- Lind, L.J.
- RAN operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Mountbatten was ordered to search for survivors of Gloucester and Fiji and then patrol the northern approaches. The three destroyers, Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling enjoyed an eventful night. They sank two caiques in the entrance to Suda Bay and later stood off Maleme aerodrome and bombarded the German positions. At first light they were steaming south to safety. Twenty four dive bombers located them at 0800. Kashmir went first when struck by a 500lb bomb. She sank immediately. A few minutes later Kelly was hit and capsized while twisting at 30 knots. Kipling picked up survivors after hours of unrelenting attacks by bombers.
The price of forestalling a German seaborne invasion was high – too high when the facts are dissected. Cunningham reported 4,000 Germans killed in the attempt and added that no sea borne German landed during the battle.
German official records showed 13 officers and 311 other ranks were lost in the sea borne invasion. One officer and 35 men of 100 Regiment landed on Crete on the night of 21st May. Between 28th and 30th May, the period of the evacuation, some 2,000 men with tanks, artillery and transport were landed by sea at Suda Bay.
British Naval casualties in the engagements of 20th-23rd May were five times greater than those of the Germans.
Personally, I regard both figures as exaggerations. The true figure is possibly an average, say 1,500 to 2,000. Some weeks after the battle ended I was swimming off Suda Bay and swam through several hundred German bodies weighted down with their equipment. At Maleme some days later two or three hundred more were brought up on the beach. These were two spots 15 miles apart.
On 26th May, with suggestions of evacuation being made by Freyberg, the Navy launched an air attack on the German air base at Scarpanto. The carrier Formidable launched 8 aircraft for the attack. Results were negligible and in the action the carrier was heavily damaged, the destroyer Nubian disabled and the battleship Barham hit.
The decision to evacuate Crete was reached on 27th. It coincided with an order from Hitler to General Lohr to withdraw the bulk of Air Fleet to Germany for the attack on Russia. By the 28th, the first day of the evacuation, German air strength was drastically reduced. This information was known by Cunningham through his excellent intelligence within hours. This turn of events could well have altered the evacuation decision but it was not seized upon.
The Navy was now to face disaster again. Heraklion was evacuated on the night of the 28th and it was carried out without the loss of a single man. The evacuation fleet, Orion, Ajax, Dido and 6 destroyers was commanded by Rear Admiral Rawlings.
Ajax was near missed before it reached Crete and an inaccurate damage report caused her to return to Alexandria. Imperial was also near missed. The remaining ships embarked the troops efficiently. At 0320 on 29th the ships began the return voyage. Minutes after, Imperial lost control, her steering gear had been damaged by the near miss. Hotspur was detached to take off Imperial’s troops and crew and the damaged destroyer was sunk.
Hereward’s turn came next. She was hit when waves of Stukas attacked. Her speed fell off and she was left to her fate. Dive bombers later sunk her off the coast of Crete.
Decoy was near missed shortly afterwards and her speed fell to 21 knots. In the same attack Orion sustained damage from a near miss. This was followed by a strafing attack in which Captain Back was killed.
Dido was hit by a large bomb on B turret at 0815. Three quarters of an hour later Orion sustained another hit which destroyed A turret. At 1045 Orion was hit again. A large bomb crashed down into the mess decks, killing 280. Orion finally arrived at Alexandria under tow. Orion’s ordeal was told by survivor, Ron Atwill, in Naval Historical Review – 1971. The first evacuation had been a calamity.
Meanwhile, the troops had been streaming across the island from Suda Bay to Spakia. The rear guards were not hard pressed. Student had sent the main force to relieve his Retimo troops. Two battalions of Mountain Troops were given the task of harassing the evacuation.
On the night of 28th the destroyers Napier, Nizam, Kelvin and Kandahar evacuated 1,100 troops.
A stronger fleet arrived on the night of 29th. It consisted of Phoebe, Perth, Glencyle, Calcutta, Coventry, Jarvis, Janus and Hasty. Six thousand troops were lifted, the cost was Calcutta sunk and Perth damaged.
A smaller fleet arrived off Spakia on 30th. It was Napier and Nizam. Kandahar had broken down on passage and Kelvin returned to Alexandria with bomb damage. Two Australian ships took off 1,400.
On the night of 31st May, Phoebe, Kimberley, Hotspur, Jackal and the fast mine layer Abdiel took off another 6,000 troops.
This was the end – Cunningham informed Churchill that he could not risk his remaining ships. The Battle of Crete was over. Some 9,000 troops were left to be taken prisoner.
The Navy’s dead for the ten day campaign numbered 1,828 – 86 more than the Army, although in the aftermath of the campaign the Army lost another 600. Cunningham had made a promise and he sealed it with blood.