Such then were the conditions and the country which the first British troops found when they landed on 1 November. A summary page 12 account of the defensive preparations made by them and their successors up till the evacuation of Greece must now be given. Such an account will be most intelligible if we begin with the successive commanders, their orders and their plans. These were in the main affected by two major external circumstances, themselves fluctuating: the strategic role of the island as conceived in a continually worsening situation (and one worsening always more swiftly than was expected); and the resources available for carrying out this role in its various changing conceptions.
The prevailing strategic conception in November 1940 was that the island should be built up into a ‘second Scapa’. Accordingly, when Brigadier O. H. Tidbury was appointed on 3 November to command the forces already in the island or about to move there, his orders were to defend the naval fuelling base at Suda Bay and, in co-operation with the Greek forces in the island, to prevent and defeat any attempt by hostile forces to get a footing.
This being his task, it was natural that he should concentrate on the first part of his orders and dispose his force in and around Canea and Suda Bay; his strength was not great enough to do more. Hardly had he done this, however, when the Chiefs of Staff agreed to Greek proposals that we should undertake the defence of the whole island and thus free Greek troops for use on the Albanian front. Plans were then set in train to reinforce the island with Anzac troops in Egypt.
But resources in the Middle East—with the desert offensive already pending and in early December due to be launched—were in too much demand for diversion to Crete to be contemplated. General Wavell himself visited the island on 13 November and carried away the impression that ‘a small force is quite sufficient for Crete at present’. That this view was influenced by the prospects of fighting in the desert is probable enough, and it was reinforced by the anxiety of the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean to avoid the difficulties of transporting and maintaining larger forces. In the upshot Tidbury had to content himself with the addition of 2 Black Watch, 50 and 51 Middle East Commandos,1 and the prospect of further AA reinforcements.
Even for this limited role, which was all he considered his limited force capable of, Tidbury favoured a policy of night and day digging on defensive positions. On 8 January, however, he was succeeded by Major-General M. D. Gambier-Parry, MC, a change of command which must have entailed further delays to any forward policy.
No fresh operational line followed a second visit by General Wavell on 17 January, and the attention of the new commander seems to have been engrossed by plans for the administrative build-up which would be an essential preliminary to any enlargement of the garrison. Nor was he allowed much time even for that. On 2 February he was recalled to command 2 Armoured Division in the Western Desert, leaving Lieutenant-Colonel C. H. Mather, CO 52 LAA Regiment, in charge until the arrival on 19 February of his successor, Brigadier A. Galloway.
The new commander's instructions gave him a sufficiently complex task: he was to be Fortress Commander, Suda Bay, and to command all British personnel in Crete. He was to defend Suda Bay as an advanced fuelling base, in co-operation with the local Greek forces; he was to be responsible for the operations then projected against the Dodecanese; he was to hurry on with the completion of an administrative base which could accommodate the increase of the garrison to a division if deterioration of the situation in Greece should make it necessary. The defence of the island as a whole was not mentioned in his directive.1
He, too, was to have less than a month in which to shoulder these responsibilities. For the situation in Greece drew him off on 7 March to become BGS of W Force (the expeditionary force to Greece). And in Crete Lieutenant-Colonel Mather resumed command.
Time was running out, but the situation from a planning point of view became no clearer. On 17 March OC Signals Creforce reported that, because of the ill-defined operational policy, he could have no clear signals policy. His report suggests that, on the island at least, the current view was scarcely dynamic: Crete was regarded as an RAF and Navy transit base with the Army in the static role of garrison troops and air defence.
The situation was improved somewhat by the appointment on 19 March of Brigadier B. H. Chappel to command 14 Infantry Brigade. But as he remained in doubt whether or not his commitments included the defence of Heraklion, his original directive can hardly have been very clear.page 14
He and his perplexity were soon to be relieved. The Vice-Chiefs of Staff had decided on 4 January to send at least the AA component of MNBDO to the Middle East, and on 2 April Wavell told the Chiefs of Staff that he had decided to establish it at Suda Bay and develop Suda Bay as a fleet base and not just a base for refuelling. For the movement of troops and aeroplanes occasioned by events in Greece had enhanced the port's importance, while because of the German aerodromes in Bulgaria it was impossible to create a base farther to the north. He went on to say that because resources had been lacking defences so far were thin. And he concluded that Major-General E. C. Weston, who commanded the MNBDO, should have his command extended to take in all the military units of the garrison.
The defence measures taken up to this time, apart from the administrative, may be summarised as follows: by 12 February a defence scheme for Suda Bay was in operation; by 13 March Suda Island had telephones and a mine-spotting post and was equipped as a Forward Observation Post against a seaborne landing; by 19 March 2 Black Watch had been sent to Heraklion to guard the aerodrome; on 27 March an exercise for the defence of Maleme was undertaken, and on 31 March there was a further exercise against parachute attack on Maleme. Finally, on 10 April an exercise was conducted against parachute attack on Galatas.
Thus, it is plain, the occupying garrison had come by March to appreciate correctly the kind of attack to be expected and some likely targets, even although the garrison had increased very little since Tidbury's time.
General Weston had learnt of the destination of MNBDO and his own role as GOC Creforce on his arrival in Cairo on 29 March. He at once set off for Crete. On 15 April he submitted his appreciation. It saw the defence as involving two problems: defending the fleet and air bases as things were; and defending the island against invasion in the event of German victory in Greece. And, naturally enough in a worsening situation, it concentrated on the second aspect. Suda Bay and Heraklion were both vital since the enemy's possession of either would nullify to us the advantages of holding the other. Even without holding Greece the enemy could attempt an invasion with airborne forces; with Greece in his hands he could invade by sea as well.
Weston therefore thought the defence required an infantry brigade at Heraklion, with a detachment at Retimo and a second brigade group for the Suda-Maleme sector. Headquarters 14 Infantry Brigade should be organised separately from Creforce and able to function independently as a brigade headquarters. Any page 15 Greek troops available should be used to defend the eastern end of the island and to help at Retimo. Aircraft would be needed and so full-scale airfields should be constructed, sited with an eye to the weaknesses of the ground defences. And large quantities of supplies would be needed.
Now that the loss of Greece was already inevitable these recommendations, sensible as they were, hardly went far enough, even had there been time or resources to implement them. But Middle East Joint Planning Staff, which had now begun to take a belated interest, was hardly more prescient. In a paper issued on 21 April and designed to consider the forces required to defend the island should Greece be overrun, attack was considered imminent but likely to be deferred till airborne invasion could have the support of simultaneous invasion by sea. This would hardly be before three or four weeks after the British forces had evacuated Greece.
The planners appreciated that a garrison of three brigade groups would be needed, composed of fresh and fully equipped British troops. A further brigade group should be sent at once and artillery to bring the group already there up to strength. Troops evacuated from Greece to Crete should be sent on to Egypt as soon as possible to simplify maintenance problems. All prisoners of war should also be evacuated. A recommendation of General Weston's that three further HAA batteries as well as the AA of MNBDO should be sent, and that 156 LAA Battery already on the island should be retained, was approved. Royal Air Force fighter strength should be raised to three squadrons during the evacuation and not allowed to drop below two thereafter. Two months of reserve supplies should be sent at once. And the command should be British.
But by this time the enemy offensive in the Western Desert was forcing General Wavell back to the Egyptian frontier, and there was mopping up still to be done in Italian East Africa. He therefore decided to send no more troops to Crete for the present, except for one mountain battery when available. When evacuation from Greece was complete the question would be reconsidered. But AA reinforcements to raise the garrison to six HAA and three LAA batteries and reserve supplies for two months were to be landed as soon as possible.
This decision or, more fairly, the shortage of troops that dictated it, was probably responsible ultimately for the presence of the New Zealand Division in the battle of Crete. For events were to move too swiftly from now on and there would be no better opportunity of bringing in fresh troops, however bad the present occasion might be.page 16
Meanwhile General Weston's own position was none the clearer. He had been warned of the impending evacuation of Greece and had flown again to Crete on 21 April; but by 25 April the garrison was still under Brigadier Chappel. Rear HQ of W Force was also there. Was MNBDO to take over the whole defence?1 Wavell replied at once. Weston was to command both MNBDO and 14 Brigade. And on 27 April a formal order gave him command of all British troops. Three days later the task of the defence was at last seen and stated as a whole ‘to deny to the enemy the use of air bases in Crete.’
1 General Weston's report; GS to BGS, 25 Apr.