The Navy Museum Blog

Updates, news and images from the Royal New Zealand Navy Museum

The Naval Battle for Crete

For the Navy the Battle for Crete covers the period from late April to early June 1941 and falls into two phases — the evacuation of troops from Greece to Crete; and the evacuation of Crete. The seven weeks prior to these operations the Navy had been fully occupied transporting troops to Greece. Operation LUSTRE concluded on 24 April and Operation DEMON, the evacuation, commenced on the 25th. These operations involved virtually the whole of the Mediterranean Fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham.

 Suda Bay on Crete was used as a base for the Navy and also as a staging post for many of the anticipated 58,000 troops to be repatriated to Egypt. By 3 May, when the evacuation of Greece was concluded, about 50,600 men had been taken off, much of the time under severe air attacks. Following the withdrawal from Greece the situation on Crete was: the Navy had a base at Suda Bay; air cover was provided by one squadron of the Fleet Air Arm and there was an Army garrison of about 30,000 men, under a New Zealander, Lieutenant General Freyberg. The Army was lacking much equipment, including guns, that had been left behind in Greece and no Air Force support was available from the 35 serviceable Hurricane fighters in the Middle East Theatre. The island was threatened on three sides by bases from which the German and Italian Air Forces, the Italian Navy and the German Army could operate from. 

 Having finished the evacuation of Greece, the Navy was immediately involved in escort duties for the convoys to and from Crete, in addition to those in support of the Army in the Western Desert, which had been a continuous task for many months. At 0800 on 20 May, the anticipated attack on Crete by the Germans began with a bombing attack, followed by the first large scale airborne invasion in history, by paratroops and gliders. Supplementing the airborne troops were two seaborne invasion forces. The main role of the Navy was to intercept and destroy these seaborne forces.

 Admiral Cunningham had two battleships, eight cruisers, and seventeen destroyers at sea that morning, in the vicinity of Crete, with an additional cruiser about to sail from Alexandria. The ships were divided into five task groups, dispersed in different locations and on receipt of information about the invasion; he ordered the groups to close Crete, but to keep out of the sight of land. To the north of Crete one invasion force had assembled at the Island of Milos. To prevent this force landing Cunningham deployed two task groups, each comprising two cruisers and four destroyers to sweep the northern approaches to Maleme during the night of 20th May.

 By nightfall Admiral Cunningham’s information was that although confused, the situation ashore was in hand, however boats carrying troops had been sighted off Heraklion. One of the northern task groups was sent to investigate this report, but it proved unfounded. It was intended that all ships would retire south in the early morning, to be out of range of the German aircraft by daylight, but this was not possible.

All task groups suffered hours of air attacks during the daylight hours of 21 May, fortunately, only one ship was sunk, the destroyer Juno, which was hit by three bombs during a series of air attacks that lasted four hours. The high expenditure of anti-aircraft ammunition was most concerning.

 With a large percentage of the Mediterranean Fleet in the waters around Crete, Admiral Cunningham had hoped that it might entice the Italian Fleet to seek battle. The enemy knew the positions of his ships, which were being pressed hard by air attacks, however, he, like the Germans who attempted to persuade the Italians to put to sea, was disappointed.

 On the morning of 21 May the German invasion force at Milos sailed on the 70 mile passage to Maleme, embarked in 25 small craft, escorted by a small Italian destroyer. That night the two task groups were again ordered to sweep the northern approaches to the Island to prevent this force landing. With the aid of radar one of the task groups, comprising three cruisers and three destroyers detected the invasion force, eighteen miles from their destination. Commander Mimbelli of the destroyer Lupo sighted the British ships and although realising he was facing overwhelmingly superior forces, laid a smoke screen to cover the convoy and then engaged the nearest ship. For the next hour he courageously fought his ship at close range, being hit by no less than eighteen 6-inch shells, before he took his battered ship out of action. The British ships then commenced the distasteful task of sinking the small craft carrying the troops. Miraculously the majority of the German troops were later rescued.

 Although the fleet was subjected to numerous air attacks on the 21st, it was from only one group of aircraft, the bulk of the German air effort being directed to support the troops ashore. However, the next day the whole weight of the German air forces were thrown against the Royal Navy. At 0900 the naval forces were to the north of Crete, in two groups. The first comprised three battleships, four cruisers, and twelve destroyers and the second four cruisers and four destroyers. Both groups were under air attack. At 0930 the northern group encountered another invasion convoy, again escorted by a single, small Italian destroyer.

 Despite the fact that the sky was swarming with friendly aircraft, the commander of the escort had no idea that there were British warships in the area. Like his colleague in Lupo, Lieutenant Fulgosi in Sagittario immediately laid a smoke screen, turned the convoy away and attacked. Out-ranged in guns, he fired torpedoes and thought he had made a hit on a cruiser, but the column of water was probable a near miss by a bomb from an attacking aircraft. The British situation was difficult. Under near continuous air attack and expending anti-aircraft ammunition at a great rate, pursuit of the retreating invasion convoy was abandoned and the task group withdrew. Admiral Cunningham later remarked that probably the safest place for the task group would have been amongst the invasion convoy. However, this invasion attempt was cancelled.

The Forces Engaged

British Axis

Navy Navy

4 x battleships 2 x destroyers

1 x aircraft carrier MTBs

11 x cruisers

30 x destroyers

2 x sloops

1 x minelayer

3 x assault ships

1 x oiler

Army Army

30,000 troops 23,000 (including paratroops)

Air

Air Air

Nil/35 (for evacuation) 716 aircraft

The German air effort was virtually continuous. Aircraft returning from missions were immediately refuelled, rearmed and sortied again to attack the ships. The cost to the Navy this day was two cruisers and one destroyer sunk and two battleships and two cruisers damaged. One of the New Zealanders serving in the fleet, Petty Officer Henry Booth was awarded the DSM for his conduct as action quartermaster in HMS Fiji when that ship was sunk. At 0400 the next morning Admiral Cunningham recalled all ships to Alexandria.

 Before they could get to the safety of that port, another day of air attacks had to be endured. Two destroyers were sunk and another two damaged on 23 May, one of which was HMS Kelly, which included New Zealanders amongst its ship’s company. Ordinary Seaman Urquhart was killed in this action and although his friend, John Raymond survived, he was lost when his next ship was sunk some months later. In addition to these losses, the five boats of the 10th MTB Flotilla, based at Suda Bay, were sunk during air attacks on the port. At Alexandria on the 24th the ships replenished with all necessary supplies and worked to repair damage. Admiral Cunningham had not, however given up. Reports had been received of another seaborne invasion and at 0800 on 24 May a task group of two cruisers and two destroyers sailed to conduct a sweep to the north of Crete that night, but found nothing. In addition to this group, three destroyers sailed at 0930 to land a force of Special Service Troops on Crete overnight, but the weather was too bad for disembarkation and they returned to Alexandria, complete with the troops.

 Ashore the situation was deteriorating rapidly. Admiral Cunningham advised the Chiefs of Staff in London that it was impossible to operate off Crete during daylight and that if the present scale of losses continued the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean would be seriously jeopardised. In response the Chiefs of Staff stated that unless the Navy took more drastic action, the enemy would be able to reinforce Crete by sea and that it and the Air Force were to accept whatever losses were necessary to prevent reinforcement. Admiral Cunningham replied that in three days three cruisers and four destroyers had been sunk, one battleship was out of action for several months and a further two cruisers and four destroyers had been seriously damaged. While composing this reply, he added, news had been received that his only aircraft carrier had been damaged, as had another destroyer. He added that resupply of the Island by sea had not been a factor as the Germans were able to do this entirely by air.

It takes three years to build a ship, but it would take 300 years to rebuild a tradition; the evacuation will continue’

 On 25 May the battle squadron, with the carrier Formidable left harbour to attack the airfield on the Island of Scarpanto, which was being used extensively for the supply of German forces on Crete and as a base for the aircraft which were attacking the fleet. An air strike was flown off at dawn, about 100 miles from the target and having recovered the aircraft, the task group withdrew. Some retaliatory attacks were beaten off by Formidable’s aircraft, but at 1300 a German squadron supporting operations in North Africa, happened upon the task group. Formidable was heavily damaged, but managed to keep fighter patrols aloft until dusk. As a result, a raid on Milos planned for that night was cancelled, but the task group could not get out of aircraft range before daylight. The battleship Barham was also badly damaged in the air attacks.

 The military situation ashore was deteriorating further and at 1500 on 27 May the decision was made to evacuate the Army from the Island. At this time it was estimated that there were about 22,000 men on Crete. Planning commenced immediately with the major effort to be undertaken on the night of 28/29 May. The Royal Air Force undertook to provide some fighter support for the ships.

 Three cruisers and six destroyers left Alexandria for Heraklion at 0600 on 28 May and by 1700 were 90 miles from Scarpanto when the first of ten air attacks before dark, struck. HMS Ajax suffered a near miss at 2100 that resulted in her being detached to Alexandria. Using the destroyers to ferry soldiers to the cruisers the task group embarked 4,000 troops, departing Heraklion at 0320. Thirty-five minutes later one of the destroyers suffered a steering failure, a result of the earlier air attacks and had to be sunk once the crew and passengers were removed. At sunrise two dive bombers appeared and from then until 1500 when the ships were 100 miles from Alexandria, air attacks were continuous. During the first attack the destroyer Hereward was hit, but being only five miles of the Cretan Coast, she was left behind. The ship’s company and the troops were later rescued by the Italian Navy. Both remaining cruisers were damaged later in the day but were able to make Alexandria. About 600 of the troops were killed or captured as a result of the air attacks.

 Four destroyers had also left Alexandria on the 28th to evacuate troops from Crete, from the small port of Sfakia. Stores and rations were landed, while 744 troops were taken off. The retiring force was lucky, being only attacked once, by four aircraft.

 By the afternoon of the 28th it was estimated that about 10,000 troops remained on the island, but of these only about 2,000 were in formed bodies. Evacuations planned for the night of 29/30 May included a Landing Ship; despite concerns about the casualties should it be hit. To make the best of the situation, Admiral Cunningham despatched additional destroyers to meet this force south of Crete to provide additional anti-aircraft protection and to act as rescue ships should it be sunk. Over 6,000 troops were embarked for the dangerous passage back to Alexandria. In the inevitable air attacks one cruiser was hit and a destroyer damaged by near misses. For most of the day, however fighter cover was provided and there were only three attacks. Only two destroyers were available to uplift troops on the night of the 30th, but these embarked 1,500 troops. Provided with lighter cover, only one attack struck the ships and although one was damaged by a near miss, this was a welcome respite from previous voyages.

Source: David A. Thomas Crete 1941: The Battle at Sea

On a request from General Freyberg, a last evacuation took place on the night of the 31st, as he thought that there were about 6,500 troops remaining ashore. The New Zealand Prime Minister was in Egypt and agreed that this would be the last. One cruiser, three destroyers and a minelayer left Alexandria for this task early on 31st May. Unfortunately slow embarkation by the troops meant that only 3,700 troops were taken on board. To provide additional anti-aircraft defence for the ships, Admiral Cunningham despatched two cruisers to meet the returning force. The two cruisers were attacked on their way to the rendezvous, one being sunk and the other returned to Alexandria with survivors. With continuous fighter cover the evacuation force returned without incident.

Admiral Cunningham was disappointed with the late increase in numbers still ashore advised late on the 30th when by his calculations, after the next night’s operations, there should have been no one left. In the event 13,992 troops remained, the vast majority going into captivity.

The Cost

Sunk Damaged
Ship Date Dead Missing Wounded Ship Date Dead Missing Wounded
Cruisers Battleships
Gloucester

22-May

725

Warspite

22-May

19

24

69

Fiji

22-May

5

271

24

Valiant

22-May

Calcutta

1-Jun

9

108

40

Barham

26-May

7

6

Destroyers Carriers
Kashmir

23-May

82

14

Formidable

26-May

12

10

Kelly

23-May

3

127

17

Juno

21-May

12

116

21

Cruisers
Imperial

29-May

Orion

26-May

1

5

24

Hereward

29-May

5

165

29-May

115

76

Greyhound

22-May

1

83

23

Ajax

28-Apr

5

19

Diamond

27-Apr

155

1

28-May

6

19

Wrynek

27-Apr

108

5

Perth (RAN)

24-May

29-May

4

3

Landing Craft Dido

29-May

27

10

A 15

26-Apr

15

Naiad

22-May

7

31

A 19

25-Apr

Coventry

17-May

2

7

Carlisle

22-May

14

25

Destroyers
Kingston

21-May

1

2

Kipling

23-May

5

1

Kelvin

29-May

1

4

Jervis

30-May

4

Jaguar

26-May

2

Nubian

26-May

15

6

Havock

23-May

15

10

Griffin

24-May

1

Decoy

29-May

1

8

Assault Ships
Glenearn

25-Apr

4

Glenroy

26-May

1

Source: David A. Thomas Crete 1941: The Battle at Sea

Notes:

1. Total Casualties: 1,032 dead, 1,244 missing presumed killed in action, 488 wounded.

2. The total of 2,276 dead and missing in action does not include merchant navy personnel.

3. Of the 54 warships that participated in the battle, only 20 were not lost or damaged.

4. The total army dead was 1,751.

Posted on May 20, 2016
Filed under: Uncategorized

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment