinforcements he had sent 16 light tanks and six I tanks, 18 AA guns and 17 field guns, and a battalion of troops. Further, he was preparing a small force of one or two battalions to land on the south coast as a reserve. He had concerted plans with the other two Commanders-in-Chief on 12 May. He knew the job was going to be hard, but the troops and their commander were stout-hearted and the enemy would find that SCORCHER would burn his fingers.1

At this point we may leave the higher strategy, with the decision— now irreversible and perhaps more enforced by events than clearly taken—that the attempt to hold Crete should be made. From now on it was for General Wavell anxiously watching to prepare whatever help there might still be time to send, for Admiral Cunningham to make his naval dispositions in whatever way seemed best to shield the island from attack by sea, and for Air Marshal Tedder2 to provide what help he could by air reconnaissance and the bombing of the Greek airfields from which any invasion must take its start.

1 Wavell to PM, 15 May.

2 Air Marshal Longmore returned to the United Kingdom early in May and was succeeded by his deputy.