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The Battle for Crete
An interview with the historian Martyn Brown
Christos N. Fifis
Martyn Brown is currently an Honorary Research Fellow with the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland.
He has been researching the New Zealand – Greek wartime relationship for approximately 14 years. He has been sponsored by Greek communities in Australia and New Zealand to deliver public presentations on his findings and has several academic papers published and a book is forthcoming.
A lecture of his: "A moral duty to the Greeks" is scheduled for
Saturday 3rd of June 2017, 3.00pm.
at the Greeks of Egypt and Middle East Society Hall,
56 Richmond Road, Keswick.
In the following interview to Christos Fifis, Dr. Brown explains the loss of the Battle of Crete.
Martyn, can you give us a few basics about the battle of Crete?
It started on the morning of Tuesday May 20 1941, and ended on Jun 1. 12 days later. On land it involved. approx. 42,500 Allied soldiers – Greek, Australian, British and New Zealand - fighting against the invading Germans. Cretan civilians also comprised a major component of the fighting force. At sea, there was a force of Germans but they played no major part in the battle. During the assault phase, their ships were sunk or turned back by the British Navy.
So, it was down to the German airborne troops. There was also an overwhelming German force of combat aircraft bombing and machine-gunning the allies as well as the towns.
The Allied military were commanded by Lieutenant Bernard Freyberg, who was to lead the New Zealand army in the Mediterranean throughout the war.
How were the Greek troops deployed – were they mixed in with the Commonwealth forces?
They stayed within their own units and were placed along the coast on the Northern side of the island, as were the other allies. Often there were commonwealth liaison officers with them. My research has focused on the New Zealand units in the West and the Greek army battalions they were associated with as well as the Cretans. The Greek battalions in this area were new recruits with hardly any training and very poorly armed – indeed if they had any weapons at all. So, we can say that, with the reserve battalions, the training might have been better.
Can you give us some idea about relations between Greeks and other Commonwealth troops?
I do not think there were any major disturbances or antagonism overall but there is one episode that caused considerable anger amongst the soldiers. I shall get to that later. In the liaison records I have been looking at there were major issues about language. We have thousands of new Greek recruits who came from the mainland just weeks before and were now receiving training from Commonwealth officers. You see, an agreement had been reached between the Greek government and British military that the Greek soldiers would be organized and trained along British military lines.
When these policies reached down into the various unit commands, however, there were some areas of friction.
I shall read some direct quotes from archives I have been examining concerning feelings between the troops. A New Zealand officer who was attached to a Greek unit near Chania wrote about the young Greek recruits who were advancing to attack the German paratroopers thus - "They surged around and went on with great enthusiasm – at the trot or steady jog yelling ‘aera’ or something like that which I was told was the Evzone’s war cry. It was very effective and the whole show was the most thrilling moment of my life."
Another example, on the second day of the battle, Freyberg’s headquarters relayed a message from the Australian contingent - "Australians report they are proud to fight alongside Greeks and Cretans who have been doing magnificently. Inform all concerned."
So, what is the episode that caused so much anger?
It was the evacuation. When the German advance across the island could not be halted, the Royal Navy was called in to take the troops off. However, limited space on board meant a priority list was established. The Greeks were not considered a high priority because of lack of training and experience but historian Maria Hill has pointed out that some had been fighting essentially as guerillas and also that some units had not even been informed about the evacuation. Last month I was at a presentation where a Greek woman related how a relative of hers had been in the Greek forces on Crete. An Australian he had befriended, gave the Greek an Australian uniform so that he could secretly get on board one of the ships.
But I think it also has to be remembered that this prioritization applied to all the troops. At Sfakia, in the south, priority was given to New Zealand infantry over units of their own troops. This led to some ugly scenes where some of those being left behind pleaded to be taken off.
Most of us know that the battle ended in a German victory but what other than that makes it a significant battle?
It is famous for several reasons. It was an assault almost exclusively from the air - German paratroopers and others in gliders and later, transport aircraft. It was a battle that was nearly lost by the Germans. This is after the stunning German successes in Europe where they had conquered France, the Low Countries and Norway in a lightening war and then mainland Greece. But after their losses on Crete, they never used their troops in another major airborne attack. And they were fighting against Allied soldiers and Cretans who were largely ill-equipped, very poorly armed, with very few aircraft of their own to defend the island. The situation was so extreme, it even got down to how to supply the island’s population and the troops with enough food so that they would not starve.
Can we say who is responsible for the loss of the Battle by the Allies?
That is a big question. We can look at it at several levels. At the most strategic, the Australian official history points out that while it had artillery men on Crete without their cannons, an ample supply was held in reserve in North Africa. If the British Headquarters had allowed them to be transported to Crete then the battle would have been fought under much more favourable circumstances for the Allies. The King of Greece, George II, was also critical of the British in that their promises to fortify the island were not fulfilled. So, we have a questioning of the major power’s commitment, preferences and, I guess, performance.
If we come down a level then there is the question of Freyberg’s leadership. The well-known British historian, Anthony Beevor, claims the general misread a telegram from British Headquarters and, as a result, was transfixed on a seaborne landing. He had completely misjudged the intelligence provided to him. The main thrust of the German onslaught came from the air and not the sea. Springing to the defence of the General was his son, Paul, and some New Zealand historians. Freyberg did not have the authority to openly act on intelligence gathered solely through the British ULTRA intelligence source and so he was hampered all the time. He had also apparently issued an order to attack the Germans as soon as they landed. This was not carried out by the New Zealand units.
If we go down yet another level, the battle was lost as soon as the Germans successfully captured one of the airfields on the island. This allowed them to ferry in men, supplies and heavier weapons. This meant that, by the third day of the Battle, Freyberg estimated that during the morning, troop carrying aircraft were arriving at Maleme every 5 mins and that 100 had arrived already.
In the immediate vicinity of the airfield were New Zealand units situated on a hill that overlooked the aerodrome. The New Zealand commander pulled his own headquarters back and then, when other units found his position vacant, they too followed suit. In overall command of the area was a New Zealand brigadier who did not pursue a counter attack against the Germans. This was James Hargest. Although he suffered from shell shock, New Zealand prime minister Peter Fraser, overrode New Zealand army medical staff and allowed him to go to war. Above all that, the New Zealand self-analysis sees all their senior officers as failing to be effective during the battle.
You mentioned to me about the Greek political dimension and its possible effect on the outcome of the battle. Republicanism was firmly entrenched in Crete and there had been a short-lived revolt there in 1938.
Yes, there was indeed a revolt and the Cretans had a long history of republicanism.
In 1940, Colonel Blunt, the British military attaché in Athens had written that Greece’s best generals and staff officers were republicans, but were excluded from the army for political reasons. That came with a military price.
Nearly a month before the attack, American-based Republicans approached the British government seeking their support in bringing a group of non-Royalist generals and politicians in exile to Crete and to join in the defence of the island - I think everyone accepted that there would be an attack. Emmanuel Tsouderos, a Cretan who was now the new Greek premier appointed by the king, resisted this. Although he himself had appointed some republican officers, any significant intrusion was not welcomed. An internal British Foreign Office document shows the threat - ‘’If they come there now they would be stirring up the ultra-Venizelist Cretans against the King and government." The request was fobbed off. Apparently, the excuse of "transport difficulties’’ was used.
On this level, we have the positive assessment of the British military attaché of Republican generalship and then the British diplomats preventing their return to assist in the defence of Crete. It is obvious that internal Greek politics combined with British influence, eliminated a contribution that could have helped prevent German victory.
If we go down to a more operational level we find similar evidence of politics over defence. I have been limited to New Zealand areas of responsibility on Crete, but the reports of liaison officers attached to Greek units relay their suspicion that many of the Greek officers they were interacting with were 5th columnists. They also maintain that the ordinary Greek soldiers thought the same.
The most telling incident of the fear of republicanism happened at Kastelli, which is West of Maleme airfield. It was the loss of this airfield that is considered to be the key turning point that led to the German victory. Geoff Bedding, the senior New Zealand officer there, wrote of a local Cretan who "seemed to have spent half his life organizing and leading revolutions with Mr. Venizeolos [the famous republican in Greek history]". The 200 volunteers led by this old revolutionary were never given their promised rifles and ammunition. Bedding made a point of saying how furious the Cretan’s reaction was. The New Zealander also had orders only to collect a store of rifles held in Chania after the attack had commenced. This is particularly odd, as the route to the storehouse went past the Maleme airfield to get them and return with them to the Greeks. And Maleme was recognized as a prime target of the invasion.
While this is the situation with the New Zealanders, you can find Greek politics i.e. Royalty versus Republicans- in other relevant history works such as the official Australian and New Zealand war histories and also Anthony Beevor.
From what you have already told me, the Battle for Crete holds a major position in New Zealand war history and commemoration. Can you expand upon this?
The "Crete story [...] can be one of the heritages of our people." This was written by Howard Kippenberger, who was a senior New Zealand army officer and head of the official New Zealand war project. An official history sounds like a dry, plodding account. But the official war history project was a massive effort that included radio broadcasts and newspaper articles seeking input from veterans. It was a huge enterprise, and until recently it was the largest publishing exercise in New Zealand history. Thousands of copies of the official war histories were distributed throughout New Zealand. Even today you can see its influence by the fact that all of is approximate 50 volumes are available online free from one of the New Zealand universities. And in all of this, the volume by Dan Davin on Crete stands central.
Today, the elevated position of the battle of Crete is still apparent in New Zealand. You can find this on government websites, archives handouts and public statements made by politicians, veterans groups and the military. During every May, various pilgrimages to the island are made by public figures and the families of veterans.
(Dr Christos N. Fifis is an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe Uniersity)
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