Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume I
448 — The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the acting Prime Minister of New Zealand
The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the acting Prime Minister of New Zealand
Your telegram of 5 June.2 Mr. Fraser's telegram to you of 2 June (No. 440) which has been repeated here, and General Wavell's telegram of 3 June (No. 443) to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, which has been repeated to the General Officer Commanding, Wellington, should, we think, give you the information required so far as the facts of the campaign in Crete are concerned.
On the particular points raised in your telegram we hope the following observations will be of help:
The strategical value of Crete in relation to the defence of the Eastern Mediterranean has always been fully recognised. As soon as Italy gave us the opportunity by attacking Greece, we occupied the island and set to work to strengthen its defences.
The only aerodrome when we first went to Crete was at Heraklion, and this was only suitable for the Gladiator. We developed it as rapidly as possible into a fully-equipped aerodrome, suitable for all types of machines. In addition, a landing ground was prepared at Maleme and an emergency landing ground at Retimo.
Owing to essential requirements of our aerodromes and troops in Greece, of Malta, and the army of the Nile, besides those of the United Kingdom and our merchant shipping in the Atlantic, it was not possible to give full protection to Crete, but the importance of providing anti-aircraft defences was fully recognised from the beginning.
Extensive preparations for a German airborne expedition were observed after the fall of Greece on aerodromes in Greece and in page 326 the Dodecanese, and it seemed practically certain that the enemy's objective would be Syria, Cyprus, or Crete. The conclusion was reached that Crete was the most likely of these, and steps were taken further to strengthen the garrison and the defences with all the additional material that could be made available. Every anti-aircraft gun that could possibly be spared was put into the island and in the person of General Freyberg a proved and resolute Commander was appointed.
The defence of Crete against air attack clearly represented our greatest difficulty, in view of the distance from our bases at which Royal Air Force fighters would have to operate should our aerodromes on the island prove untenable. We realised that although the air forces which we had operated in Greece represented the maximum number practicable, having regard to the state of aerodromes at the time, the Germans would be able to operate a much larger number because of the rapid drying up of marshy ground from April onwards. Nevertheless, good hopes were entertained that the defenders would prove strong enough and numerous enough to destroy all parachutists and airborne troops as they arrived, and prevent them effecting, and then nourishing, a lodgment by air. We were confident also that the Navy, although they would be subjected to constant air attack with inadequate air protection, would be able to hold off any seaborne threat, so as to give the Army the opportunity to bite off the head of an airborne invasion.
However, in the event, the scale and intensity of the German air attack, combined with the complete disregard of casualties with which their airborne troops, both parachutists and carrier-borne, were thrown into the fray, proved too strong. The island's garrison was kept under continuous air bombardment, which pinned our troops to their positions by day and prevented them counter-attacking the enemy's lodgments except at night, when tanks could not operate. The Navy played its full part in keeping the ring, but sustained very severe losses. Once the enemy was firmly established and in a position to reinforce to a practically unlimited extent by air, there was no alternative but to evacuate the island. An attempt to hold on any longer would have meant not only the destruction or surrender of the whole garrison, but also the reduction to a critical extent of our naval strength in the Eastern Mediterranean.
To sum up, General Freyberg was given the maximum forces and maximum equipment which we could afford. We gave battle in Crete fully recognising that through lack of adequate air protection the defence was likely to suffer, but with good hopes that it would be possible to prevent German airborne troops effecting and nourishing a lodgment, whether by sea or air.page 327
Generally, our view is that the operations in Crete must not be regarded in isolation but as a part of the whole Middle East situation. We must strike a balance. While these operations were in progress the German advance in Libya has been held, the conquest of Abyssinia has been virtually completed, and our position in Iraq has been restored. Crete should be regarded as a salient which it is necessary to try to hold in spite of risks. Its loss is serious to us, but counter-balancing advantages have been won. We succeeded in forcing the enemy to carry out a major operation there instead of a rapid occupation as he had hoped. His plans have been delayed and he has suffered heavy losses. Had it not been for this delay, the enemy might by now have entrenched himself in Syria and might have prevented us from crushing the Iraq rebellion. We had no illusions as to the risks involved, but they are risks such as must always be taken in war.
We cannot impress too strongly on you the importance of complete secrecy in regard to any detailed material which could be useful to the enemy.