Chapter 9 Crete - A Losing Battle

 

 

Scrap Iron Flotilla
CRETE - A LOSING BATTLE

 

The first Australians from Greece had landed in Crete on 25 April. They went ashore at Suda Bay still weary from their unequal struggle with the well-equipped Nazis, who had been able to throw squadron after squadron of bombers at them as they fled from ports already reduced to blazing rubble by the Luftwaffe.

Most of the men who had been evacuated had managed to keep their equipment, but there were many unarmed troops, too, among the long lines who disembarked from the transports. Non-combatant troops were to prove a big problem in Crete, for supplies of even light arms were none too plentiful. There was practically no heavy anti-aircraft equipment and German air domination of the approaches to the tiny island made the supply route almost untenable.

In Suda Bay itself was a strange collection of shipping. There were modern British and Australian cruisers, cunningly camouflaged, well armoured and well armed. There were speedy destroyers, some grey, some wearing dazzle paint, anchored for a brief rest between convoys. There were merchantmen of all shapes and sizes and nationalities- British and Dutch and Greek and Norwegian and Yugoslavian.

 

And then there were the others. Among them were strange looking barges which had been designed for landing troops and tanks; there were fishing-boats of every description; there were schooners captured along the Libyan coast; there were small tugs-anything, everything, that could take troops from the bomb-torn harbours of Greece.

 

But the Navy attempted to get equipment through in spite of the Luftwaffe. Nor was the Luftwaffe the only threat! Small convoys ran the gauntlet of submarines, which lurked in the waters round Suda Bay, and U-boats made frequent sorties against them from Italian island bases.

 


Evacuation of Diggers aboard RAN Destroyers

 

On 1 May a large convoy, escorted by a number of cruisers and destroyers, was attacked by U-boats in Kaso Strait, but all attacks were driven off without loss to the convoy. A week later, almost in the same position, Stuart detected a submarine, attacked it, and was believed to have sunk it. On 12 May another U-boat was attacked with unknown results and in nearby waters Voyager and Vampire both claimed "kills". May was to be a busy month!

 

Crete was no Greece-well stocked, "flowing with milk and honey". The people themselves welcomed the troops, gave them what they could, but they could not feed a tenth of the number of men. Convoys had to get through!

 

The German offensive began on 20 May with a continuous dive-bombing attack on Suda Bay. The sky was blue and clear, and the German planes were able to dive unopposed except for light machine-gun fire, picking out their targets as they willed. The Imperial troops had made good use of their brief stay on the island and their positions were well camouflaged, but the few heavy anti-aircraft posts were soon silenced by the sheer weight of German bombs. At Canea, just along the coast, parachute troops began to land from planes, and troop-carrying gliders crashed into the hills. The slaughter was terrible, but the Nazis seemed to have endless resources.

 

At Suda Bay the air was heavy with smoke. Fumes from burning oil belched in thick plumes into the sky, until it seemed that the sun itself was shrouded with a black mantle and the waters of the bay grew dark and sullen. The picture of Suda Bay was painted anew-a dark, forbidding sky, the crisp air now stale with the smell of burning, the green of the olive-trees darkened, the hills barely visible through the smoke, and the once-blue water filthy with scum and oil and debris.

 

And offshore the Navy waited. Through the long night of 20 May they prowled in search of enemy shipping, but found none. Then, as they moved out into the Aegean at daylight, German bombers greeted them with a four-hour raid. At noon Perth sighted a caique manned by troops who had already hoisted a white flag. Some of the soldiers, who were obviously German, lowered a boat, and made signs that they were abandoning ship. Soon the deck was clear, but Perth was not deceived, and a few rounds were fired from the multiple pom-poms.
Then, from the holds of the caique, Germans came pouring, their hands raised. They swarmed over the deck like ants, flung themselves into the water. When the last soldier had left, Perth sank the caique with a single shot from a 4-inch gun.

 

Perth was dive-bombed continually from dawn next day and more than one hundred bombs fell close to the ship's side before the Australian cruiser joined the main battle fleet. The Germans, facing no fighter opposition, swooped down at will. Yet they scored no hits. There was no respite at night, either, for E-boats dashed out in a series of determined attacks which suddenly ceased when three of the eight were blown to fragments.

 

In the morning of 22 May the Royal Navy suffered its first casualty since the battle for Crete actually began. The destroyer Juno was directly hit by a stick of bombs in Kaso Strait, and sank within seventy seconds.

 

The German attempt at a sea-borne invasion was made that night. From their newly won bases in the north the Nazis sailed in Greek fishing-boats, small merchant ships and destroyers-six thousand trained invasion troops packed shoulder to shoulder in every type of craft.

 

At 11 p.m. British destroyers, scouting ahead of the cruisers, sighted a darkened ship, and immediately opened fire. Salvo after salvo poured into the merchant ship and its human freight. Soon it blazed from stem to stem, a fiery torch providing the light in which British ships could distinguish the enemy.

 

A British cruiser captain, who told his story later, said that the first ship they sighted was a destroyer.

 

'We altered course and entered the fray. The destroyer's identity was doubtful, but a searchlight picked out her immaculate paintwork, indicative of months in harbour. We opened fire. The Italian launched five torpedoes, then blew up as she was struck by a full 6-inch. broadside. She never fired throughout the engagement."

 

The slaughter continued endlessly. British cruisers steamed among the caiques, blasting them to pieces with 4-inch guns and tearing great holes in them with shattering fire from multiple pom-poms. Destroyers, who had accounted for another transport, rammed and sank small boats laden with screaming Germans. The sea boiled with the explosion of shells and the screams of the wounded and terrified pierced the crashing thunder of the guns.

 

Some of the caiques flew the Greek flag although Nazi soldiers could be seen on deck. The Germans were mown down by fire from pom-poms, machine guns of every type and calibre, and even by rifle fire. Their boats, holed and splintered, overturned and sank, or wallowed helplessly until they were crushed and torn by the lean, sharp bows of racing destroyers. The water was dotted with bobbing, oil-covered bodies.

 

The chase went on until dawn. Then there were no more ships left. The British ships steamed back through waters thick with scum and debris, and the cries of the wounded were eerie in the strange new silence. A few Germans still clung to wreckage and their appeals for help could be plainly heard. Occasionally the silence was broken as a destroyer's knife-bows crunched through mangled remains of a frail craft.

 

No Germans landed on Crete that night. And in the morning the waters which lapped the shores of the island were tinged with blood. Bodies tumbled, grotesque and ugly, in the breakers.

 

Six thousand men had perished off the coast. On 23 May Perth, Ajax and Orion were attacked by dive bombers from 5.30 a.m. and other bombers attacked the main fleet which was steaming through the Kythera Channel. When the cruisers rejoined the Fleet the Germans came over in greater force, continuing their attacks until after 8 p.m., Dorniers, Junkers, Heinkels and Messerschmitts attacking throughout the day.

 

At speeds of sometimes more than thirty knots the cruisers and destroyers weaved in and out, turning and twisting to avoid the avalanche of bombs. Main armament was concentrated on the high-level bombers and the Stukas felt the full weight of countless pom-poms and smaller weapons. Red-hot bomb splinters riddled the superstructure of the British cruiser Orion and almost every ship was scarred by shrapnel.

 

While the bombers showered their deadly loads of "eggs" on the cruisers an Italian destroyer was sighted and straddled by a 6-inch salvo which appeared to damage the bridge. Shells burst among the convoy astern of the destroyer and six caiques, each carrying about one hundred Germans, were
sunk. The remaining caiques and merchantmen fled. Then the Luftwaffe launched its fiercest onslaught. Land was visible on both sides and the bombers' bases were only a few minutes' flying away. The sky teemed with planes.

 

At about 1.30 Greyhound dashed away to sink another German troop-laden caique and immediately a swarm of about one hundred dive bombers concentrated on her, scoring direct hits which buckled her side and deck plating amidships. She had been struck aft and fire swept her from the bridge to quarterdeck. Smoke poured from the engine-room and explosions racked her as the magazine blew up. Three officers and eighty-eight men were taken off by two other destroyers, and German planes machine-gunned survivors as they struggled towards the rescuing ships. Gloucester and Fiji moved over in spite of the concentrated hail of bombs, and supported the operation.

 

The giant guns of the battleships boomed incessantly, Warspite sending up a terrific barrage into the horde of planes which hovered above her. But no barrage could cope with the scores of planes which dived incessantly and Warspite was twice struck aft. Few casualties were caused and little damage was done to the armament. Warspite shook under the impact of the bombs, shuddered through the leaping fountains which spurted up ahead of her, and ploughed steadily on, her guns pointing defiantly upwards belching smoke and flame at the fleeting bombers.

 


HMS WARSPITE

 

From Kythera and Milos came more and more bombers. Many had paid the price of their audacity and crumpled wreckage paid tribute to the accuracy of the British fire. But there were more than three hundred bombers in the air and they were continually being reinforced by fresh planes. Gloucester was the next ship hit, a direct hit bringing her to a standstill. Bombers swarmed over her as she lay stricken, her guns still blazing. Fiji, near by, was unable to protect her, for scores of fighter bombers raced in to attack her, too. From blazing Gloucester men began to jump into the water, for their guns were surrounded by flames and they could fire no longer. Rafts and carley floats had been gutted by bombs and fire, and Fiji's crew flung their rafts over the side so that Gloucester's crew could cling to them. Messerschmitts dived on the men in the water, strafing them ceaselessly while bombers dropped stick after stick of bombs among the rafts. Then the Stukas scored again.

 

Fiji's errand of mercy had not met the end it deserved. Two sticks of bombs crashed on to her deck, demolishing the bridge and smashing the engine-room. Then the magazine was hit and the cruiser flopped over and disappeared. Again destroyers raced in to pick up survivors. Again they were singled out for attack. Again men in the water were machine-gunned and bombed.

 

So it continued until night brought welcome relief. Men, their backs aching, wiped the sweat from their eyes with grimy hands, and thanked God that they were still alive. Survivors changed into dry clothing and the fleet steamed out of Kythera Channel. They had lost heavily, but they had accomplished their task. The sea-borne invasion attempt had been smashed and scores of German planes had been shot down and damaged.

 

But that was not all. Stealing in to the coast under cover of darkness, Kelly, commanded by intrepid Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, and Kashmir bombarded the Germans at Maleme. Both ships were heavily dive-bombed while attempting to rejoin the Fleet and Kelly, turning at thirty knots under full helm, was hit directly and overturned. Kashmir was struck amidships, and sank within a few minutes. Kelvin, who was about half a mile away from Kelly, raced in and rammed the overturned destroyer, tearing a hole in the side through which a large number of Kelly's crew escaped. Then Kelvin stood by for six hours, and, with Kimberley, took aboard survivors from the two bombed ships. News of Kelvin's action had reached Alexandria and when the destroyer steamed into port officers and men lined the decks of every ship in the harbour and cheered her.

 

Meanwhile the Australian destroyers had not been idle. Supplies to Crete were maintained even in that grim week of British defence of the island and this story, told by a rating in Stuart, was typical of every convoy.

 

"We left Alexandria late on 25 May with the anti-aircraft cruiser Coventry and the British destroyer Jaguar. We had some merchant ships with us and no one doubted that we would get the usual 'welcome' from the Luftwaffe.

 

"Sure enough, about 10 o'clock next morning, the look-out sighted aircraft. They were high-level bombers and they plastered us for about half an hour without scoring a hit. They gave us time off for lunch, but just after 1 p.m. some Junkers 88's arrived and dive-bombed us for about ten minutes. There weren't many of them, but about twenty minutes after they left some more dive bombers attacked and we were beginning to get a bit tired of the sight of them.

 

"Apparently it was a bad day for bombing, because they didn't score a hit. By 2.30 the sky was clear again, and we went back to work. We had tea, and were just hoping that Jerry had given up the idea of any more attacks, when "Repel aircraft" sounded again. I don't think we ever had so many planes dive-bomb us at once before.

 

"For half an hour there was the ceaseless shrieking of bombs and the snarling roar of bombers diving almost vertically. As one bomber released his 'eggs' and zoomed away another was poised, waiting, and then he screamed down too. There must have been thirty dive bombers and they kept us pretty busy. The gunners were swearing as they tried to keep their guns trained on the bombers attacking us. Then, as the 'eggs' started to fall, those who had no guns to man would fall flat on the deck, wait for the 'crump' as the bombs hit the water, and then stand up again. It wasn't nice.

 

"Coventry was putting up a terrific barrage and Jaguar and Stuart gave everything they had until the Jerries made off. I don't know if it was good gunnery or good luck or a bit of both, but they didn't even score a near miss.

 

"We thought that was the end, but about 9 p.m. some more visitors arrived. It was nearly dusk and half a dozen torpedo bombers were sighted on the horizon, coming in about one hundred feet above the surface. Every one was properly fed up by this time and they got a warm reception- too warm apparently, for they dropped their 'fish' a good way off and scooted back to their bases."

 

Under conditions like these, with bombers operating from Greece as well as the Italian island bases, it was little wonder that the Fleet lost heavily in ships. That convoys got through at all is a striking tribute to the Navy and the merchant service alike.

 

A week after the German assault on Crete began naval units evacuated troops from Heraklion, on the north-east side of the island, but the main port of embarkation was to be Sphakia, almost due south of Suda Bay.

 

On 29 May, a force of cruisers, destroyers and troopships arrived in Sphakia Bay, Perth and Stuart among them. They arrived just before midnight and the evacuation began immediately. The sound of battle was faint and distant, but planes roared overhead and it seemed that the ships must have been seen in the bright moonlight. Then the bombers were gone, too, and the starry sky was clear again.

 

Ships anchored offshore and soon great flat-bottomed barges began to push out from the beach, crammed with war-weary men.

 

There were Australian, New Zealand and British soldiers. There were Royal and Dominion naval ratings, survivors of ships sunk near the island. There were merchant seamen who had rowed ashore from bombed ships. There were Greeks, too, who had escaped from their homeland to continue the fight. Tonight they all looked the same-weary, stumbling aboard under the weight of their precious rifles and light automatic weapons. In the messdecks they were given steaming kye and biscuits. Then they stretched out on deck and slept.

 

There were wounded, too. Some were carried aboard on stretchers; some limped aboard aided by their cobbers. Many who were not wounded limped, too. The trek across the mountains had not been easy.

 

Strangely silent, but swarming with men-that was Sphakia Bay. On shore there appeared to be no movement, but thousands of men waited patiently for their turn to enter the small boats which would take them to the troopships. Boatload after boatload pushed off from the shore and soldiers clambered aboard every ship in the bay.

 

Perth took 1888 men, one hundred and twenty wounded among them. Orion took 1100, the troopships took more:

 

The destroyers took aboard more than they could accommodate. A time limit had to be set on the operation, for the ships could not be found off the coast at dawn. Tomorrow would be bad enough no matter how far they were from Crete, for the Nazis were not likely to allow these troops to escape without a fight.

 

The convoy was attacked throughout the day. Dive bombers, high-level bombers and torpedo bombers made five separate attacks, dropping tons of bombs around the convoy, but Perth was the only ship hit. The Australian cruiser's forward boiler was put out of action by a direct hit which killed two stokers, two cooks and nine soldiers. The Germans, who throughout the campaign had concentrated on damaged ships, directed their attacks at Perth and the cruiser was continually hidden from the rest of the convoy by leaping spray.

 

"On a dozen occasions it seemed that she was gone," one of Stuart's ratings told me. "Heavy bombs burst in the water all round her and she was completely straddled by 'stick' after 'stick'. Then the bows would appear, crested by foam, and as the spray and the smoke from bursting bombs settled, we could see her again, her guns pointing into the sky and capped by spurting flame and smoke.

 

"We were pretty busy ourselves, but I think we cheered."

 

So far the Australian destroyers were unscathed and Perth's loss of four ratings was the R.A.N.'s heaviest loss in personnel in the campaign. The men killed were Leading Cook W. B. Frazer, Cook N. T. Smith, Stoker H. Straker and Stoker (2) H. C. Smith. Three other ratings were slightly wounded.

 

On 27 May the British Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, announced the loss of the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji and the destroyers Juno, Greyhound, Kelly and Kashmir. It was a striking tribute to British naval strength in the Mediterranean, for losses had previously been withheld for days and even weeks. Now, with Italy's Fleet swept from their Mare Nostrum, nothing would be gained by delaying the announcement of sinkings.

 

HMS KELLY - MOUNTBATTEN

"Two battleships and several other cruisers have been damaged, but not seriously," Mr. Churchill continued. Within a few weeks most of the ships were back at sea again, but in the meantime Calcutta, Hereford, Imperial were sunk-the only three losses in the actual evacuation from Crete.

 

The stage was set for the final act in the drama when a battle squadron put to sea from Alexandria to screen the last of the evacuation. Voyager and Vendetta were with the destroyer screen which included hex, Isis, Nubian, Jervis, Kimberley and Hero. Astern were the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant and the aircraft carrier Formidable, with a cruiser escort.

 

Ahead of the destroyers, Formidable's fighters soon went into action. The slow Stukas were shot down as they tried to pierce the fighter screen fifty miles ahead of the battleships, but then, by sheer weight of numbers, they managed to straggle past and alarm rattlers sounded as the "Aircraft approaching" signal was hoisted at the flagship's masthead.

 

The sky was blue and clear. Tiny dots began to appear in the distance and the hum of powerful engines grew louder. Then the Stukas were overhead. Formidable, whose fighters had taken such terrible toll of the bombers, was singled out for special attention and bomber after bomber hurtled down almost to the flight deck. Through the hail of bursting shells they roared, one closely following the other to give the gunners no respite. Formidable was hit once, forward on the starboard side, and for ten minutes a fire raged fiercely on deck. Then the flames were beaten back and the huge carrier, twisting and turning at high speed, dodged in and out between the leaping fountains of spray that cloaked the bursting bombs.

 

Simultaneously the battleships were bombed. Covered with a haze of brown smoke which oozed from the muzzles of their restless guns, the huge ships turned slowly and poured furious, violent salvos at their attackers. Twice they disappeared as bombs flung spray far above the tall director tower and it seemed that the Stukas had scored. But Queen Elizabeth and Valiant were unscathed.

 

Now hundreds of bombers were in the air, twisting in loose formation, trying to manoeuvre into position for their dives. British fighters continued to take toll and Stuka after Stuka crumpled in the hail of ack-ack fire from the ships. Every ship was being attacked except Ajax and Vendetta and there were a dozen planes to every ship.


HMS GLOUCESTER

 

Then it was Voyager's turn. A single Stuka circled into position above the tiny destroyer, seemed to stand on his nose as he poised to begin his dive. Commander Morrow altered course just as the German dived, but Voyager was doing thirty knots and the Nazi four hundred. It seemed that they could not turn in time, and the huge black bomb appeared to float down directly over the bridge. Voyager began to turn faster. The bomb plummeted into the wake, sending up a green and white sea which thumped down on the quarterdeck.

 

Destroyers and cruisers were changing course abruptly, trying to dodge each other as well as the bombers. Huge waterspouts grew and died and the sea was covered with the haze of cordite fumes and smoke from burning aircraft. The thunder of big guns and the chattering of smaller weapons was the background for the roar of diving planes and the whine and whistle of falling bombs.

 

Nubian, next to Voyager in the destroyer screen, was badly hit aft and the stern was torn off at "Y" turret. Swarms of bombers hovered above her to finish her off, but as the first one dived the British destroyer showed her teeth. Her remaining guns flashed and roared and the Stuka shuddered under the impact of steel. Then it dived headlong into the water astern of Voyager, exploding in a cloud of smoke and flame.

 

Badly damaged though she was, Nubian set off at twenty knots for Alexandria, her damaged stern seeming to drag through the water. She had steamed less than a mile when six low-level bombers attacked and thirty bombs crashed into the water all round her, hiding her from the ships who raced to her assistance. Somehow the bombs missed and the destroyer reached Alexandria. The bombers left now and during the afternoon British fighters appeared to beat off any further attacks. Vendetta and Voyager remained at sea with the Fleet, but the damaged ships returned to Alexandria.

 

On 31 May Vampire sailed from the Mediterranean. She had just returned from Tobruk and once again the engines were giving trouble. From December 1939 she had been. worked without respite and there had been no time for an adequate refit, but now British destroyers had arrived in greater force, Italy's potential menace had been reduced and Vampire could be spared. With their "oppos" from Voyager and Vendetta, Vampire's crew went for their last run in Alexandria. They were going home!

 

The evacuation from Crete had been costly, but it had been worth while. The Admiralty announced that seventeen thousand troops were taken from the island in spite of the fact that "the necessity of carrying out embarkations by night meant that men had to be taken three hundred and sixty miles to Egypt during the fourteen hours of daylight". The Navy had shot down planes, an Italian destroyer was sunk and another damaged, two merchantmen and scores of caiques were destroyed, and six thousand well-equipped German troops were killed or drowned. The price in lost ships was three cruisers and six destroyers.

 

There were some who said that the decision to defend Crete was a bad one and others who declared that the evacuation was a costly choice.

 

In his review of the campaign before Parliament, Mr. Churchill said, "It was not a choice between what was good and what was bad. It was a choice between two terrible alternatives. . . . It has been proved, time and time again throughout the war, that stubborn resistance, even against heavy odds, is an essential element of victory."

 

Compared with Greece and Crete, the evacuation of Dunkirk had been almost a picnic. Over the Channel the Royal Air Force had been able, for a few hours at least, to snatch supremacy from the Luftwaffe. Only a fool would deny that the Navy, merchant service and those who manned the small boats carried out their task with skill and courage.

 

But the evacuation line from Greece was fifty times as long as that across the Channel. There was no fighter protection from high- and low-level and dive-bombing, from torpedo bombing and fighter strafing. Every plane was an enemy. The same Hun who had blasted Athens and machine-gunned women and children as they ran through the streets to their pitifully inadequate shelters in the sides of cliffs loosed his fury on the armada of warships and merchantmen who dared to pluck Allied troops from within his very grasp.

 

That was the story of Greece and Crete. The merchant-men, slower than their escorts and less heavily armed and armoured, suffered most. But they did not shirk their duty as they steamed behind the Navy through the gauntlet of bombs and U-boats and mines and torpedoes.

 

We lost, but Germany and Italy lost too. The blue waters of the Aegean hide the shattered hulks of U-boats, and beside them, and all along the route from Greece to Crete and from Crete to Alexandria, are the mangled remains of Junkers and Dorniers, Savoias and Messerschmitts. There had been victory even in the grim hour of defeat!