75th Anniversary of The Battle For CRETE BY Clive Sharplin (Associate member)

"There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory." Sir Francis Drake 1587 - Vice Admiral and celebrated navigator of the first Elizabethan era 1540-1596

This article celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the Battle for Crete recognised by the Admiralty as having taken place from 15th May to 27th May 1941 (note 3) and attempts to describe the part played in it by HMS Ajax.(note 4)

Due to the number of ships involved, their complex manoeuvres and dispositions, their various strategic assignments, the sheer number of actions both singly and as part of specific groups together with eye witness observations this account must because of space restrictions in this journal be severely limited in size and content. The author, however, sincerely hopes that it will at best give an insight or snapshot of one of the Royal Navy’s most iconic ships, HMS Ajax, in what was a very important, desperate battle, actually a campaign, with huge losses of ships and men, an excruciatingly sad battle of World War 2. While technically a defeat because Crete was lost I would argue that no blame should be laid at the Royal Navy’s doormat, the Royal Navy acquitted itself in the finest traditions of its long history and did everything they were asked to do and much more at a great cost which I believe Cunningham similarly argued in his report to the Admiralty. The fleet had carried an army from North Africa to Greece, evacuated it from Greece to Crete, and then evacuated it from Crete back to North Africa fighting every inch of the way. Yes Crete was lost but in this loss they managed to achieve other objectives which lent a positive influence to the allies’ future conduct of the war. As a result Hitler abandoned his plan to invade Malta and Sicily and any future deployment of Parachutist troops as too expensive in men and equipment. Any blame for the loss of Crete I consider should be on the shoulders of the senior military commanders particularly Major General Freberg’s failure as Divisional Field Officer, his men deserved better. For the students of the minutiae of the Crete campaign at sea I can do no better than to refer them to the C-in-C Mediterranean Admiral Sir A B Cunningham’s full report to the Admiralty as published on 24th May 1948 as a supplement to The London gazette P 3103 – 3119. This account refers only to the naval side, for an appreciation of the army’s position there are several excellent books on the subject. (Refer to bibliography).

This battle was of a different type to any other that had ever been fought by any Navy before and its form, intensity and ferocity was not to be repeated until that fought between Japan and the western alliance principally the USA in the Pacific theatre of WW2. The significant difference was that a powerful fleet with plenty of sea room to manoeuvre was to fight a virtually impossible war against an almost overwhelming air force comprising both the German Luftwaffe and the Italian Air Royale who between them could muster well over 2000 aircraft. With virtually no allied air cover the axis powers enjoyed total air superiority which put the ships under persistent attack in a battle that was to become a campaign spread over some six weeks. While there were some ship-to-ship actions the major conflict was between the combined German and Italian aircraft and Royal Naval ships who were poorly armed to defend themselves (note 5) and the lack of this defensive capability compounded by almost non-existent allied aircraft. It must be recognised that at this stage of the war nearly all of the Royal Navy’s ships were extremely vulnerable to air attack due to the mistaken belief by the Admiralty that they had been adequately equipped with regard to their armament. The reverse had quickly and horribly become apparent. During the spring of 1940 the effectiveness of German air attacks in all its forms in actions off Norway against ships demonstrated just how completely the Admiralty had grossly underestimated the ability of their ships to defend themselves against aerial attack with a lack of anti-aircraft (AA) guns and their control equipment.

As April 1941 opened Ajax was still in the Mediterranean where together with other Fleet units she had been used to carry some 58,000 Troops from North Africa to Greece to bolster the hard pressed Greek Army against an expected invasion by Nazi Germany’s army which had swept through the Balkans like an unimpeded juggernaut and was now targeting Crete. Malta was still under siege and the Royal Naval forces were now mostly operating from a base in Alexandria, a distance of 406.7 Miles (654.5 kms). Intelligence source from Ultra indicated an invasion of the Island of Crete by Nazi Germany in early May 1941 (note 6).

In these actions around Crete the Axis air attacks were so vicious in their frequency and numbers of aircraft employed to the point of being on the verge of overwhelming. The British ships expended huge amounts of ammunition such that their defensive firepower was always a major consideration and often became restricted. Even their main armament was used in spite of its insufficient elevation limits. Several ships actually exhausted all of their ammunition and had to resort to firing signal and practice shells.

The painting below displays just one of a whole host of such unbridled actions that occurred in the Mediterranean during this period of World War 2 with virtually no air cover protection for Royal Naval forces from the ferocity of the onslaught waged upon them by the German Luftwaffe

As Greece fell to the German Army advancing through the Balkans on the night of April 24th the evacuation of allied troops became inevitable. The Royal Navy, including Ajax, started to evacuate about 30,000 troops, principally ANZAC with some British and Greek, carrying them southwards to the island of Crete. It became another Dunkirk. Ajax evacuated, among others, elements of the 6th New Zealand Brigade, 2/3 Australian Battalion and last of all, on April 29th, Rear Admiral ‘Tom’ Baillie-Grohman RN (who was attached to the Staff of the General Officer Commanding Middle East) together with New Zealand’s Major-General Bernard ‘Tiny’ Freberg VC, 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, who would soon take command of all allied military forces on Crete. The allied forces arrived on Crete to be taunted by Nazi radio propaganda broadcasts that they had been landed on the ‘Isle of Doom’. These broadcasts were prophetic as Ajax and the other naval ships found themselves only a few weeks later being called in to evacuate the allied forces they had so recently landed on the island while also being asked to defend it from a German seaborne invasion.

On May 20th after four days of continuous bombing German airborne forces began “Operation Merkur”, their invasion of Crete. Admiral A.B. (Andrew Browne) Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, or ‘ABC’ as he became known in the Royal Navy, had on May 19th issued instructions for night sweeps of the Aegean to challenge the expected seaborne invasion.

Daylight of May 21st found Ajax, under the command of Captain E. D. (Desmond) B. McCarthy, heading to the South West of Antikithera, beyond the southern tip of Greece, as part of Force D under the command of recently appointed Flag Officer, Rear-Admiral Irvine G. Glennie, in the cruiser Dido, together with the cruiser Orion and four destroyers, Hasty, Hereward, Kimberley and Janus (note 8). Imperial was bombed seven days later on the 28th and so extensively damaged that she was deliberately sunk by Hotspur to prevent her from falling into enemy hands. Having swept the Maleme, Canea and Kissamo Bay areas of the Cretan coast the previous night they had investigated what proved to be false reports of enemy seaborne landings at Heraklion, the squadron was heading to join other ships of the fleet in a major concentration of naval forces to defend the island. On Ajax at 0800 the ships log recorded the weather conditions as 'sea state 11, wind westerly force 3, visibility good, and position 35.27N/22.32E.' The log shows that the sea state would rise to 21, wind strengthen slightly to force 4 west by north-west and visibility to become excellent by noon.

In his book “Crete 1941, The Battle at Sea”, David A Thomas wrote: 'The daylight hours of May 21st were to witness violent and prolonged battles between warships and the bombers.' Frank Pearce in “Sea War, Great Naval Battles of World War 2” wrote: '... the air was filled with the drone of approaching aircraft. They came in droves.... it seemed impossible that any ship could survive such a massive attack.' The Admiralty official record described it in “The Med, The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean 1939-45” as “the air attacks reached a crescendo the following day (May 21st) when our ships were bombed in every conceivable way from dawn to dusk”. The Admiralty Account of Naval Operations: April 1941 to January 1943 (from which some of this article is sourced) gives a most vivid description on page 29: 'In this and subsequent bombings, every form of attack was made on the ships; high level, single and formation; massed bombing by Junkers (Stukas) 87s and 88s and Hinkle 111s; high-speed horizontal attacks by Messerschmitts, or shallow dives at a height of a few hundred feet, aircraft returned to their adjoining airfields (in Greece), bombed up, ammunitioned, refuelled and returned independently to the attack. Admiral Cunningham the C-in-C in his memoirs referrers to this period of tragedy in Cretan waters as “a disastrous period in our naval history, a period of great tension and anxiety such as I have never experienced before or since”.

On the morning of the 21st May at 0825 the Ajax ship’s log reads the order ‘Hands to repel aircraft stations’ was given to confront an imminent attack by Heinkel 111 bombers. At 0915 the log reads ‘Attacked by ten Ju 87 dive bombers, several very near misses with bombs, damage to port shafts’. Ajax was working up to high speed commencing an evasive hard turn as her orders were ‘manoeuvre to avoid (air attack)’. This attack ceased at 0922, the whole action had lasted just seven minutes although it must have seemed like an eternity to Ajax’s crew. A little later at 1050 another pair of Stukas attacked. The J-Class Destroyer Juno came under a high-level attack from Italian CANT Z.1007 aircraft from 50th group, one hit found a magazine causing three huge mortal explosions which literally split her in two, (note 9) she sank in less than two minutes 30 nautical miles south-east of Crete. Juno had survived 3 hours of continuous bombing, 6 officers and 91 ratings were picked up by the destroyers Kingston, Kandahar and Nubian, but 170 crew were lost. Then in the afternoon there was another ferocious attack that lasted for 2½ hours followed by a further attack that evening all of which were beaten off.

The first lieutenant of the destroyer Hotspur, Lieutenant Hugh Hodgkinson D.S.C. R.N. was to later write that at five that afternoon (May 21st) they received their orders for the following night. There were reports from our long-range reconnaissance of large fleets of Caiques and transports escorted by destroyers making down the Aegean steering towards Suda Bay. Hotspur together with other destroyers were to escort Ajax, Orion and Dido under Rear-Admiral Glennie to go look for them. A second force consisting of Fiji, Gloucester and two destroyers were to screen the entrance though the Kithira Channel to prevent any Italian forces breaking in from the west, while the main battle fleet with their destroyer screen remained farther to the south-west to act as general support if required. Cunningham decided to add yet more ships to the expected action by sending out from Alexandria yet another squadron comprising the four cruisers, Naiad, the Australian Perth, Carlisle and Calcutta.

So during the night of the 21st/22nd there were two battleships, nine cruisers and about twenty destroyers operating around Crete. At 11:30 pm Glennie’s squadron of cruisers including Ajax met a large number of enemy groups, which long-range reconnaissance had earlier detected, consisting of many caiques and several small steamers packed with German troops escorted by destroyers and torpedo boats, as steering towards Suda Bay and even managed to surprise a destroyer before it could get away.

But chivalry was not to be abroad this night and Glennie’s squadron created sheer mayhem among the enemy. Cunningham reported his ships as having “conducted themselves with zest and energy”. Hodgkinson described the scene as, “a fairly gruesome spectacle” lit by flashes from each gun salvo, the caiques pitifully loaded with helpless soldiers. Destroyers darting here and there snapping and tearing like a team of wolves who had broken into a flock of sheep. One torpedo boat after firing torpedoes was hit by gunfire from Dido then blown up by gunfire from Ajax. Every gun was blazing, pom-poms and machine guns riddling the caiques, German soldiers weighed down by their personal kit leaping into the sea, between the roar of guns Hodgkinson and others on Hotspur’s bridge could hear unearthly yells of doomed men mixed with the last cries of drowning men. The cruisers were ramming all they could catch - ramming to preserve ammunition. It was appalling slaughter but if Hitler liked to send these men to an obvious doom it was Hodgkinson wrote not “really our fault”. He also proved to be a witness of something my father had told me just once of that night but of which I had never previously seen any confirmation. Hodgkinson saw Ajax appear out of the fray with half a caique wrapped around her bow throwing up a huge bow wave, my father had told me that despite a series of manoeuvres the caique could not be shaken off and remained wrapped around Ajax’s bow to be removed upon her return to Alexandria by which time he had said the overwhelming odour was almost unbearable. This is probably the same event reported by Vincent O’Hara in his ‘Struggle for the Middle Sea’ (P120) where he reports Ajax bending her bow by ramming a caique. Cunningham reported an estimated 4,000 German troops were drowned and that the first attempted invasion of Crete by sea was completely frustrated. A second flotilla of German troops were withdrawn by their high command and taken back to Piraeus rather than risk further loss of life.

There is no spot more naked under heaven than the deck (of a ship) as a stick of bombs falls slanting towards it. The assailant may be the size of a gnat on the rim of a far off cloud; it may be a raid approaching from four quarters, roaring down with machine guns and cannon spraying the decks with explosive shell; the bombs may fall unheralded out of the blinding Mediterranean sun or low-lying cloud; they may burst on the surface of the sea, flinging a myriad of steel splinters abroad, killing or wounding everybody in their path, piercing anything but armour; they may burst under the surface, throwing up the water in the semblance of gigantic monoliths that, as they collapse, deluge the pom-poms and machine-guns and their crews, and flood the ventilation trunks. These explosions lift the ship as if a giant had kicked her, wrenching the steering gear, straining frames and plates. They are called near-misses, and the men, watching the bombs scream down at the ship, thank God for them as the alternative to a direct hit.'

For those of the crew below decks in the ship's magazines, machinery spaces, engine and boiler rooms devoid of a view of what was actually happening in the attacks on their ship it was particularly harrowing and stressful. One officer (note 10) whose ship was similarly attacked in the same battle that day described it thus: "During a prolonged bombing attack such as we endured, engine room and boiler rooms resemble the inside of a giant’s kettle against which a sledge hammer is being beaten with uncertain aim. Sometimes there was an almighty clang; sometimes the giant in his frustration, seemed to pick up the kettle and shake and even kick it. The officer detailed to broadcast (from the ship’s bridge) a running commentary suffered a breakdown during the battle so we heard little below but through the noise and heat (which might easily have been up to 40o C) of the machinery spaces we came to understand something of what was happening on deck …. we could hear our 5.25-inch turrets opening fire which told us aircraft were attacking. Next, the bridge telegraphs might signal Full Speed and we would see the rudder indicator move … at the moment the bombs release. This would be followed by the sound of the short-range weapons as the bomber pulled out of his dive … we learned to interpret by the ensuing shake or shudder or clang the success or otherwise of our navigators’ avoiding action.

“From time to time my chief or I would visit the boiler rooms. Here, for hour after hour after frightening hour, with ears popping from air pressure the young stokers knew and heard little of what was going on apart from the obvious near misses and scream of the boiler room fans. On their alertness, as they watched for orders to open or shut off oil sprayers to the furnaces, depended the precise supply of steam available to meet sudden changes of speed ordered ... on which (the ship’s) survival depended" (note 11). There is an authoritative source which writes of the extreme mental stress which the crew below decks experienced causing some 60 crew members being hospitalised with mental issues, (but not defined where treated on-shore or in the ship) we would now describe this as PTSD {post-traumatic stress disorder, an illness not then diagnosed). Cunningham may have in fact been referring to this in his final report to the Admiralty in which he wrote “no more could have been asked. (note 11) Losses and damage were sustained which would normally only occur during a major fleet action, in which the enemy fleet might be expected to suffer greater losses than our own. In this case the enemy fleet did not appear (though it had many favourable opportunities for doing so) and the battle was fought between ships and aircraft”.

May 22nd proved to be a day of sorrow for the Royal Navy summed up by a quotation from PO Ray Parkin who was there on that day in HMAS Perth who wrote in his biography “You cannot combat aircraft only with ships. The enemy’s reserve’ seemed inexhaustible”. A not surprising comment when later estimates of the German Order of Battle put their aircraft strength as being about 700 dive bombers and fighter bombers, 180 fighters, 500 transports and 80 troop gliders. With their airfields being as close as ten minutes flying time away from the naval action it was so easy for them to attack, unload their bombs and return to base to refuel and re-arm to then make a further sortie and if this wasn’t enough the Italians could muster 2,000 aircraft, just thirty minutes flying time away. An absolute aerial armada. In the ensuing mêlée 10 caiques were sunk, their troops killed or thrown into the sea and the Italian destroyer Lupo damaged.

One week later on May 28th, Ajax received a direct bomb hit causing a fire and 20 men were seriously wounded. The damage forced her to be detached from the action to return to base. The task of defending Crete ultimately proved fruitless at a dreadful cost to the Royal Navy with 2,252 men dead and 430 wounded (note 11). Ajax lost 11 dead and had 38 wounded. 9 ships were sunk - 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers. 18 were damaged including 2 battleships, the only aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers and 2 destroyers, some so badly that they could not be repaired within the Mediterranean facilities capabilities and were despatched to other repair locations such as in South Africa, even to the USA.