III: Retimo, Heraklion, and Creforce
At Retimo during 23 May the general situation did not greatly alter. In the eastern sector there was a truce from midday till one o'clock to allow dead and wounded to be brought in. At the end of it 70 German wounded had come in to the Australian ADS at Adhele, and about the same time a German envoy from the oil factory came forward to demand surrender on the ground that a German victory had taken place in all the other sectors. The demand was refused and the refusal emphasized by the shelling of the oil factory shortly afterwards. On the 24th there were 252 Germans in the Australian ADS.
In the western sector 2/11 Battalion beat off a German attack from Perivolia, and in a sustained attack by about fifty German aircraft two companies lost 39 men.
The enemy himself remained on the defensive and, as his aircraft landed only supplies and not reinforcements during the day, the high command evidently still thought that the main effort would prove more profitable elsewhere. And in fact, though the paratroops could no longer hope to capture the airfield, they were doing good service by containing troops which might otherwise have been used to reinforce the Canea front. For Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell's force, cut off from Canea, were in a sense themselves beleaguered.
Although at Retimo the enemy had become reconciled to a policy of containment, at Heraklion this day's activities suggested that his forces there might not be sufficient even for this. But reinforcements of paratroops were not yet available and only supplies could be dropped. So his main aim of depriving us of the use of the page 271 airfield could not be successful and, though machine guns could fire on it, a Hurricane from Egypt succeeded in landing during the early afternoon. Then in the late afternoon a further six Hurricanes appeared while a bombing raid was in progress, and a dogfight took place, after which the Hurricanes landed, four of them damaged.1
The garrison had correctly appreciated that the main threat was from the east. In the morning therefore, two companies were sent east to raid the German positions, and the guns were used to harass them. The two companies returned towards evening with the report that the enemy were not numerous but were strongly armed.
Meanwhile two tanks arrived about midday, having fought their way through from Tymbaki, and reported that 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were approaching. According to General Freyberg's plan, both tanks were sent on to Suda Bay by lighter.
The Germans by now were showing signs of exasperation at their failure to make better progress, and at 7 p.m. sent an ultimatum which threatened the destruction of Heraklion town unless the Greeks surrendered. Although the Greek population had been somewhat affected by the bombing already endured, their leaders refused this ultimatum but took the precaution of evacuating the civilians.
Apart from these there were no other notable developments, and when the day ended the defence could at least consider that the position had not altered for the worse.
At Creforce HQ Freyberg was doing his best to keep General Wavell apprised of all developments. Even if he had not been himself aware of the importance of the battle, there was encouragement from without. The day began with a message from Mr. Churchill to the effect that the eyes of the world were on the battle and that great things turned on it. From Wavell also came cheering words: the world was being given a splendid example by the courage and resolution of Freyberg and his troops. There was evidence that the Germans themselves were meeting great difficulties, and Wavell would do and was doing his best to help the defence.
As we have seen, the Navy was able to do so. But the cost had to be carefully counted and, when the Chiefs of Staff met on 22 May, Admiral Pound told their Committee that if damage continued on the same heavy scale the invasion could not be stopped. No solution seemed to offer, however, and the Chiefs of Staff decided to call on the Commanders-in-Chief Middle East for their view of the situation.
By 23 May it had become clear to the Defence Committee that the enemy had gained a foothold, and Mr. Churchill telegraphed to General Wavell that the battle must go on so as to gain time in the Western Desert. He hoped that Wavell was reinforcing the island every night to the greatest possible extent. And at other meetings the possibility of sending Beaufighters either from home waters or from Malta to the assistance of the Fleet was canvassed.
So far as Freyberg was concerned the need for air help was the most immediate. He answered Wavell's offer of the day before to send fighters which could strafe until their petrol and ammunition were exhausted, if the situation were serious enough to warrant it, by saying that the position at Maleme was indeed serious and that all possible air help should be sent.1
Wavell responded by sending two flights, each of six Hurricanes, with orders to land at Heraklion. Of the first flight only one reached Heraklion and was destroyed, as we have seen. The rest were shot up by a British naval barrage en route, with the result that two were lost and three had to return to base. Of the other flight, four were damaged on arrival and had to return to Egypt next morning and one of the remaining two was shot up and burnt out on the ground.2
3 A message from 5 Mtn Div to 11 Air Corps at 9 p.m. reports that six aircraft had been destroyed by the afternoon raids. Another entry says no damage was caused by the night raid.—5 Mtn Div WD. 4 Air Fleet Report claims two Blenheims shot down.
There was one other respect in which aircraft proved themselves useful, although not as useful as they might have been had our air transport been as well developed for military purposes at this stage of the war as was the enemy's. Supplies of stores had been dropped the night before at Heraklion and at Retimo. But those for Retimo landed in the sea. By now Freyberg was seriously concerned for its situation: it was cut off by road, and a company of Rangers sent during the day from Canea had failed to get through. And so he asked the RAF to try again that night to drop stores and medical supplies.
Apart from this and the operational position, with which he kept Wavell in as full touch as bad communications and a fluid and confusing situation permitted, General Freyberg's most anxious thoughts were given to the problem of supplies as a whole. Two messages sent on the morning of 23 May show clearly what were his difficulties.1
The first of these dealt with an inquiry from GHQ Middle East about the possibility of developing the ports in the south of Crete, defending them against the enemy air force, and using them for the landing of supplies. Freyberg pointed out in reply that there was not time to construct the facilities required for ships to be able to discharge on the quays, but that it might be possible for them to discharge by lighter if Middle East could provide the shipping, the protection against aircraft and submarines, the transport and the lighters. There were two ports that might be used in this way: Selino Kastelli (Palaiokhora) and Ay Galene. But the former was the only one with a road to the beach, and if the other were to be used four miles of road would have to be built. Again, Tymbaki could take a small discharge of tonnage during the hours of darkness; or, if the Navy thought either Sfakia Bay or Sudsuro Bay possible, motor transport could probably be got to them. In all cases the enemy's command of the air would have to be taken into account.
Until one of these could be developed into a protected anchorage, however, General Freyberg indicated that he thought it better to go on using Suda Bay, where ships could come alongside and where anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defences already existed.page 274
His second message dealt with the maintenance problem more generally. Counting British troops, Greek troops, and Greek civilians together, he had 128,000 mouths to feed in the Suda Bay sector, 65,000 in the Retimo sector, and 290,000 in the sector which included Heraklion and the territory east of it; a total of nearly half a million. The only transport were the 150 15-cwt trucks, 117 carrier vehicles of miscellaneous other kinds, and seven ambulances which had to serve the whole British force, with its artillery; and a very few trucks and carts which had to serve the Greeks. And even this scanty number was continually dwindling through air attack and the lack of repair facilities.
The problem was further complicated by the state of the roads. The lateral road through Retimo and Heraklion could not be relied upon because of the enemy troops in both places. The road to Selino Kastelli was no longer open. The only other road fit for motor transport was that from Heraklion to Tymbaki and that could serve only Heraklion. To serve Suda Bay he was trying to get the road to Sfakia in a fit state. He doubted whether a road could be got through from Retimo to Ay Galene.
Thus it was clear that Suda Bay would have to go on being used at least in part; and if the southern beaches were to be used more transport would have to be provided and more lighters.
Freyberg then turned to the question of existing supplies. Suda Bay sector had rations only for 10 days, Retimo for 18 days, and Heraklion for 14 days. Even so, this assumed a reduced scale of rationing and the scale was now two-thirds. Thus early supplies were needed, and picks, shovels, and wire were also required for the preparing of defensive positions.
He concluded that, big convoys being out of the question with the enemy so strong in the air and ground defences so weak, Middle East must somehow contrive a method of supplying the island by small but frequent deliveries.
Meanwhile the Navy, as always, was doing its best to help. At eight minutes past four that morning Admiral Cunningham had decided, as we have seen, that he would have to withdraw all his naval forces to Alexandria, except Glenroy and her escort with its battalion of men from the Queen's Royal Regiment. By daylight this policy was being put into action and all the naval forces were making southward except for 10 Destroyer Flotilla, which was searching for survivors from Fiji, and two ships from Force A 1, Jaguar and Defender, which were on their way to Suda Bay with urgently needed ammunition.page 275
Of the ships making their way south only 5 Destroyer Flotilla met trouble. Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling were travelling together when, at 7.55 a.m., 24 dive-bombers appeared and attacked. Kelly and Kashmir were sunk and the enemy aircraft machine-gunned the survivors swimming in the water. Undeterred, Kipling closed in to pick up survivors and, in spite of six high-level bombing attacks, got 279 aboard. She then resumed her course south and, though between 8.20 a.m. and 1 p.m. no fewer than 40 aircraft attacked her and dropped 83 bombs, by eight o'clock next morning she was 50 miles from Alexandria. There her exhausted fuel was replenished by Protector from Alexandria and she made the rest of the voyage in safety.
Jaguar and Defender reached Suda Bay without mishap and the ammunition was got ashore in the dark that night. The career of Glenroy with her reinforcements was more chequered. At 11.27 a.m. Cunningham decided that the odds in the air were too great for her and her escort and ordered her back, planning to get the reinforcements to Crete by means of the Abdiel or fast destroyers. This order was countermanded at 4.51 p.m. by the Admiralty, which urged upon Admiral Cunningham the necessity of getting the reinforcements ashore that night if possible. In the upshot, however, it became obvious that even if Glenroy did proceed she would arrive too late. Accordingly she was ordered back to Alexandria. The troops already on Crete would have to carry on for another twenty-four hours unaided.
Behind these changes of plan lay an interchange of signals between Cunningham and the Admiralty which reveals the full seriousness of the dilemma. At 1.40 p.m. Cunningham signalled that the operations of the preceding four days had been a trial of strength between the Navy and the German Air Force, and that there was nothing for it but for the Navy to admit defeat so far as the coastal area was concerned. Losses were so heavy that there could be no justification for continuing the attempt to prevent invasion by sea. The only aircraft carrier, the Formidable, could not be used because she had only five serviceable fighters, and without air cover the odds were too great.
To this the Admiralty replied that His Majesty's Government considered success vital and that reinforcements were absolutely necessary. It was for this reason that the risk to the Glenroy would have to be accepted.
In a later message on 23 May, however, the Admiralty accepted Cunningham's view, though not without qualification. It stressed once more the importance of the battle and said it was vital that the sea invasion should be held off for another day or two to give the Army a chance of dealing with the enemy landed by air. It page 276 therefore indicated that Jaguar and Defender, when they had landed the ammunition for Suda Bay, ought to attack the shipping in Melos unless some still more important target were found at sea.
To this Cunningham replied that the withdrawal of his forces had been forced on him by the fact that all his ships were in need of refuelling and were running out of AA ammunition. Four of his six remaining cruisers were damaged and would have to be repaired, and several of the destroyers were in a similar condition. As the centre of operations was 400 miles from base at Alexandria, it was out of the question to get any powerful force there that night. The two destroyers, Jaguar and Defender, would not have time to reach Melos before daylight after they had landed their ammunition and, if they did go, would not have the fuel with which to come back. All he could do would be to order them to deal with any landing attempts near Maleme and send out another force of cruisers and destroyers from Alexandria the following day. He was also sending off some army reinforcements to Suda Bay that night by the Abdiel.
The difficulties of the Navy and its need of air cover were not lost upon Air Marshal Tedder, and during the afternoon he signalled to the Chief of Air Staff asking for the rest of the Beaufighter squadron, of which two had already arrived in an unserviceable condition. In reply the Air Ministry told him that all the Beaufighters in Malta were to be sent to Egypt and that 15 more were being sent from the United Kingdom in the next few days. They were to be used solely for the protection of the Fleet.
Tedder's next message throws further light on the whole difficult situation. He explained that his main problem was how to provide adequate air support. His two night attempts at bombing Maleme had been ineffective because the aircraft could not tell which was friend and which was enemy. He had therefore risked day operations by sending Blenheims from the Western Desert to attack Maleme and Hurricanes to Heraklion. His two Beaufighters were covering a disabled destroyer. He was using Wellingtons for night supply, and would be attacking Scarpanto and Maleme with them that night.
But, the Fleet being withdrawn, the enemy could now use ships by day and there was little hope that the Blenheims could stop them. He would have to concentrate what force he had against troops being landed or already there, and the outlook was not bright. For the few sorties that the Hurricanes might make from Heraklion would be costly, while Blenheims or Marylands operating from North Africa were at the limit of their range. The only fighters page 277 with the requisite range were Beaufighters, and when he got those promised he proposed to use them primarily to cover the Fleet but also to attack air and sea transport. Even so, this meant switching almost the whole of his effort in the air from the Western Desert to Crete.
It will be seen from all this what difficulties faced General Wavell in carrying out his instructions to reinforce the island. The day ended with his hoping to land two commando battalions that night at Selino Kastelli and have them marched over the hills to the north. The prospect for a solution of General Freyberg's difficulties was not bright.