The Royal Navy and the Evacuation of British Troops from Crete – Part 4

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The British Fight to Hold Onto Crete

A Fallschirmjäger and a DFS 230 glider in Crete.

A mixed bunch of 40,000 regular British Army and Commonwealth troops were sent to Crete to bolster the 14,000 British soldiers already on the island. Of the 40,000 sent to re-enforce the island, 10,000 did not have arms or equipment and were dumped in Crete during the incredible confusion of the evacuation just to get them out of Greece. There was no time to send them to Egypt before the Germans attacked Crete.

Included in this force were some 9,000 Greek troops in various states of organization and disorganization with some being veteran soldiers, others transport and logistics personnel and others being cadets. Added to this group were the local gendarmerie on Crete.

Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg VC, commanding officer of the British forces on Crete, gazes over the parapet of his dug-out in the direction of the German advance. – May 1941

[Source: Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War by Correlli Barnett. Images courtesy of Wikipedia and Wikipedia.]

The Royal Navy and the Evacuation of British Troops from Crete – Part 3

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British Troops Fight a Desperate Rearguard Action in Greece While Falling Back to the Coast

New Zealand troops taken off the Greek mainland are brought to Suda Bay in Crete, then occupied by one British division of 14,000 men. These troops were meant as reinforcements.

Roughly 50,000 of the original 65,000 to 70,000 British troops on the mainland were rescued by the Royal Navy. Most these men were sent to Egypt — then a British protectorate — to be re-organized and re-equipped. Great Britain’s losses were heavy: 12,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing.

While the Royal Air Force made a brave effort — losing more than 200 aircraft — to fight off the Luftwaffe, the Brits never achieved air superiority over the Greek beaches or port. This left the merchant and naval ships evacuating soldiers to Crete at the mercy of German dive bombers. In Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War, author Correlli Barnett writes:

…the Luftwaffe sank 26 Allied ships during the evacuation, including five hospital ships.

The Germans seemed to have a special penchant for sinking British and later American hospital ships — this being a flagrant violation of the Hague Convention and articles in several of the Geneva Conventions.

Members of the Australian 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment resting, 13 April 1941, after their withdrawal from the Vevi area. The unit suffered heavy losses in the first German attacks on Australian positions in Greece.

[Source: Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War by Correlli Barnett. Images courtesy of the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection and Wikipedia.]

The Royal Navy and the Evacuation of British Troops from Crete – Part 2

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British Troops Fight a Desperate Rearguard Action in Greece While Falling Back to the Coast

Bundesarchiv photo showing New Zealand and British troops who were compelled to surrender during the bungled effort to stop the German invasion of Greece. This is April 1941. When the general retreat of British and Commonwealth troops began, units tried desperately to reach the coast so they could be taken off by the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, thousands were captured by the Germans.

When British and Greek troops failed to hold Greece against the German invasion, the Royal Navy had to evacuate tens of thousands of British and Commonwealth troops from open beaches off the Greek mainland. As you might imagine, this is a lot more difficult to do than board troops off of docks and piers. While ports were certainly in operation, they were under fierce air attack by the Germans. Plus the British troops often could not get through to a Greek port. They could only get to the coast itself. As in Lord Nelson’s day, many of the soldiers had to be taken off the beaches by Royal Navy cutters which were large boats rowed by a crew of eight to ten.

The Royal Navy was not able to rescue them all as the above photograph testifies. Many of the soldiers were British and Commonwealth troops from New Zealand and Australia. Many British and American generals believed that aside from the elite British units such as the Brigade of Guards, British Commonwealth troops fought better and harder than the average British division conscripted for the war. As these evacuations continued with the Commonwealth troops putting up a stronger fight than the British divisions, there was widespread fear in the upper ranks of the British Government and military that British infantry did not want to fight.

Nazi Germany’s Attack on Greece – The map above will give you an idea of how the British Army retreated down the Greek mainland and subsequently were lifted off to Egypt or Crete.

[Images courtesy of World War 2 Today and Wikipedia.]

The Royal Navy and the Evacuation of British Troops from Crete – Part 1

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The Disaster of Trying to Help Greece

German artillery firing during the advance through Greece. They are firing an 149 mm K-series artillery piece made by the Skoda Works in Czechoslovakia. When Prime Minister Chamberlain of Great Britain allowed Hitler to occupy much of Czechoslovakia, what the Germans really, really wanted was the Skoda Works, one of the largest and for the time most advanced manufacturer of arms in the world. As you will note from the photo above, the Germans wasted no time in placing orders for Skoda products.

One of the worst military disasters to befall the British Empire in World War Two was their brave yet completely disorganized and futile effort to assist Greece in beating back the German invasion of that country. While everyone knew a German attack was imminent, Greece continued to maintain their neutrality while inviting the British to send armed forces to their country. But their neutrality compelled them to continue diplomatic relations with Germany so as not to give the Germans any excuse for accusing them of hostile acts. (Such as expelling German diplomats.)

This allowed German military and naval attaches to stand in full view of the British ships debarking troops and equipment into Piraeus, the main port for Athens. And the Germans counted all these soldiers to the last private and all the equipment to the last tank and all the supplies to the last cartridge.

A portrait of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet in April 1941. He is dressed in ‘whites’, or Royal Navy tropical dress. Rescuing British troops from Greece and subsequently Crete was to prove far more difficult than Cunningham or anyone else could have imagined.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia and the UK Imperial War Museums.]