Friday, June 14, 2013

The Strange Failure of the Battle of Crete Relived

A very detailed and detached documentary film was shown locally this morning on The Battle of Crete in WW2.  This was of interest to me because my parents were involved in the evacuation of British troops to Crete during April 1941 and fled from Crete to Alexandria.

Operation Mercury

Alex Cairns, my father
My mother was a Greek living in Athens and met my father, who was then serving in the Royal Air Force in Signals.  They had a whirlwind romance and married in Athens.  After the wedding, my father was obliged to leave and join his unit while my mother, now a British civilian followed on as best she could.
 They were re-united on Crete and my father, despite his lowly rank, was allowed to leave with my mother when she was evacuated along with some officers and taken to Alexandria where an aunt of hers lived.  They had pity on the newly weds and so he was allowed to sit at mother's feet on the Sutherland sea plane that took them away!

It seems the RAF were not much use in defending Crete as most of the planes had been taken off the island and sent to Alexandria due to the constant German bombing which was already taking place in preparation for the air assault.   Thus the air force was evacuated quite quickly, leaving behind them all their possessions.  We lost some beautiful photographs of my mother (at the time an admired young actress and singer in Greece) and pictures of other important family members, as well as other papers and family possessions that were in my father's kit bag.
However, more importantly, they escaped safely to Egypt and later on I was born in Cairo.  Thus does Fate work.
with my mother, Diana, in Egypt
falling from the sky
dead parachutist

Operation Mercury was the German name for the invasion of Crete by airborne troops, a crack division of  testosterone filled Hitler Youth who had been trained into a brilliant force.  The idea was a daring one and the only airborne invasion ever made.  However, it went badly wrong because surprisingly the parachutes were poorly made.  And even more damaging, the supplies were sent down separately by parachute, and so the men were armed with a pistol and little else.  They made easy targets for the New Zealand troops defending the airfields.  Aiming for the legs so that they would catch the falling parachutists in heart or head, the Allied soldiers made short work of the invading force.  But what shocked the Germans even more was the passionate reaction of the Cretan civilians who issued forth from their villages and fields armed with anything they could find, bill hooks, scythes, walking sticks, clubs, old muskets from the Turkish wars.  Sadly the brutal reprisals, once the Germans captured the island were heavy, a whole region wiped out in retaliation.

General Freyberg
It seems with hindsight that the British with the help of the Australians, New Zealanders and Greeks could have won this battle but communication was almost nil and, as ever, many mistakes made.  Churchill's insistence on using veterans of WW1 like General Freyberg was certainly one mistake.  Freyberg was indeed a hero in that war but what he had witnessed then made his attitude cautious about sending in troops as cannon fodder.  Thus he may have held back when it was necessary to push forward.  But hindsight is full of blame for mistakes made in the heat and confusion and uncertainty of battle.

The saddest part of all this for me was the suffering of the Cretan population during the years of occupation.  They put up great resistance from the mountains but whole villages were wiped out, men women and children. Many of these villages have never recovered from these terrible times. These people are amongst the bravest and the help of the Greek soldiers in holding the enemy while the British army was hurriedly evacuated at last has been little recognised.  The Cretans, as well as the brave Maltese, should also have been awarded the George Cross for bravery in my opinion.

1 comment:


War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

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