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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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.
KELLY - MOUNTBATTEN
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.
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.
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
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!