Commonwealth 1941 Crete Evacuation






As the evacuation ended some 12 500 troops had been left behind, of whom 226 were RAF personnel. Many of these had already been captured, but to those still free General Wavell gave discretion to surrender, fight on, or escape if they might. The majority did surrender, but many attempted to evade and escape. Indeed, by the end of 1941 over 1000 escapees from Crete – as well as from the Greek mainland and the Aegean islands – had arrived back in Egypt by various means and routes. Some of the first got away quickly, before the German occupation was complete, and among these were a party of about 200 Australians of the 2/11th from Retimo, Black Watch and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from Heraklion, and a handful of RAF, all of whom made their way to Tymbaki on 1 June. In this group were Fig Off Bennett, Pit Off Bartley and their airmen from 112 Squadron. During the day a Blenheim swooped low over the latter party and dropped a quantity of most welcome rations. On arrival in the Tymbaki area they met up with Lt Ford and his 24 SAAF Squadron Maryland crew who had been shot down on 25 May, and together hatched a plan for escape.

An abandoned landing craft, holed beneath the waterline and with a twisted propeller, was made serviceable by members of the group, while others scoured the area for fuel and food. Six officers, including Bennett, Bartley, Ford, and his observer, 2/Lt G L W Gill, and 66 men opted to try their luck and put to sea on one engine. Three days out they were intercepted by an Italian submarine and ordered to stop. The officers were then ordered to swim to the submarine, but whilst attempting to do so, Gill was tragically drowned. A wounded Australian officer who had been left aboard was now ordered to return the craft to Crete, but Sgt D D McWilliam, one of the Maryland crew, assumed command, decided to ignore the order, and continued towards the North African coast.

The Italians did not intervene and four days later the craft reached Mersa Matruh safely. Heading in the same direction was another repaired landing craft that had also been abandoned earlier. This carried a mixed party of 142 Marines, Australians, New Zealanders and Commandos, who had set out from Sphakia, and although two of their number died of exposure and exhaustion during the eight days they were at sea, the rest survived to come ashore 12 miles west of Sidi Barrani.

Others later escaped via Greece or Turkey, some absconding from prison camps first. The submarines Thrasher and Torhay alone were to pick up nearly 200 of these men. Others were helped to get away by ‘N’ Section of MI 9 (the department of the British Secret Service to assist escapers and evaders from Greece and the islands), operatives of which established a clandestine base near Cesmo, on the Turkish west coast, opposite the Aegean island of Khios. From here caiques and other small craft would rescue groups or individuals over the next three years. One of those eventually to escape and return to Egypt would be 33 Squadron’s commanding officer, Sqn Ldr Howell.

While basically the campaigns in Greece and Crete cannot be seen as anything other than unmitigated disasters for the British Commonwealth (and would prove tragically so for the Greek population), which weakened the British position in the Mediterranean and Middle East as a whole, and ensured the loss of all that had been gained against the Italians in Libya and Cyrenaica earlier in the year, the cost to the Axis powers had also been high – some might say inestimably so. Italian prestige had taken a fearful battering; Adolf Hitler had been so taken aback by the losses inflicted on his elite airborne force that never again would he allow their employment in their designed role in any major way. The Balkans had been turned into a theatre of war which would need constant and quite costly occupation and pacification over the coming years, with little advantage to show for it, while who knows what might have been gained had Operation ‘Barbarossa’ been launched against the Soviet Union that critical month earlier.

In tactical terms the British losses had been heavier, and at this stage of the war were harder to bear. Most damaging of all were the losses inflicted – entirely by air power be it noted – on the Royal Navy. Three cruisers and six destroyers had been sunk during the battle for Crete, and three battleships, an aircraft carrier, six cruisers and seven destroyers had been damaged, some of them grievously so. In these ships 1828 men had been lost and 128 more seriously wounded. The loss to the Allied Merchant Marine, at a time when attrition to U-Boats in the Atlantic was also severe, was very serious indeed.

On land, apart from the relatively bearable losses already suffered in Greece, 1751 troops had been killed and 1737 wounded; of these, 71 of the fatalities and nine of the serious wounded related to members of the RAF fighting alongside the army. While about 16 500 men had been evacuated from Crete, as already noted, 12 500 more had been left behind. In addition the Greeks had suffered severe, but undocumented losses, the Germans only reporting 5255 Greek prisoners on the island.

22 000 German troops had been involved in Operation ‘Merkur’, of which a shattering 6543 were recorded as dead, missing or seriously wounded, 3764 of them from amongst the airborne forces of Fliegerkorps XI, who lost many experienced officers and NCOs. In addition 311 Luftwaffe aircrew had been killed or posted as missing.

British Intelligence estimated that in the 12-day battle for Crete the Luftwaffe had lost 60 aircraft in the air (plus 14 probables) and 34 destroyed on the ground, with a further six probables, of which 61 of the destroyed aircraft were known to be Ju-52/3ms. Although claims were not always very accurate, the overall figures were a considerable underestimate. During the period 13 May-1 June, the Luftwaffe recorded the loss of 220 aircraft, although only 147 of these were attributable directly to enemy action (80 Ju-52/3ms, 55 Bf-109s and Bf-110s, 23 Ju-88s, He-111s and Do-17s, nine Ju-87s). A further 64 were subsequently written off as a result of serious damage. Between 20 May and 1 June the Transport gruppen suffered the loss of 117 Ju-52/3ms as total wrecks, with 125 more damaged but repairable. The true impact of this loss would not be felt until 1942 when the need to provide air supply to forces cut off on the Russian front came to a head at Stalingrad. Even by then the hard-pressed German aircraft industry had not been able to make good this catastrophic wastage.

The cost of these operations to 204 Group of the RAF during the same period had been seven Wellingtons, 16 medium bombers and 23 fighters. Compared to the Luftwaffe’s losses the total looks modest in the extreme, but at this stage of the war in the Middle East it was a painful and dangerous cost to have paid. Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, who had recently taken over command of the RAF in the Middle East, vice Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, was well aware where the finger of blame would soon be pointed by the generals and admirals.


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