As Axis forces fell from the Cretan skies and emerged from the Aegean, a battered and weary Anglo-Commonwealth force could only hold for so long. Professor Eric Grove highlights the costly but vital involvement of the Royal Navy in the evacuation of Crete.
For Britain, the situation looked promising. Although the German airborne invasion of Crete began on 20 May 1941, and was to be supported by German mountain troops and Italian marines landed by sea, British Signals intelligence and confirmatory reconnaissance had revealed the presence of an invasion fleet of 25 small coasters and sailing caïques each loaded with about a hundred troops, ammunition and artillery.
Assailed by an overwhelming British force of three cruisers and four destroyers, the weak Italian escort – a single torpedo boat, Lupo – was driven off and all but three transports were sunk; none got to Crete. However, effective rescue led by Lupo meant as few as 314 Axis personnel were lost, with more than 2,000 Germans plucked from the sea.
Unfortunately British Imperial forces ashore were unable to exploit this maritime success as they attempted counterattacks on the captured airfield of Maleme. They failed, despite the blunders, heavy losses and failings of the German parachute landing. With Maleme secure, the Germans were able to fly in reinforcements and the supporting Luftwaffe Fligerkorps VIII and Italian bombers began to score successes against British ships. An early loss was HMS Juno, which sank in 97 seconds with the loss of 116 men.
The Axis were still attempting to reinforce by sea and another convoy of 38 vessels was forced to turn back in the face of heavy British opposition. However, Ju 88s and Do 17s forced British warships to turn back also, and assailed and harried them as they did. Two British cruisers and an Australian cruiser were damaged and the main battlegroup – containing the battleships Warspite and Valiant – attempted a rescue but was attacked by Stukas and Bf 110 fighter-bombers.
Warspite was seriously damaged and the destroyer Greyhound sunk. The survivors retreated under heavy air-attack, a storm which could no longer be weathered as the ships ran out of anti-aircraft ammunition. In the withdrawal, the light cruiser Gloucester was sunk with 722 hands lost, followed by the year-old light cruiser Fiji with 241 sailors killed – two more serious losses for the Mediterranean Fleet.
Fliegerkorps VIII continued to post successes against the Royal Navy on 23 May, striking at Louis Mountbatten’s destroyer flotilla as it withdrew from a patrol north of Crete. The triumphant ships had sunk two caïques and used their 4.7in guns in support the counterattack on Maleme. First, HMS Kashmir was sunk by Stukas and then Mountbatten’s HMS Kelly, the Kelly however, shot down three Stukas, and although they’d never know it a fourth crashed on landing due to their fire. Their sister HMS Kipling, despite being targeted by high-level bombing, picked up 281 survivors and returned them to the cheers of the fleet in Alexandria.
Mountbatten consoled his crew, affected more than most about the loss of their ship, by saying: “we didn’t leave the Kelly, the Kelly left us!”
Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, was trapped in a great impasse with London as Prime Minister Churchill and First Sea Lord Dudley Pound attempted to dictate the operations of his forces. Cunningham countermanded London’s backseat directions and withdrew the valuable Infantry Landing Ship Glenroy that had been ordered to press on to Crete. He opted, perhaps controversially, to brief London on the mechanics of his maritime strategy. As the C-in-C cogently argued, it was not fear of losses that was making him cautious, rather the need to avoid disproportionate damage for little advantage; for him, Crete was a battle of attrition which required careful management. He signalled to his ships:
‘The Army is holding its own against constant reinforcement of airborne troops. We must not let them down. At whatever cost to ourselves we must land reinforcements and keep the enemy from using the sea. There are indications that enemy resources are stretched to the limit. We can and must outlast them. Stick it out.’
On 25 May the Mediterranean Fleet’s main battle group, Force ‘A’, sortied from Alexandria. It consisted of the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Barham, the carrier Formidable and eight destroyers. A cruiser and destroyer force was already investigating reports of seaborne landings in northern Crete that proved to be erroneous. Glenroy had to abort a reinforcement mission under heavy air-attack and only the ultra-fast 40-knot minelayer Abdiel was able to bring reinforcements and evacuate wounded. On her mission on the night of 26-27 May her escorting destroyer, HMS Hero, was damaged by a near miss.
Formidable had mounted an air strike on the Axis base on the island of Scarpanto, south of Rhodes, on the 26th but the damage inflicted was limited by the small number of aircraft involved (the carrier had suffered heavy aircraft casualties covering the ‘Tiger’ convoy bringing tanks to Egypt). The capital ships combined with the cruiser group already at sea, but were then attacked by German aircraft from North Africa. Only four Fulmar fighters were available to oppose 20 Stukas, which succeeded in knocking out the carrier. Despite the merits of armoured flight-deck protection, it could not substitute for too few aircraft and immature fighter control. The escorting Tribal-class destroyer Nubian had her stern blown off in the attack and the two cripples were escorted to Alexandria.
On the following day as the rest of Force ‘A’ covered the withdrawal of Abdiel, it was attacked again by Ju 88s and He 111s which hit Barham, she suffered fire damage to an aft 15in turret and serious flooding. The group was ordered back to Alexandria, and Barham had to be sent through the Suez Canal for repairs.
The situation ashore was becoming desperate. Cunningham reassured Wavell – the theatre commander – and his other service colleagues, the Navy would make an all-out effort to evacuate troops as it had from Greece. Just before 8.30am on the 27th, Wavell was forced to correct Churchill’s delusions of further resistance – evacuation was now the only option. The Chiefs of Staff approved Wavell’s plan, with the priority placed on personnel rather than equipment.
Axis command of the air meant British ships could only spend about three hours off Crete, with a four hour approach and similarly long retreat under cover of darkness. At 0600 on the 28th, Rear Admiral Rawlings put to sea with Force ‘B’ made up of the cruisers Orion, Ajax and Dido and destroyers Decoy, Jackal, Imperial, Hotspur, Hereward and Kimberley. The intention was to evacuate the 4,000 strong garrison at Haraklion on the northern coast. A force of destroyers commanded by Captain S.H.C. Arliss, consisting of Napier, Nizam, Kandahar and Kelvin left at 8am for Sphakia on the southwest coast. The destroyers carried additional boats to lift troops.
They arrived at 12.30am and took off 700 men over the next two-and-a-half hours. Still, 5,000 men were left ashore so the destroyers landed equipment and rations to sustain resistance. Arliss was attacked by Ju 88 bombers on the way to Alexandria but only minor damage was inflicted on the manoeuvrable little ships and the group made Alexandria by 5pm on the 29th.
Force ‘B’ was not so lucky, as the Germans were concentrating on the north coast. It was attacked by high-level bombers, dive bombers and torpedo bombers on the evening of the 28th. The destroyer Imperial was near-missed and suffered steering damage. River Plate hero HMS Ajax suffered more serious damage and retired to Alexandria.
Rawlings arrived off Heraklion at 11.30pm on the 28th. The troops were taken off from the harbour and ferried to the cruisers. Thanks to the organisational efficiency of the local RN senior officer, Captain M.H.S Macdonald, the operation was most efficiently carried out and all troops evacuated – including the rearguard. The concern, however, was what would happen after dawn. The ships had not been able to leave before 3.20am and it was a long way through the Kaso Strait to Alexandria. The cruisers were crowded; 1,100 troops were aboard HMS Orion – twice her ship’s company. The destroyers were similarly loaded with 300 soldiers each in addition to a ship’s company of about 150.
At 3.50am disaster struck, the Imperial’s damaged steering failed completely and, rudder jammed, veered out of control. The men on board were transferred to her sister, Hotspur, which stood by until the transfer was complete. Hotspur then torpedoed and sank the stricken vessel. It was not until 4.45am that Hotspur, with 900 men crowded on board, sped eastwards.
At considerable risk, Rawlings limited the speed of the rest of Force ‘B’ to 15 knots, allowing Hotspur to rendezvous with the rest of the force in the Kaso Strait at 6am. This was still 300 miles and ten hours from Alexandria. As half-light brightened, Ju 88s and Stukas appeared. At first, the dive bombers released their bombs early and missed the manoeuvring ships. The German aircraft shuttled back and forth to Scarpanto and at 6.25am the destroyer Hereward was hit. The cripple tried to make the Cretan coast but, despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, bombers hit her again and blew her apart – 76 were killed. Italian torpedo boats, that had recently landed Mussolini’s major land contribution to the invasion, rescued a large number of survivors.
HMS Decoy had also been near-missed and Rawlings had to reduce his speed of advance to 25 knots. At 7.30am his flagship, Orion, was near-missed and damaged and Force ‘B’ reduced speed still further to 21 knots. Rawlings then received the most unwelcome news that because of error in time zones land-based fighter cover from RAF Hurricanes and Fleet Air Arm Fulmars would not be available until 8.40am. The only additions to the ships’ anti-aircraft armaments were the rifles and Brens of the troops on board. Stukas made strafing runs which killed Orion’s commanding officer and wounded Rawlings. Then a bomb hit and ignited Orion’s forward 6in turret. The dedicated AA cruiser Dido also had one of her 5.25in turrets put out of action by bombing.
There was then a lull as the Stukas refuelled at Scarpanto but they were back by 10.45am to make their last, and most effective, attack. Eleven aircraft dived on Orion. One bomb passed through the bridge and exploded on the crowded decks below, 260 were killed and 280 wounded. Fires raged and damage to compasses, steering and engine room telegraphs interfered with navigation. Officer casualties were significant but the gallant cruiser maintained 21 knots.
Eventually two Fulmar fighters appeared over Force ‘B’, thanks to the exceptional navigational abilities of the observers in the two-seaters able to chart amidst the confusion an accurate rendezvous with the ships. The Hurricanes got lost, but by chance intercepted a flight of bombers heading to the ships and downed two Ju 88s. Three ineffective bombing attacks were the last in the deadly plague of aerial aggressors and ended the travails of Force ‘B’. Fuel contamination by sea water slowed Orion further and her list increased, but she and her battered force finally arrived at Alexandria at 8pm. Of the 4,000 troops lifted, 800 had been killed, wounded, or plucked from the sea by the Italians. Despite the devastating attacks on Orion and other vessels, the Navy knew the day could have been much worse and Rawlings was ‘cheerful but exhausted’ when he met Cunningham. The day, however, still became known as ‘Black Thursday’
Thousands still remained at Sphakia on the south Cretan coast and Force ‘D’ had sailed on the evening of the 28th with the unenviable task of running the gauntlet and evacuating them. Commanded by Admiral King it was made up of the light cruiser Phoebe, the Australian cruiser Perth (carrying two landing craft), the converted anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta and Coventry, destroyers Jervis, Janus and Hasty and the Large Infantry Landing Ship (LSI[L]) Glengyle – a valuable asset with her landing craft and capacity for 3,000 soldiers.
The losses of the 29th led to the decision not to risk the LSI but it was too late to turn her back and the force arrived off Sphakia that evening. This proved fortunate as her landing craft were vital in ferrying troops to the ships while the AA cruisers stood off providing cover. Cunningham decided to reinforce King with three more destroyers, HMAS Stuart, HMS Jaguar and HMS Defender. These added to the evacuation force and were potential rescue assets if larger ships were sunk.
Perth was near-missed by Ju 88s but her landing craft were undamaged and supplemented Glengyle’s. By 3.20am King set sail with 6,000 rescued men aboard his ships. The three extra destroyers joined at about 6.50am. On this occasion the RAF found the evacuation force promptly and held back the bulk of the unceasing waves of bombers, shooting two He 111s down. Perth was hit and a boiler room disabled but there was nothing like the carnage of ‘Black Thursday’.
About 8,000 troops were still at Sphakia. Force ‘C’ of four destroyers under Captain Arliss was sent to continue the evacuation before King had returned. It was soon halved in strength as Kandahar suffered mechanical problems and Kelvin was disabled by air attack and forced to Alexandria. HMS Napier and Nizam pressed on alone and were able to use three landing craft King had left behind to evacuate a further 1,510 men. RAF cover was again good, and on the return journey three Ju 88s and an Italian Cant 1007 Alcione tri-motor were shot down.
The most serious attack was made by twelve Ju 88s between 8.50am and 9.15am, where both destroyers were near-missed, damage reducing their speed to 23 knots. The ships’ claimed one Ju 88 destroyed and three damaged. Force ‘C’ returned to Alexandra without further incident.
It was estimated that this left 6,500 troops at Sphakia; in fact the number, including stragglers, was closer to 10,000. These included New Zealanders and the C-in-C commanding the evacuation received a personal letter from the Dominion’s Prime Minister requesting he try another attempt to lift the valiant troops, but Cunningham was very conscious of the dangers posed by losses to his other duties, such as supplying Malta. Black Thursday demonstrated to Cunningham that his warships, when full of troops, could not operate at peak efficiency.
Nevertheless, he reconciled himself to one more try and chose the Dido-class cruiser Phoebe to lead it with Admiral King in charge. Cunningham personally went aboard the cruiser as she returned with Force ‘D’ to tell her ship’s company they were going straight back into the fire. Of the cruiser’s weary crew, not one man took up the offer to disembark and be left behind. The rest of the force was composed of the minelayer Abdiel and destroyers Kimberley, Hotspur and Jackal.
Rawlings began his final attempt at 6am on 31 May, his force tailored to evacuate 4,000 men. Cunningham now knew at least 9,000 men were at Sphakia, but refused to risk more ships. King finally sailed at 3am on 1 June on the last attempt to lift troops, however, his force never arrived. Calcutta and Coventry were tasked with supporting King but 85 miles off Alexandria were attacked by Ju 88s. Calcutta was hit twice and quickly sank with 107 lost; Coventry picked up 255 survivors and returned to Alexandria. Without support, King could not continue. Covered by Hurricanes and with German attention elsewhere he returned to Alexandria unscathed at 5pm.
As in all evacuations, not all showed great courage or self-control, but there was enough of these qualities in evidence to be a remarkable tribute to the human spirit. At least three battalions had been left behind at Sphakia as a rear-guard, and thousands of stragglers were also trapped on Crete. Most of those left behind were captured but 700 made their own way to North Africa, almost 200 were taken off by submarine and as many as 500 took refuge in the hills of Crete.
Cunningham was criticised for not having tried one more attempt at rescue but the harassed C-in-C could not see his fleet suffer still more serious attrition to Axis air power. British air cover was improving but was still far from reliable. The Mediterranean Fleet was too important to be neutralised saving what were – had all gone according to plan – disorganised remnants whose strategic survival, put very bluntly, would hardly have been noticed in operational terms. More serious was the loss of a valuable Royal Marine Commando and a crack Australian battalion, but the evacuation was hinged on human and moral qualities rather than strategic priorities – even more a testament to the efforts of the Royal Navy, and making their final halt more understandable.
Over half the defenders of Crete had been successfully evacuated. The price was a Mediterranean Fleet reduced to two battleships and three cruisers, left facing four Italian battleships and eleven cruisers. Cunningham’s margin of superiority disappeared and not even the codebreakers at Bletchley Park could help predict whether the Italians would exploit this very favourable situation.
Nevertheless in a more basic sense Cunningham had fully succeeded. As Churchill quoted Cunningham as saying at the height of the crisis: “It takes the Navy three years to build a ship, it will take three hundred years to build a new tradition. The evacuation will continue.”
The tradition had been maintained, but at great cost.