“After the evacuation of Greece the defense of Crete took up a major significance for the British Fleet of the Mediterranean, as it had been decided to hold on the island and for that reason 16,000 men from those who had been transported from Greece remained on Crete. Defense was especially organized around the 3 airports (Maleme, Heraklion and Rethymnon) and the naval base of Suda, as the enemy was mainly expected to attack from the air. In expectation of the attack against the island, several other operations took place.
The 4 destroyers that had been detached from the Alexandria Fleet to Malta were recalled and replaced by 6 destroyers sent from England. One of them was sunk just after its arrival, upon heating on a mine laid out by the enemy air force off the island.
As there was urgent need for the dispatch of supplies and ammunitions –especially tanks – for the British Army in Egypt, it was decided to proceed with the risky crossing of a convoy from Gibraltar to Alexandria. This operation hadn’t been undertaken since January 1941. The convoy consisting of 5 large cargo ships was going to be as usually escorted by the “H” force from Gibraltar to south of Malta, where the force of Alexandria was to take over. Important reinforcements for the Fleet of Alexandria were sent with the convoy, the battleship HMS QUEEN ELISABETH and 2 cruisers. The operation was combined with the dispatch of 2 convoys to Malta and the bombing of Benghazi by 1 cruiser and 3 destroyers, that later sunk 2 enemy cargo ships with ammunitions.
HMS QUEEN ELISABETH
Both forces, Gibraltar’s and Alexandria’s, sailed on May 6, 1941 and the operation was executed as planned. During the crossing through the Straits, one of the cargo ships hit a mine and was sunk, while another one was torpedoed but succeeded to continue its course. The enemy air force had detected both forces, but the unusually low for the season cloudiness favored the British.
The Gibraltar force was violently bombed from the air, but suffered no damages. In the morning of May 9, enemy bombers with a large escort of fighters were sent to attack the Alexandria force. The airplanes that were detected by the British ships radars were unable to locate them because of the cloudiness. On the fool-moon night of May 10, this force was violently attacked from high and low attitude. This attack was also repelled without damage, thanks to the heavy volume of the British antiaircraft fire.
The main force of the Italian Fleet was not ordered to intervene, for again the same reasons. Night patrols of destroyers and torpedo boats had been ordered and 2 cruiser squadrons were waiting for their support west of Trapani, Sicily, but as it was reported bad weather prevented these light forces from operating.
After the dispatch of the HMS QUEEN ELISABETH to Alexandria, the Alexandria Fleet disposed during that period 4 battleships, against 2 in activity of the Italians. The later had been informed of the presence of this new reinforcement much later, from other sources, because their air reconnaissance had not detected that this battleship was escorting the convoy.
Even if at that period the British disposed superior firepower in battle ships against the Italians, the situation in Malta that was continuously attacked by the German air force was very disagreeable. Many of the airplanes that had been sent had been lost and the Admiral of the base was complaining because the airplanes that he disposed were lacking compared to the enemy’s and was urgently requesting the dispatch of fighters of a more modern type and also some night fighters.
Until the beginning of the German attack against Crete, the British dispatched reinforcements to the island and some 15,000 tons of war supplies. Their unloading was done under heavy air bombing and out of the 15 ships involved in the operation, 8 were sunk or suffered damages.
The attack was mainly expected to come from the air, but measures were taken in case of intervention of the Italian Fleet that was not expected to remain idle, as it actually did.
At that end, there was need of presence in the area of powerful naval forces that would remain at sea, because the Suda bay naval base disposed very limited air coverage. In addition, because it wasn’t wise for the ships to risk during day time north of Crete, 3 groups of cruisers and destroyers had been formed and were waiting south of Crete ready to move towards the Aegean. These light forces were covered by battleships that were waiting west of the island.
Heavy bombing of the British positions and the airports of the island started on May 15, 1941. The 9 in total aircrafts based on the island had significant successes, but were all finally shot down. When on May 20 an attack with airborne troops took place, the light forces patrolling south of Crete were ordered to patrol at night north of the island. During their patrol in the Kasos Straits they came upon 6 Italian torpedo boats that withdrew after 4 of them suffered damages and bombed the Kasos airport. The next morning these forces withdrew again south of Crete, but even there they were fiercely bombed and 1 destroyer was sunk and the cruiser HMS AJAX was damaged.
A German operation to also dispatch troops by sea with 2 small ship convoys, each escorted by a small Italian destroyer, failed. The convoys were detected during a daylight air reconnaissance and on the night of May 21 to May 22, the light British forces were ordered again to patrol north of Crete.
Thus, one of the convoys came up against a force of 3 cruisers and 4 destroyers under Rear-Admiral Glennie. The Italian escort RN LUPO bravely defended the convoy and tried to protect it with a smoke screen. Finally however, as it was natural, about 15 small ships of the convoy were sunk and only 3 escaped. The RN LUPO also succeeded to escape, in spite of having received around 18 hits.
After this attack, the other convoy at sea, consisting of 30 small ships escorted by the escort destroyer RN SAGITTARIO, was ordered at 08:30 of May 22, while sailing south of Melos, to return to Melos. A little later, however, another British force appeared under Rear-Admiral King with 4 cruisers and 3 destroyers. The escort ordered the convoy to disperse and protected it by smoke screen. Then, sailed to meet the British formation under the concentrated fire of the British force and unsuccessfully launched her torpedoes against a cruiser from a distance of 8,000 meters. Suddenly, the British ships withdrew and Italian ship succeeded to escape. According to the British version some small ships carrying troops were sunk, but most of them escaped.
Rear-Admiral King decided to withdraw, although he was at site of an enemy convoy and so weakly protected, because he was then subject to heavy air attacks, his anti aircraft ammunitions had started to deplete and he had no air coverage. He considered that to continue his northwards course would place his force in serious destruction risk and therefore decided to sail west towards the Cythera Straits and thus exit from the Aegean.
Admiral Cunningham fully recognized the difficult position in which Rear-Admiral King was in, but judged that his decision was wrong. Even more so because, as it was later proved, sailing west didn’t avoid losses from air attacks. If the British force pursued the chase, at least as a counterpart the destruction of an important enemy convoy could be expected. Indeed, Rear-Admiral King’s force was bombed continuously fro more than 3 hours and the cruisers HMS NAIAD and HMS CARLISLE suffered serious damages. They were not the only ones.
A force under Rear-Admiral Rawlings sailing west of Cythera Straits that was covering the one under Rear-Admiral King had rushed to offer help. The force under Rear-Admiral Glennie had joined that force and thus the whole formation contained 2 battleships, 5 cruisers and destroyers. Next, the ships of Rear-Admiral King joined the new formation and the total force sailed west, being continuously attacked from the air with their antiaircraft ammunitions being critically depleted.
Before the merger, the flagship HMS WARSPITE had been hit by a bomb that had destroyed half of its antiaircraft guns. The destroyer HMS GREYHOUND was sunk a little later and until nightfall the cruisers HMS GLOUCESTER and HMS FIJI were also sunk, while the second battleship HMS VALIANT was also hit. The German Air force had indeed excellent successes on that day.
The information on the German forces that were finally transported by sea to the island during the battle of Crete is very controversial. According to British sources those were minimal, while the Germans maintain that a whole division was transported by small ships. The Italians on the other hand succeeded in transporting forces by sea from Rhodes to Sitia on May 28, 1941, without being detected by the British. Thus, they succeeded to seize the east side of the island.
The British Fleet suffered new losses on May 23, 1941. The destroyer flotilla of Malta under Captain Mountbatten aboard his flagship HMS KELLY had joined the battle Fleet. Three of these destroyers returning from Alexandria were attacked by German bombers and HMS KELLY and HMS KASHMIR were sunk. The third, HMS KIPLING escaped by miracle, although busy with rescuing the ship wrecked men of the other two destroyers and under continuous bombing from 40 aircrafts.
Admiral Cunningham attributes in part the above mentioned losses to the non keeping of the principle that during an encounter with aircrafts the ships shouldn’t be distracted with saving the ship wrecked or with undertaking other special missions. When the ships remain assembled in a unique formation, the volume of their antiaircraft gun fire can limit losses.
During the above mentioned battles about 20 aircrafts were shot down. However, the antiaircraft ammunitions were almost completely depleted and all the ships were therefore ordered on May 23, 1941 to return to Alexandria for re-supply.”