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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

General Military Situation

General Military Situation

General Wavell flew to Crete on 30 April and held a conference with the senior officers of all forces to discuss the defence of Crete, it having been decided that it was vital to hold the island. General Freyberg was anxious to get the New Zealand troops to Egypt and there reform the Division, but the Commander-in-Chief decided that the troops on the island should all remain, and General Freyberg was appointed to take command as GOC Crete. The ill-equipped force, with an acute shortage of transport, faced immensely difficult problems in the defence of the island.

Crete is a long, narrow island running east-west for about 160 miles, with a maximum width of 40 miles. It has a backbone of mountains up to 8000 feet high running parallel and quite close to the southern coast, which has steep cliffs and no harbours. From the mountains the land to the north falls gradually, with valleys running in a north-south direction to the coast. The country is covered with olive groves, with some orange and lemon plantations at intervals.

The rich coastal plain of Canea is dissected by deeply cut riverbeds and surrounded by a harsher upland country whose slopes are covered with a thin, stony soil. These slopes made the construction of slit trenches and other field works difficult. Beyond the city of Canea and its villa-studded environs, western Crete is essentially a land of small villages and isolated farming hamlets, while the high uplands are peopled only in summer.

Roads are not well developed. The main road runs close to and parallel with the north coast, with many river bridges. There are four roads crossing the island from north to south, all narrow and over hilly country. The southern end of the Sfakia road, used for the evacuation, was very narrow and precipitous, being described as a “goat track”. There were no railways, except for two or three local Decauville lines.

Suda Bay, on the north coast, is the best natural harbour in the eastern Mediterranean. Other harbours, with artificial protection, are at Heraklion and Canea, although the latter had to be worked with lighters. Coastal boats can use Retimo.

Crete is less than 70 miles from Greece and a combined sea and page 157 airborne landing, supported by the Italian fleet and by the German and Italian air forces, threatened the island. On Crete there were six Hurricanes, sixteen other obsolete planes and no safe aerodromes, and there was no chance of improving the air position. The defending force was relatively large, but there were few real fortifications and an acute shortage of transport, artillery, armoured fighting vehicles, weapons of all kinds, ammunition, signal equipment, and medical supplies. Equipment and supplies had to come from Egypt. Ships bringing them were attacked by enemy aircraft and some were sunk. In spite of the anti-aircraft defence, ships unloading in the port at Suda Bay were attacked at their moorings every day by large formations of dive-bombers. In the end the force was dependent for supplies on what cruisers and destroyers could bring in after dark and unload before they left again before daylight.

Since the outbreak of war Crete had been considered by the British Cabinet as an important strategical position. Offers of help in the protection of the island had been made to Greece when Italy entered the war. When Italy attacked Greece a small force was sent to Crete, and this force was strengthened but was never very large, amounting only to about 5000 men. The function allotted to it varied from time to time between that of holding the island against attack to that of providing a base of operations against the Italian Dodecanese. The command changed several times.

Cretan recruits were withdrawn for the fighting in Albania and finally all Greek military equipment except 300 rifles was taken away, leaving the small British garrison as the only protective force. There were 15,000 Italian prisoners on the island and a large number of Cypriots and Palestinians, as well as young Greek recruits, unarmed and untrained.

The RAF found it impossible to send any but a very small number of planes to Crete. It developed landing grounds at Heraklion, Retimo, and Maleme, and although the administrative officers left the island at the beginning of May, the last planes were not withdrawn until the 19th—the day before the invasion began. This complicated the question as to what was to be done to the airfields to make them unfit for use.

It was originally intended that all troops from Greece should be sent to Egypt, and that Crete should be defended by fresh troops; but this was found to be impossible and General Freyberg was called upon to assume command in Crete and to use the troops recently evacuated from Greece for the defence of the island. These men were without any equipment other than what they had been able to carry from the beaches and so were severely handicapped in page 158 their task. The force at 20 May numbered 42,547 (7702 New Zealanders, 6540 Australians, 18,047 British, and 10,258 Greeks).

For defence, Crete was split up into four sectors covering the main vulnerable areas but not the whole island. These areas were—from east to west—Heraklion, Retimo, Suda Bay, and the Canea-Maleme area. New Zealand troops were allotted the defence of the Canea-Maleme sector, which included a long stretch of coast suitable for seaborne attack and areas suitable for airborne landings, particularly the Maleme airfield and a large flat area behind Galatas in the region of the prison. The 4th and 5th Infantry Brigades were available, and in addition there were some Greek troops, quite inadequately equipped, and a composite force (10 Infantry Brigade) of 20 Battalion, New Zealand Artillery, Divisional Cavalry, and NZASC personnel, all acting as infantry.