- Lind, L.J.
- RAN operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This extract from the address The Land and Sea Battle for Crete illustrates the great difficulties under which the Royal Navy operated in the Mediterranean in 1941. In this campaign, more than any other in World War II, the inability of warships to carry out their tasks when the enemy had air supremacy is clearly demonstrated.
ADMIRAL CUNNINGHAM was given the responsibility of stopping a sea borne invasion. On the night of the 20th/21st, two cruiser forces, Dido, Ajax, Orion and 3 destroyers under Rear Admiral Glennie, and Calcutta, Naiad, Perth, Carlisle and 4 destroyers under Rear Admiral King, patrolled the northern approaches to Crete. No invasion forces were encountered and at daylight the two forces withdrew to the south. However, the Luftwaffe soon found them. Ajax was damaged with a near miss and in the next attack by Italian high level bombers, Juno was sunk when a bomb exploded in her magazine. The destroyer went down in two minutes with a heavy loss of life.
The night of the 21st proved more fruitful for Cunningham’s hunters. Long range air reconnaissance reported an invasion force between Milos and Suda Bay. Cunningham ordered his Admirals to sink the invaders during the night and, if necessary, attack northwards in daylight on 22nd.
Admiral Glennie drew first blood. Just after midnight he ran pell-mell into a fleet of 25 large caiques and small steamers escorted by the Italian destroyer, Lupo, and E-boats about seven miles off Suda Bay.
The British cruisers and destroyers switched on searchlights and opened fire with all armament. For 2½ hours the carnage continued. A number of enemy craft were rammed. The battered remnants of this force, with the damaged Lupo, returned to Milos. The only return fire was from riflemen and machine gunners on the doomed vessels. As one German soldier of 5th Mountain Division later reported, ‘The searchlights appeared like fingers of death.‘
Meanwhile Admiral King’s force had met nothing during the night. At dawn King ordered his force to the north. Heavy air attacks developed at 0700 but were successfully fought off. At 0830 Perth sighted a large caique loaded with German troops and promptly sank it. The destroyers then sighted a small steamer, which was similarly despatched. At 1000 the main armada was sighted. The convoy, 4,000 troops bound for Heraklion, under escort of the Italian destroyer, Sagittario had already been ordered to turn back by the German Admiral Schuster.
The Italian destroyer laid a smoke screen but not before its huge fleet of caiques had been sighted.
At this moment, with the enemy at his mercy, Admiral King decided to withdraw. His reason was the ammunition position of his ships and the increasing danger from air attack. The Admiral was later to be severely criticised by Cunningham for not attacking and destroying this invasion force and contributed, with Colonel Andrews, to the loss of Crete. Even at this stage of the battle the German High Command was seriously considering the evacuation of their force from Crete. Four thousand more dead, to an estimate of 5,000 they already had, would have been too much for the High Command to stomach at that stage of the war.
As King’s squadron retired it came under heavier air attack, Naiad was the first hit. Two turrets were put out of action and her speed fell to 16 knots. Carlisle’s turn was next. Her captain was killed and damage was extensive. At 1330 the squadron joined Admiral Rowling’s Battle Fleet and Warspite was hit by a heavy bomb. Her starboard 4 inch and 6 inch batteries were completely wrecked.
Admiral Glennie’s force had also joined the main fleet and the combined force cruised westward.
Disaster was to follow. Greyhound, which had tarried to deal with two caiques, was hit by two bombs as she hurried to rejoin. Kandahar and Kingston were detached to take off the crew. To give added cover Gloucester and Fiji, both low in ammunition, were ordered to stand by.
At 1500, despite intense bombing and strafing, Greyhound’s crew were taken off. The small force turned to rejoin the fleet.
Gloucester was next. Three bombs crashed into her within sight of the fleet. At 3.50 p.m., disabled and burning, she was left to her fate.
Fiji was the unluckiest ship of all. A single ME109 dived out a cloud and dropped its one bomb beside the cruiser, holing her in the engine room. Half an hour later another bomber found her and sank her.
The first phase of the naval battle was drawing to a tragic close but one more tragedy remained. The 5th Destroyer Flotilla, under command of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, arrived from Malta on the 22nd. Cunningham had ordered his main fleet to return to Alexandria because of a corrupted signal, which led him to believe his heavy ships had exhausted their ack ack ammunition.