How British Bungling Lost the Battle for Crete in WWII

CALLUM MACDONALD. The Lost Battle: Crete 1941. London: Pan Macmillan, 2002. Pp. 368. $49.50 (hardcover).

(second of two parts)

The defense of Crete was breached on the night of May 20, 1941. Colonel L.W. Andrews, commanding the key New Zealand battalion engaged at Maleme, decided, after an initial counterattack failed to break the Germans, to regroup his forces on the hills overlooking the Maleme airfield and prepare for a concerted push with additional troops the next day. However, the withdrawal of the New Zealand troops enabled the Germans to capture the landing strip. From his headquarters in the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens, General Karl von Student, architect of the Luftwaffe’s airborne forces, seized this opportunity and ordered reinforcements of men and weapons to be crash-landed onto the airstrip. Consequently, on the afternoon of May 21, the first wave of Student’s mountain troops, carried in 40 transport planes, violently, but successfully, landed under fire at Maleme. The Germans now had sufficient numbers of troops to consolidate and extend their position at Maleme. Although the German forces at Maleme began to regain momentum, their seaborne invasion force, which left in two convoys from Piraeus and Thessaloniki, respectively, on the night of May 21, was intercepted by elements of the British Mediterranean Fleet. The British ships inflicted heavy losses on the invasion flotilla, forcing the Germans to abort their mission. The following day, however, the Germans had their revenge. Luftwaffe dive-bombing sorties wreaked havoc on the British fleet. On May 22, the Germans sunk two cruisers and two destroyers, and damaged one battleship. During the following week, two more cruisers and two more destroyers were sunk, while one aircraft carrier, one battleship, four cruisers, and three destroyers were severely damaged and withdrawn from operation.
Meanwhile, on Crete, the Germans regained the initiative and the battle began to turn their way. During the early hours of May 22, Student began pouring more reinforcements onto the airfield at Maleme. Bernard Freyberg, Commander of all Allied forces on Crete, launched a desperate counterattack on May 24 to regain the Maleme airfield but it was unsuccessful. After the failure of the counterattack at Maleme, the Allied position began to deteriorate rapidly. Control of the Maleme airstrip had rescued the Germans from defeat and now made their impending victory possible. When the German units, which were concentrated in the Maleme sector resumed their attack, the Allied forces were driven relentlessly eastward, losing one defensive position after another. Faced with a constant stream of fresh German troops and defenseless against the overwhelming power of the Luftwaffe, it was clear to Freyberg that any continued attempt to hold Crete was futile. Thus, on May 27, the order was given to withdraw from the island.
On the night of May 28, most of the 4,000-strong British garrison in Heraklion was evacuated by sea. The British commander of the garrison neglected to inform his Greek counterpart of the impending evacuation, leaving the Greek forces in Heraklion on their own. Meanwhile, the main Allied force concentrated in the area of Maleme-Chania-Suda began an arduous retreat southwards across the mountains to the small fishing village of Sphakia on Crete’s southern coast. Dug in to defensive positions in and around the village of Alikianos, southwest of Chania, the 8th Greek Provisional Regiment repulsed a series of German attacks over several days, thus enabling the primary British and Commonwealth column to retreat to Sphakia. Over four nights, more than 18,000 British and Commonwealth troops were evacuated from Crete. Another 18,000 British, Commonwealth, and Greek troops were not evacuated and remained to fall prisoner. On June 1, the German forces reached Sphakia, and captured 5,000 Commonwealth troops, a veritable rabble, which had been left behind on the beach at bayonet point by the last British units to be evacuated.
The Battle for Crete was an unmitigated disaster for the British. Half of the surviving Allied force was captured by the Germans. More than 4,000 Allied troops had been killed and 3,000 wounded. The Royal Navy lost 2,000 sailors killed, as well as crippling losses of major ships, which resulted in its withdrawal from the Aegean. The battle for Crete was, in fact, the costliest British naval engagement of the Second World War. As the very title of MacDonald’s book, The Lost Battle, implies, the struggle for Crete should not have ended in failure for the Allies. The Greek and New Zealand troops, in particular, fought with exceptional ferocity. Yet neither the bravery of individual soldiers, nor the tenacity of the Allied troops as a whole could make up for the shockingly poor leadership of the British and Commonwealth commanders, whose blunders and inertia doomed the defense of the island.
Even before the German invasion of Greece, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had expressed the view that Crete might one day become a key point that must be held at all costs. However, Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, chose to ignore Crete. In November 1940, as the Greeks were fighting the Italians in Albania, Athens and London agreed that the British would assume responsibility for the defense of Crete. Nevertheless, Wavell did not take this obligation seriously. Reflecting Wavell’s neglect of Crete, his appointment of General Freyberg to take command of the island’s forces was his seventh change of commanders in five months. None of the previous commanders had been in their post long enough to have had any effect in preparing the island for war. When Freyberg arrived in Crete on April 30, he was confronted by an astonishing lack of preparation. No attempt had been made by the British to build field works or strong points where defenses were required, no beaches were obstructed against potential amphibious landings, no aircraft pens had been built to protect planes, and no attempt to improve communications had been undertaken. Finally, like Wavell himself, no commander before Freyberg had even bothered to prepare a plan of defense for the island.
{39189}Adding to his thorough assessment of the pitiful state of British preparations for the defense of Crete, MacDonald argues that the hopelessness of Freyberg’s situation was compounded by the General’s own mistakes. Remarkably, the details of Operation Merkur were known to the British before the German attack began, but were ignored. Thanks to a breakthrough by their intelligence branch Ultra, the British were able to decipher the Germans’ encrypted messaging code, Enigma. As a result, the British possessed the German’s exact battle plan. However, in order to protect Ultra’s secret breakthrough from even Freyberg, Wavell did not reveal to him the actual source of the intelligence. Instead, this vital information was presented to Freyberg as filtered data from spies operating in occupied Greece. Proceeding from skepticism and caution, Freyberg was thus reluctant to accept the validity of such reports and he was equally dismissive of Greek intelligence officers who presented him with actual captured German documents that confirmed the precise plans for an airborne invasion. Indeed, he thought an airborne attack to be impossible, and so he positioned his forces to face an amphibious invasion. Had Freyberg deployed his forces, especially in the Maleme sector, to oppose an airborne attack rather than a beach landing which never took place, the Battle of Crete would probably have ended on the same day it began.
The Germans ultimately succeeded on Crete not because of the supposed brilliance of their operational plan, but because of the British command’s negligence and failure to act competently. In a real sense, the Germans were victorious because the mistakes they made were not as numerous or appalling as those made by the British. Operation Merkur was certainly daring and audacious but it was also far from perfect. Wildly inaccurate intelligence, dispersal and isolation of forces across four objectives rather than their concentration in one sector, and a basic recklessness, produced enormous casualties and nearly cost the Germans the campaign. Indeed, in the final analysis the Battle of Crete was a highly ambiguous, Pyrrhic victory. Hitler was displeased with the operation, which produced more proportional losses of soldiers and planes than any of his previous conquests, from Poland to France. With 4,000 dead and 3,000 wounded, most from the assault and parachute regiments, Hitler decided that large, independent airborne operations should not be repeated. Reflecting both the intensity of casualty figures and Hitler’s consequent resolution about the operational fate of airborne warfare, Karl von Student famously described the Battle of Crete as “the graveyard of the German paratroopers.”
Despite their hard-fought victory, the Germans did not take advantage of their conquest of Crete. Hitler, like Wavell, albeit for different reasons, ignored Crete once the island was under his control. As a result, he squandered an incomparable strategic opportunity. From Crete, with sufficient forces, Hitler was in a position to establish air superiority over the Eastern Mediterranean, complete the destruction of the British Mediterranean Fleet begun by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Crete, occupy Cyprus and Malta, disrupt, if not seize, the Suez Canal, and deliver a decisive blow against the British Empire in the Middle East. Hitler’s shortsightedness about the immediate strategic potential of Crete could be attributed to his prioritization of the invasion of the Soviet Union. The place of Crete in German war planning was formalized in Fuhrer Directive Number 30, issued on May 23, while the Battle of Crete was still raging. Hitler’s directive made it clear that the decision to launch an offensive from Crete to break the British position in the Eastern Mediterranean would be determined only after the destruction of the Soviet Union, a goal the Germans would, of course, fail to achieve.
Despite Hitler’s decision to draw the line at Crete, as it was, the German war machine, using a new, innovative form of warfare, had been seen once again to triumph against the perpetually humiliated and retreating British. The Battle of Crete was, indeed, unprecedented in the scope of its use of airborne forces. Airborne troops had been used by the Germans earlier, in Belgium, Norway, and elsewhere, but all of those actions involved small parachute units operating as support elements for conventional ground forces. In the case of Operation Merkur, and for the first time in history, a major campaign was conducted by an independent, large-scale airborne force. The Germans and the Allies drew very different conclusions from Operation Merkur. While Hitler decided that the airborne invasion of Crete was far too costly to risk repeating, it spurred the British, and soon the Americans, to create entire divisions and eventually parachute corps, which would play a major doctrinal and operational, if not always successful, role, in the Allied campaigns in Sicily, Normandy, and the Netherlands. In bringing his narrative toward closure, Callum MacDonald posits that the Battle of Crete was unprecedented for another respect – it was the first time German troops encountered widespread resistance from a civilian population. Throughout the battle, Cretan villagers, often armed with only makeshift weapons or captured firearms, joined in the fighting against the German invaders. As an ominous portent of the sort of brutality that would soon characterize Axis occupation in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union, the Germans reacted to Cretan resistance with savagery and indiscriminate violence.
On June 2, the first day after the end of the Battle of Crete, a German paratrooper force, acting under orders from General Student, took hostage and executed 60 villagers from Kondomari, a village outside Maleme. The following day, June 3, the village of Kandanos, near Chania, was burned and 180 of its inhabitants were murdered. These reprisal killings were the first in a long series of atrocities that would blacken the Germans’ reputation in Crete. Indeed, before the end of the Axis occupation of the island, German forces would kill, according to some estimates, as many as 25,000 Cretan civilians. Clearly, in the final analysis, the most important consequences of the lost Battle of Crete were those which would affect the people of the island itself—namely, a German reign of brute force, terror, and carnage.

Dr. Kyrou is Associate Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.