Wednesday, October 31, 2012

General Freyberg in command on Crete

When General Freyberg was appointed commander of the defence of the island of Crete in late April and early May 1941, he had almost no information about the situation. He wrote later that he knew nothing about the island, the troops that he commanded, nor the maintenance situation, nor the size of the expected attack force. In fact, General Freyberg urged that if there were not sufficient air and naval strength available to support the defenders, that they should evacuate the island. General Freyberg used his connection to the New Zealand Prime Minister to pass on his assessment and asked him to pressure the British government to either bring the necessary forces needed to defend the island or to evacuate those troops that were presently on the island. General Wavell responded with a disingenuous note about how the estimate of the German attack scale were exaggerated that in the end, the needed naval support would be available. The latter was true, as the navy responded and for their bother, expended a large number of valuable warships sunk and damaged. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The situation on 29 April 1941

Newly arrived from Greece, General Maitland Wilson was sent packing. He was off to North Africa from Crete to "go to Jerusalem and relieve Baghdad". General Wavell then proceeded to tell General Freyberg about the expected German attack on Crete. They expected an attack by five to six thousand airborne troops, possibly supplemented by troops sent by sea. They would see if they could get more fighter aircraft from England. They should be able to repulse the attack with the force they had on Crete. In any case, there would be no withdrawal, because there were not enough ships. We might well think that they had all been lost in the withdrawal from Greece. That is not really true, because the navy was about to take another major hit during the attack on Crete and the subsequent attempt to withdraw troops after the Germans were seen as winning the battle. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official history.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Greeks on Crete on 28 April 1941

By 28 April 1941, the Greek government was located at Canea. The Prime Minister, M. Tsouderos, had a meeting with the British general officers on Crete. He asked for there to be an Allied commander on Crete who would command all forces, including what Greek forces there were on the island of Crete. He requested that the Greek forces be armed by the British. The British officers included the air commander and a rear-admiral. Following the meeting, Churchill proposed that Genral Freyberg be appointed commander on Crete. General Freyberg, his staff, and the 6th New Zealand brigade arrived on 29 April. The 5th New Zealand Brigade was thought to already be on the island. Freyberg met with Generals Wilson and Wavell in a small village between Maleme and Canea and they held discussions about the withdrawal from Greece and the situation on Crete. General Wilson was to proceed to North Africa and be involved in the crisis that was ongoing there. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The impact of the evacuation from Greece on Crete

In early March 1941, before the Greek situation had unraveled, commanders had foreseen the need to accommodate in Crete as many as 50,000 troops evacuated from Greece. By 17 April, the command in Crete had requested 30,000 "tents, clothing and blankets" for evacuated troops. Troops and civilians brought from Greece started to arrive by 23 April. By 25 April and immediately after, there were 25,000 troops brought to Crete at Suda Bay by warship. There were no tents or even coats for them. Because of the lack of preparation for what many had anticipated, time was lost to prepare defences on Crete. Men sat around, even in organized units that had arrived. There were no tools or any of the normal essentials. After the disaster in Greece, the men relished the time spent doing nothing but resting in Crete.

Once more senior officers arrived on Crete there was more serious consideration about how to prepare for the expected invasion. The existing garrison was positioned. There was a small air condition on the island. There were four squadrons withdrawn from Greece with six or eight Blenheim day bombers, six Hurricane fighters, six Gladiator biplane fighters, one squadron that flew in from Egypt with nine Blenheim bombers, and a Fleet Air Arm squadron.

General Wilson thought that if they wanted to defend Crete, they needed to increase the strength to a greater degree than General Wavell and the other commanders wanted. General Wilson thought that it was a mistake to try and defend Crete with inadequate resources, which was probably true. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Plans for defending Crete in April and May 1941

Because the operations in Greece collapsed, the island of Crete was left as the nearest position to the Germans in the Balkans. Except Churchill and his leadership team, the Greek campaign was seen as being a likely failure by key participants. Only by late April were the leadership team acknowledging that they would have to withdraw from Greece after having failed to stop the Germans. The commander in Crete, General Weston, suggested that with the failure in Greece that Crete would be exposed to an invasion by sea. The commanders in Britain and the Middle East must have had access to decrypted German communications that indicated that they would attempt an airborne invasion. By 24 April, General Wavell and his staff projected that the Germans would use airborne troops to attack Crete. They would need three brigades, but for now, they would bring the garrison up to two brigades. They wanted to send troops from Greece to Egypt, but that did not happen. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Major-General Weston takes over on 26 April 1941

After the commanders decided to make Suda Bay, in the northwest corner of the island of Crete, a fleet base, a Royal Marine, Major-General Weston was appointed to take command. He was commander of the "Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation". The intent of that organization was not to defend against a major invasion, but to provide local defence. One role of the organization was to do the construction work required for a naval base. The construction included "buildings, jetties, and roads". There was also a defence group. Only about 2,000 men of the organization had arrived on Crete at the time of the invasion. The anti-aircraft artillery available was limited to 16-3.7in AA guns, 16-3in AA guns, and 36-Bofors 40mm AA guns. There were 24 anti-aircraft search lights available to work with the guns. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Island of Crete in May 1941

The island of Crete was populated along the livable areas in the north. In the northwest was Suda Bay, near the capital city of Canea. About 30 miles east of Canea was Retimo. The largest seaport was at Heraklion, perhaps two-thirds of the length of the island to the east. Each of these towns had an airfield located nearby. The northern shore had a road that ran the length of the island. At times, the road ran further inland to minimize the distance traveled. There were also five roads that ran north and south. Suda Bay was the only port that could accommodate large ships, and it only had a quay without a large crane. In late 1940, the British talked about increasing their garrison on the island. By February 1941, the 14th Brigade had three battalions. What was disruptive, is that the island garrison commander changed many times during early 1941. At the same time, by April 1941, the higher command decided to make Suda Bay a major fleet base. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Events in April and May 1941

Winston Churchill was constantly meddling in affairs. He considered himself a military and naval expert, and he assumed that his various creative enterprises were a help. for example, Churchill wanted to use the old battleship Barham as a blockship in Tripoli harbor in mid-April 1941. The fleet commander, Admiral Cunningham, objected, but he did bombard Tripoli on 21 April 1941. Churchill's next project was the Tiger Convoy, where about 240 tanks were sent through the Mediterranean on fast transports to reinforce the army in North Africa. Churchill then pushed Wavell to throw the tanks into combat even before they were fitted for desert operations. Churchill then pushed to have some tanks from the convoy. This met resistance, so then he wanted 12 tanks sent to Suda Bay after they were unloaded in Egypt. This was ordered, but Wavell came back to say that he had already had six infantry tanks and 15 light tanks sent to Crete. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The Iraqi operation in perspective

The Iraq operation was very important for a variety of reasons. The first was that by little cost, the Iraqi army was defeated by British forces. The obvious effects were to assert firm control over the port of Basra, the pipeline to Haifa, and the British-owned oil fields in Iraq.The forces involved were relatively small. There was a brigade-size force from Transjordan and two Indian brigades that had been en route to Malaya. All this had happened while the Greek campaign had been coming to a disastrous end and before the Germans were ready to attack the island of Crete. Knocking down the Iraqi Arab nationalist movement got the attention of the rest of the Arab world and put to rest any idea of similar uprisings, such as "in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine". This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Wavell and Auchinleck

I was curious about General Archibald Wavell's background and how that compared with his successor, General Claude Auchinleck. Wavell's father was an army officer, in fact a Major General, and he grew up in India. He followed his father into the army. He quickly accumulated staff officer experience, although he distinguished himself in the Great War in combat and was awarded the Military Cross. He also lost an eye in the process.

General Auchinleck was much more closely aligned with the Indian army and his Great War experience was in the Mespotamian Campaign against the Turks. While Wavell learned Russian before the war, Auchinleck learned Punjabi. Auchinleck commanded troops in combat when Wavell was in a staff officer role. Between the wars, both spent time on half pay. Wavell became a Major General in 1933 while Auchinleck was promoted to that rank in 1935.

Before the beginning of the Second World War, Wavell was head of Southern Command in the UK. He was appointed to command the Middle East in July 1939. He presided over the successful campaign against the Italians in late 1940 until early 1941. That campaign was ended prematurely and in an unsatisfactory way so that Anthony Eden and Churchill's ill-fated adventure in Greece could proceed. Wavell tarnished his reputation in Greece and subsequently in Crete. The Germans, with Erwin Rommel in command, upset the situation in North Africa and that would eventually lead to Wavell's removal.

Aunchinleck was appointed to replace Wavell. We can imagine that he was chosen for his experience in the region. In many ways, Auchinleck lacked the skills to be theater commander. He would have been more comfortable commanding the army fighting the Germans. In fact, Churchill repeatedly urged Auchinleck to do just that. Auchinleck took his role as theater commander seriously and thought that commanding the army in the field would detract from that role. Only twice did Auchinleck take command, and in both cases, he outfought Rommel and saved the situation. Once was in December 1941, when Auchinleck saved the Crusader operation when his choice as army commander, Alan Cunningham, was exhausted after the whirlwind East African campaign. He was not ready to take on command of the army in North Africa, where he had no experience with armoured forces. The second occasion was after the surrender of Tobruk in 1942, when Rommel threatened to advance to the Suez Canal.

Wavell had a better eye for choosing commanders to serve under him, while Auchinleck lacked that ability. However, if you needed an army commanded in a tight situation, you wanted Auchinleck, not Wavell.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

German aid for the Iraqi's

Starting on 13 May 1941, the Germans had aircraft based at Mosul and Erbil to aid the Iraqi's in their fight against the British. Three German He-111 bombers raided Habbaniyah on 16 May and were able to do considerable damage. The German aircraft lacked the necessary support, however, so there were only one fighter and one bomber still operational by 28 May.

The Iraqi anti-British group were upset at the lack of support by the Germans and Italians. The Iraqis wanted arms and gold. Apparently, any Arab revolt against the British needed to have gold, presumably to buy support. The Germans saw the Iraqi revolt as more of a political event, rather than a real uprising of the Iraqi people against the British. The latter might have actually received substantive support. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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