Since the absence of fighter defence proved so major a factor in the enemy's success, this preliminary chapter may close with an account of the developments in the air defence in these early months of the ‘build-up’.
From the first Crete was envisaged as being an air base as well as a naval one. And as early as 13 November the Chiefs of Staff, accepting a policy of holding Crete ‘whatever happens on the mainland’, had foreseen that if the Germans overran Greece the island would be subject to air attack. They knew therefore that air defence was vital. But from shortage of aircraft—all available planes had to be sent to Greece in the event—the consequence of their foresight has to be looked for mainly in the concentration on AA defence that has already been revealed.
Indeed, the contrast between the desirable and the possible is implicit in the whole preparatory period. On 4 January, for example, the Joint Planning Staff accepted a memorandum from the Chief of Air Staff which ran: ‘The foundation on which we should base our assistance to Greece is Crete, which must be held at all costs. Strong air forces established there would both delay the German advance through Greece and be well sited for covering our air support to Turkey.’ But, as the Interservices Report points out, neither staff nor machines were available in the Middle East and RAF policy, no doubt for this reason, was never clearly defined.4
4 Interservices Committee Report, I. 18.
In consequence, by 27 March the RAF still had ‘no permanent fighter commitments in Crete’ and still had not settled the problems of co-ordination with the Fleet Air Arm and Army. With the former it had not amalgamated or harmonised its supply arrangements and with the latter it had not co-operated on the problems of siting and defending aerodromes. The garrison commanders could get no clear directives on airfield policy; and the OC RAF was a flight lieutenant equally without directive on his tasks and his needs.
Thus the situation found by Wing Commander Beamish on 17 April when he arrived1 to take command of the RAF on the island was far from reassuring. There was only one squadron. The only planes there were at Maleme and belonged to 805 FAA2 Squadron. Their primary role was to provide fighter defence for Suda Bay. But the squadron was operating at a reduced strength and consisted of a mixed force of Fulmars, Gladiators and Brewsters, of which the last could be flown only in an emergency.3
Of the two aerodromes, Maleme and Heraklion, only the latter could be used for all types of plane. Construction was still going on at both. At Retimo the aerodrome was no more than a landing strip; and at Pediada Kastelli there was a landing ground. The fact that the RAF was responsible for the construction of its own airfields, and the absence of co-ordination with the military in the initial stages, were all the more important because it was the position of these aerodromes that largely determined the dispositions of the defence.
At Maleme also was 252 AMES4 in full operation and feeding information to a Gun Operations Room at Canea, ultimately developed to control the fighter and AA defences of Suda Bay area but still without RAF controllers or operations officers, being served by FAA staff. And there was no R/T5 between Gun Operations Room and aircraft. A second (220) AMES at Heraklion was in the final stages of erection but its Gun Operations Room was not yet complete. These deficiencies and shortcomings were to some extent offset by an efficient Greek observer system, which reported to a centre in Canea from which reports were relayed to the Canea Gun Operations Room.
1 Presumably a direct consequence of Weston's report on 15 April which recommended that fighters and bombers should be located there and full-scale operational aerodromes constructed with due regard to ground defence.
3 Gp Capt Beamish, Report on RAF Operations in Crete.
4 Air Ministry Experimental Station.
5 Radio telephony.
By 21 April, if we are to judge by JPS Paper 49 which recommends the retention of the existing two RAF fighter squadrons and their reinforcement by a third, the situation had somewhat improved. But theirs may have been a somewhat academic view and we shall probably do better to follow Beamish's account. His force seems to have been increased almost at once by the basing of Sunderlands of 230 General Reconnaissance Squadron at Suda Bay. These were intended to assist in evacuating troops from Greece to Crete and from Crete to Egypt. Further reinforcement came with the move out of Greece of the squadrons that had been operating there. No. 30 Squadron, with 14 Blenheims I, arrived on 18 April and was subsequently supported by 203 Squadron from Egypt with nine Blenheims IV. And between 22 and 24 April came the remnants of 33, 80, and 112 Fighter Squadrons, all in a low state of serviceability which on Crete could hardly be remedied. Among them they could muster at the most 12–14 Hurricanes and about six serviceable Gladiators. All of these were engaged in the protection of convoys from Greece and so had little chance of preparing for an attack unless it should be most improbably delayed.
Thus, whatever the reasons and however good, it could not be said that the six months since British troops had first landed on Crete had been put to good use. The existing garrison was quite inadequate to sustain an attack of the kind that might now be expected. No carefully prepared plan or scheme of defence on the scale required existed. The armament in anti-aircraft and coast defence was below the scale that had from the first been contemplated. Transport was scarce and the roads were still bad. Signals communication was, to say the least, sketchy. Supplies had not been accumulated on the scale that was bound to be necessary. Accommodation for even fresh and fully equipped troops scarcely existed. Aerodromes were not developed and, more important still, the planes were not available to use them.
1 Wireless telegraphy.