IV: General Freyberg Takes Command
IV: General Freyberg Takes Command
On 28 April General Wilson arrived from Greece and received a message from General Wavell that Crete was to be denied to the enemy and that the troops evacuated there must be used to defend it until they could be taken off. Wavell went on to say that he was assuming that large-scale seaborne landings were not probable but that airborne landings were possible; that the RAF would not be able to reinforce with aircraft for some time; that the MNBDO must be reckoned as part of the military situation; and that reliable Greek troops must be used as much as possible. Wilson was therefore to consider with General Weston and General Mackay1 what the essential permanent garrison ought to be.2
General Wilson's appreciation was that seaborne attack was not difficult and could be covered from the air in a way that would make it hard for the Navy to interfere. He therefore thought a combined sea and air invasion not improbable. Weston concurred and added that it was open to the enemy to build up a landing from unlimited resources and, given our difficulties in reinforcement, the reduction of the garrison would be only a matter of time.3
Wilson's view of the points that must be held and the garrison needed is also interesting. Heraklion and its airfield, Canea, Suda Bay, and Maleme would all have to be held at all costs; for without them the defence could not be reinforced. To do this three brigades each of four battalions would be required; and there should be a motor battalion as well. All this was exclusive of MNBDO which would be wanted for Suda Bay itself. These figures Wilson considered a bare minimum, even if the seaborne attack were thought unlikely. To use a smaller garrison would be to court disaster. And he stressed the need for more AA (a further HAA battery, a further LAA battery, and a searchlight battery); the weakness of signals in personnel and equipment; the difficulties of an administrative system which would have to contend with bad roads, shortage of MT and poor port facilities; and the scant usefulness of the southern beaches.
In fine, holding the island was a dangerous commitment unless all three services were ready to face the strain of maintaining an adequate force. An immediate decision was necessary.
3 Appreciation by General Wilson and Appendix C to it.
On 30 April General Wavell himself arrived by air and at once summoned a conference of all the senior commanders. We may quote General Freyberg for what took place:
We met in a small villa between Maleme and Canea and set to work at 11.30. General Wavell had arrived by air and he looked drawn and tired and more weary than any of us. Just prior to sitting down General Wavell and General Wilson had a heart-to-heart talk in one corner and then the C-in-C called me over. He took me by the arm and said: ‘I want to tell you how well I think the New Zealand Division has done in Greece. I do not believe any other Division would have carried out those withdrawals as well.’ His next words came as a complete surprise. He said he wanted me to take command of the Forces in Crete and went on to say that he considered Crete would be attacked in the next few days. I told him that I wanted to get back to Egypt to concentrate the Division and train and re-equip it, and I added that my Government would never agree to the Division being split permanently. He then said that he considered it my duty to remain and take on the job. I could do nothing but accept. With that over we sat down round the table on the flat-topped roof in the open air under an awning. The only subject on the agenda was the defence of Crete…. There was not very much to discuss. We were told that Crete would be held. The scale of attack envisaged was five to six thousand airborne troops plus a possible seaborne attack. The primary objectives of this attack were considered to be Heraklion and Maleme aerodrome. Our object was to deny the enemy the use of Crete as an air and submarine base.2
Two other points that emerged may be summarised here. There would be no additional air support, though Air Vice-Marshal D'Albiac said he was asking for some Glenn Martin planes; and the C-in-C undertook to discuss with Admiral Cunningham the question of naval action against seaborne attack.
1 Minutes of meeting, 28 Apr. The Greek units appear to have been partly locally formed and partly evacuees from the mainland, or troops from the mainland who were temporarily stationed in Crete at the time of the evacuation.
General Freyberg had now to take stock of his new command. What he had already seen of it was not encouraging: his own troops were weary and reduced to their personal weapons, while their organisation had been badly jolted by the confusion of the evacuation. He could assume that the rest of the troops from Greece were in a similar condition.
His first problem was that of a Headquarters. Force HQ in Canea he found in chaos. It was in the middle of moving to a Battle HQ in a quarry above Canea; but now the change in command meant that General Weston's own staff would be moving with him to his new command, that of Suda Bay defences and MNBDO. Apart from Colonel Keith Stewart,1 now to be his Brigadier General Staff, and a few signals personnel, General Freyberg had no one. This situation he had to remedy as best he could by recruiting suitable officers, British, Australian, and New Zealand, from those now on the island.2
But there was much else to be done. He had to glean from questioning, from maps, and from what personal reconnaissance he could spare time for, some notion of the island's geographical character. And this as we have seen was not reassuring. Crete ‘faced the wrong way with its three aerodromes, two harbours, and roads all situated on the north coast of the island…. Had it been possible to spin Crete round the story of the defence would probably have been the story of a successful siege.’3
With a rough idea of the general problem, he next turned to the garrison. ‘It was not unusual to find that the men had no arms or equipment, no plates, knives, forks, or spoons, and they ate and drank from bully beef or cigarette tins. There was no unit transport and no tools for most of the battalions. The morale of some of the odds and ends was low.’4
1 Maj-Gen K. L. Stewart, CB, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917–19; GSO 1 2 NZ Div, 1940–41; Deputy Chief of General Staff, Dec 1941–Jul 1943; commanded 5 Bde, Aug–Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde, Nov 1943–Mar 1944, and 5 Bde, Mar–Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944–Apr 1945; commanded 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) Nov 1945–Jul 1946; Adjutant-General, NZ Military Forces, Aug 1946–Mar 1949; Chief of General Staff Apr 1949–Mar 1952.
2 Australian Corps HQ and 6 Aust Div had been evacuated to Egypt almost complete. Thus there were few Australian senior officers and these were mostly required for operational duties with 19 Aust Bde.
4 Ibid, p. 4.
General Freyberg's response was immediate. He at once wired to General Wavell in order to introduce ‘a little reality into the calculations for the defence of Crete.’ He pointed out the total inadequacy of his force and insisted that, though it could fight and would fight, without the full support of the Navy and RAF it could not hope to succeed. If this support were not immediately available the question of holding the island ought to be reconsidered. And he warned Wavell that his engagement to the New Zealand Government made it his duty to report to it the present situation of his division.3 True to his word he wired the same day to Mr. Fraser, passing on the appreciation he had received and adding that there was no evidence that naval forces would be present in the strength required, while the RAF forces then on the island were quite inadequate.4 The action taken by the New Zealand Government on this has been referred to above.5
But, as a good commander, Freyberg was concerned that his uneasiness should travel only upwards for the ultimate strengthening of the defence and not downwards where it might have communicated itself to the troops under him; and as a positive move to strengthen their morale, he issued on 1 May a special order of the day:6
The withdrawal from Greece has now been completed. It has been a difficult operation. A smaller force held a much larger one at bay for over a month and then withdrew from an open beach. This rearguard battle and the withdrawal has been a great feat of arms. The fighting qualities and steadiness of the troops were beyond praise.
Today, the British forces in Crete stand and face another threat, the possibility of invasion. The threat of a landing is not a new one. In England we have faced it for nearly a year. If it comes here it will be delivered with all the accustomed air activity. We have in the last month learned a certain amount about the enemy air methods. If he attacks us here in Crete, the enemy will be meeting our troops on even terms, and those of us who met his infantry in the last month ask for no better chance. We are to stand now and fight him back. Keep yourselves fit and be ready for immediate action. I am confident that the force at our disposal will be adequate to defeat any attack that may be delivered upon this island.
Wavell did his best to redeem his promises. ‘The C-in-C Middle East did everything that was humanly possible to get us every available bit of equipment, artillery, and defence stores. They did their utmost to send us every bit of equipment they had. Libya was of course a constant worry and Iraq was boiling up. General Wavell had told me at the conference at Canea that he was at his wits' end for aircraft.’2
1 Mideast to Creforce, 2 May; Documents I, No. 392. The message reflects Wavell's anxieties. Pressed as he was for troops, it was perhaps all the easier for him to accept the view of Middle East Intelligence about the scale of attack. The War Office estimate turned out to be correct, but meanwhile it was hardly possible for General Freyberg to make any further protest. He had stated his view. The responsibility lay with General Wavell and the War Office, whose orders he had no choice but to carry out.
This was succeeded by Creforce Operation Instruction No. 10, dated 3 May and issued on 4 May. Since it establishes the pattern of defence as it was to remain with only minor changes until the outbreak of fighting, it will be best to quote its dispositions in full and then summarise the changes which took place later in those sectors where NZ Division was not directly concerned. The New Zealand dispositions will be treated in greater detail later.2
Creforce Operation Instruction No. 10 Ref. Map of Crete 1: 300,000
3 May 1941
Left boundary all incl: armyro (Georgeoupolis, B 3340)—askifou, B 2362).
SUDA BAY SECTOR—
Force Reserve. 1 Welch in SUDA BAY sector and 4 NZ Bde less one bn in MALEME sector are in Force Reserve. They will be administered by respective sector Comds, but will be kept concentrated and ready to move at short notice on orders from Force HQ. Comd 1 Welch will be in close touch with Comd 4 NZ Bde.1
At Heraklion the main changes in strength that took place before 20 May were additions to the garrison. After the arrival of MNBDO on 10 May C Battery, less two sections, was sent there. Six light tanks of 3 Hussars and two I tanks, all from the convoy which reached Crete on 14 May, were also despatched to Heraklion. The 2nd Leicesters which arrived from Egypt on 16 May were given to Heraklion and became its mobile reserve. And 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders which reached Tymbaki on 19 May were also intended for the Heraklion garrison. Moreover, with the arrival of MNBDO, 14 Infantry Brigade Signals were free to join their parent headquarters.
In the Retimo sector 19 Australian Brigade set up its headquarters about a mile west of Georgeoupolis and the sector was divided into two groups, an east group at Retimo and a west group at Almiros (Armyro) Bay. The garrison was reinforced on 8 May by 2/8 Australian Battalion and on 10 May with X Battery of MNBDO Coast Defence, and later with two of the I tanks that arrived on 16 May.
None the less, there were pressing problems of all kinds. By no means the least was that of maintenance. A force of 30,000 British troops and 11,000 Greek, together with 15,000 Italian prisoners and a population of 400,000, which even in peacetime could not be fed from the island's own resources and which had not yet got in its harvest, had somehow to be supplied. Moreover, if the inadequacies of the defence were to be built up, additional warlike stores and reinforcements had to be got in. The various other pressures on the Middle East command, the shortage of shipping, and the inadequate port facilities would of themselves have made this difficult enough. But, to make it more so, the Luftwaffe very quickly redeployed itself on the Greek airfields and began at once to subject shipping to persistent attack both at sea and at its moorings in Suda Bay. The air defence, weak to begin with, was soon little better than useless; while the AA defence, even had it been at maximum strength, would have been unable alone to protect the harbour. At first it was found possible to clear up to 700 tons a day through Suda. But as air attack increased only ships capable of 30 knots—destroyers and cruisers— and so able to get in and out by dark were of use. And these, even if they came two a night, could hardly manage more than 100 tons a day. It was already 19 May and 13 ships lay damaged in the harbour before the AA could be organised into an umbrella defence adequate to protect two vessels.
But between 20,000 and 30,000 tons a month were required to maintain the force.1 This was more than Suda Bay could handle; the other north coast ports could not help much and those on the south coast still less. Had transport aircraft been available they might have helped out; plans to use them were frustrated by the fact that they were not. Coastal shipping offered no solution because of the lack of both vessels and crews.
Despite all these difficulties, by the time battle began 60,000 rations and 10,000 gallons of POL1 had been dumped at Heraklion; 40,000 rations and 5000 gallons of POL at Retimo; and 80,000 rations and 5000 gallons of POL at Maleme. All units, moreover, had been ordered to hold three days' reserves of rations.2
Another serious problem was that of signals communications. The rapid increase in the garrison put a far greater strain on an already inadequate system. What could be done was done. The signals of MNBDO amalgamated with those of 52 LAA Regiment and took over the Suda Bay sector. Out of the seven officers and 180 ORs of New Zealand Divisional Signals who had come to Crete, signals for both Creforce HQ and NZ Division had to be found. Request for reinforcement was made but not complied with by the time battle began. With 20 May conditions became such that not even the most heroic efforts on the part of men and officers could prevent constant breakdowns in communication.
Medical arrangements were another difficulty. The only equipped units were 7 British General Hospital and 189 Field Ambulance which were already on the island when evacuation from Greece began. A welcome addition was 1 Tented Hospital, Royal Navy, which arrived from Egypt on 10 May and was set up at Mournies. The medical units from Greece had been able to bring away their portable first-aid equipment only. By the time battle began eleven ambulance cars had arrived but, though these did good work, in the face of the casualties to come they were bound to prove inadequate. And there were only 660 beds available.
A further worry was the presence of large numbers of troops who had been evacuated from Greece without weapons, or who were attached to no particular unit or whose specialist qualifications made it undesirable that they should be used in infantry operations for which they had no special aptitude. It was important from the supply point of view that these should be evacuated as soon as possible; the more especially as, having no special role in the work of preparing the defence, they were likely to get into mischief with the civil population.
1 Petrol, oil, and lubricants.
Finally there were the problems arising from the presence of the Greeks themselves. Not only had the Greek civil population to be provided for. The 11,000 Greek troops on the island had to be integrated into the defence scheme. They were for the most part untrained, ill-equipped, and unorganised. They had no transport, and they were armed with five different types of rifle and an average of less than 20 rounds of ammunition per man. A Greek army headquarters had to be formed and a General Staff. And Freyberg had to drain off from his own inadequate forces officers and NCOs to cope as best they might with the language difficulty and to try and help bring the force into shape.
Nor did the presence of the King himself make matters much easier; for his personal safety had to be provided for and was to prove a continual source of worry to General Freyberg before the battle and during the days that followed its opening.1
From the first it had been apparent that the garrison's deficiencies were more in material and supplies than in men. When, therefore, General Wavell cabled on 7 May offering to make 16 Infantry Brigade available if shipping allowed but suggesting that it would probably be best to equip the unarmed troops already there, General Freyberg agreed and said that reinforcement in men was not a first priority.
A second echelon of MNBDO arrived on 15 May, consisting of 23 LAA Battery, without guns, the HQ of 11 S/L Regiment, and a searchlight battery.
In his reply to General Wavell Freyberg had stressed the fact that he had plenty of gunners but a deficiency in guns, ammunition, tractors, and signal equipment. Wavell appears to have responded by sending about 100 guns. But of those that arrived some came without instruments, some without ammunition; and some of the ammunition that did arrive lacked fuses. When all was sorted out and cannibalisation practised as far as could be, the total came to 49 field guns with three to four hundred rounds per gun. These were distributed to the various sectors under arrangements made by Colonel J. H. Frowen, the CRA Creforce.1 A large proportion went to the Maleme-Canea section.
In the same message General Freyberg had also asked for Vickers machine guns, Bren guns, rifles and bayonets, mortars, and ammunition to match. These, though never in superfluous quantities, arrived on a scale not far from sufficient. Along with the 30 per cent of weapons taken from troops embarking for Egypt, they were enough to arm 102 Anti-Tank Regiment,2 106 Regiment RHA, 7 Medium Regiment, 7 NZ Field Company, 5 Field Park Company, and 19 Army Troops Company as infantry. In addition these arms went to help equip a New Zealand Composite Battalion and various other ad hoc forces.
But, apart from these reinforcements in weapons and more or less specialist personnel, the chief addition to the garrison consisted of 2 Leicesters, which, as has been seen, went to Heraklion to replace 1 Welch, and 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who did not however arrive until 19 May. And the promised tanks also appeared, though in insufficient numbers.
1 Formerly CO 64 Med Regt RA.
Of the light tanks six were sent to Heraklion on 18 May; the rest were to go to 4 NZ Brigade, but by 19 May three were still in ordnance being repaired. Two of the I tanks were sent to Heraklion, two to Retimo, and two to Maleme. In these areas they were dug in and camouflaged. They were to be held in reserve for counter-attack.
In the Greek evacuation the prime concern of the RAF in Crete was the protection of convoys and the reception of airmen. This over, the next problem was to evacuate all those for whom there was no role. By 9 May this had been done and the garrison was left at a strength of five squadrons, very weak in men and machines, and the two AMES. The squadrons mustered only 36 aircraft in all, 24 at Maleme and the rest at Heraklion. Most of these were unserviceable, and soon those that could be flown were in the air only because others had been cannibalised. Crews and ground staff, moreover, were already very tired, in low spirits and without kit. There was no chance to rest them, for enemy air activity kept all at high pressure.
Such defensive measures on the ground as were possible were hurried forward. As there were no military forces to spare from the garrison for the landing ground at Pediada Kastelli, trenches were dug across it to make it unfit for use, and for those parts of the others not required similar action was taken. At the three operational aerodromes, Maleme, Heraklion and Retimo, dumps of food and ammunition were established, and at the first two a number of protective pens were dug, though shortage of labour and constant enemy air interruption made progress slow. Communications were improved and co-ordinated so far as time and resources in men and materials permitted. No AA guns could be spared for Retimo but twenty 40-millimetre Bofors were divided between the other two, and each was given a number of RAF machine guns; none of these latter were available for Retimo and it had to rely for such protection on the army.
1 War Diary C Sqn, 3 H and WD B Sqn, 7 RTR. Lt Roy Farran, Winged Dagger (Collins, London), p. 84, says the light tanks were of an old type and from the Western Desert, ‘battered, ancient hulks’. There were no proper cooling systems for the guns and wirelesses could not be fitted in time for the embarkation.
By 13 May General Freyberg was signalling to Middle East that there were only six Hurricanes left but that he had expectations of ten more. In the circumstances Middle East would have to take over the main task of reconnaissance and the remaining fighters would have to be employed against enemy attack. But after 13 May enemy attacks increased in intensity, and though the expected ten Hurricanes arrived on the 17th they were not able to redress the heavy odds. Day after day the troops on the ground saw them go up against an enemy hopelessly superior in numbers. It soon became apparent to both Freyberg and Beamish that to keep the few aircraft that were left would be a vain sacrifice of men and machines. Accordingly they decided to fly those that were left out to Egypt. And on 19 May the surviving three Hurricanes and three Gladiators at Heraklion and the one Hurricane at Maleme flew away.1
No one, even of the troops whom this decision left without air support, would dispute that it was just; for if stronger forces could not be put up against the German Air Force there was nothing to be said for continuing the useless sacrifice of brave men and valuable machines. What is more disputable and obscure is the failure to destroy the airfields and evacuate the ground troops. According to Group Captain Beamish the intention was that the RAF should return in greater numbers and at a later stage. And although no document is available in which this is unequivocally stated, it seems clear that the view of the Chiefs of Staff was ultimately responsible. The result was that although every soldier near Maleme could see a case for destroying that airfield, it was obstructed but not destroyed. And, as events were to confirm, not to destroy the airfields was to make them more difficult to defend.2
While in these preparatory days the tiny air force in Crete was doing a suicidal best to check enemy attacks in the air over the island, bomber forces from Egypt had been engaged in a more strategic role. On each of the nights between 13 and 19 May, Wellingtons had been over the airfields on the mainland or on the islands where the enemy was massing his air fleet for the invasion; and on the morning of 17 May Beaufighters had been similarly engaged. These attacks caused damage; but the numbers of aircraft employed were pitifully small and there was no question of their causing any serious check to the enemy's plans.
2 A letter from the Air Historical Branch of the Air Ministry, dated 26 Nov 1949, states that the responsibility for the decision not to destroy Maleme airfield cannot be assigned on evidence available; but the apologetic tone of COS (41) 358, 6 Jun 1941, suggests that the Chief of Air Staff was ultimately responsible and this accords with the view expressed by Air Marshal Portal at COS (41) 161, 5 May. See p. 35. COS 358 dwells on the difficulties of effective demolition, but there seems little doubt that these could have been overcome if a clear policy for demolition had been laid down.
The Navy had no sooner completed the embarkation of 50,000 troops from Greece than it had to turn its attentions to the defence of Crete and the role it was to play there. One of its tasks was to convoy the supplies and men that had to be got ashore in the build-up period. Against all the difficulties and with the aid of strenuous efforts on the part of Captain J. A. V. Morse,1 Naval Officer-in-Charge at Suda Bay, it managed to run in 15 ships between 29 April and 20 May and offload some 15,000 tons of supplies. And it got 2 Leicesters safely ashore at Heraklion on the night of 15 May, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Tymbaki on the night of 18 May.
Besides this, however, it had to take its own measures against the expected attack; for the garrison on land depended on it for dealing with invasion by sea. The most probable date for invasion was thought at first to be 17 May. As Suda Bay's anchorage potentialities were limited by the heavy day-bombing raids, Alexandria had to be the base of operations—420 miles from Suda. The plan was to keep part of the Fleet at sea ready to meet whatever might turn up, and part in port against the possibility that the forces at sea might run short of fuel.
The most likely landing places were thought to be Canea, Retimo, Heraklion, Kisamos Bay and Sitia. On 15 May Admiral Cunningham had one force (Force C) at sea ready to deal with Sitia; another (Force D) ready for landings west of Retimo; a third (Force B) ready to attack enemy forces north-west of Crete or support Force D; and Force A, which included the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Barham, west of Crete and ready to cover the others.2 In reserve at Alexandria were the battleships Warspite and Valiant, the aircraft carrier Formidable (with only four serviceable aircraft), the cruisers Orion and Ajax, and a number of destroyers. The forces at sea would carry out sweeps at night, a submarine was to operate round Lemnos, the minelayer Abdiel was to lay mines between Cephallonia and Levkas,3 and seven MTBs were to operate from Suda Bay. There would also be some air reconnaissance, though meagre.
2 Composition of naval forces from 15 to 20 May:
Force A: 2 battleships, 5 destroyers.
Force B: 2 cruisers, 2 destroyers.
Force C: 2 cruisers, 4 destroyers.
Force D: 2 cruisers, 4 destroyers.