Why, O Why, Did it Happen in Crete?

E. Royston Prike
The War Illustrated, Volume 4, No. 94, Page 603, June 20, 1941.

Perchance Official Optimism Is a Greater Menace to Our Cause Than 'Dangerously Unorthodox' Methods of the Nazis

Let us be fair. The Germans have learnt to use the air in war in a way never before attempted, hardly imagined.

Think how the Nazis employed their planes during the battle in Crete. They have used them as bombers and fighters, of course; they have used them as scouts, as cavalry and as flying artillery, as troop-carriers and supply columns, even as light infantry. They have used them against other planes, against ships, against men on the ground. Never has the versatility of the aeroplane been so clearly demonstrated. It has been revealed as the speediest weapon in the modern armoury, as the most deadly, the most devastating, the most revolutionary – nay more, as the most powerful, since it can destroy armies, limit the operations of navies, drive opposing air fleets from the sky, terrorize peoples and wipe out towns.

"Fantastic" is the word most used to describe the fighting in Crete, and that its use is fully justified is plain from every story which has come from that strange battlefield. "Every man for himself is the order of the day" (reads just one account), "since parachutists have been dropping like confetti from clear skies, sometimes landing in the middle of our positions. Each man has been warned that he must be prepared suddenly to find a Nazi at his elbow, and to deal promptly with him."

"Strange as is the scene by day", it goes on, "it is fantastic by night. The sky is lit with flares and tracer shells, while searchlights of the Navy and ground defences pick out the swaying parachutists floating to earth." But however fantastic, the fighting is after all only a more concentrated repetition of the experiences of the last eighteen months.

Right at the very beginning of the war the Germans used their aeroplanes to destroy the Polish airfields and as flying artillery; they also employed them as terroristic weapons against the Polish towns. Rotterdam was but Warsaw carried to a higher degree of infernal perfection. In Norway the Nazis developed the aeroplane as a troop-carrier, thus enabling their front line to be speedily and continuously reinforced;; at the same time they smashed our bases, and through their command of the air prevented us from establishing new ones. A few weeks later the dive-bomber came into its own against troops massed on the plains of Flanders and Northern France, while parachutists, after making their debut in Norway, showed what they could really do in the five days' war in Holland. Then the Luftwaffe was flung against the R.A.F. over Britain, but here at last it more than met its match, since our aerodromes were numerous and well-defended, our fighters were better in many ways, our pilots altogether on top.

Photo: Dangerously Unorthodox. 'Dangerously Unorthodox' – to quote a phrase form an Australian correspondent of “The Times”, writing from Cairo – the German methods of making war may be, but at least they are victory-winning. Amongst them are the parachute troops, which have been used with great effect in all the German campaings. This photograph from teh “Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung” shows parachutists who, immediately after landing, have established a machine-gun post.

But, returning to Crete, it would seem that little attention had been paid to the lessons of the preceding months. Though we were in the undisturbed occupation of the great Greek island for six months we developed only one airfield and an emergency landingground, and built but two more. Even these were so poorly defended that quite early in the battle they were rendered untenable, and the British fighter force had to be withdrawn. True, Crete is a mountainous country, and there are few districts where a really good aerodrome could be constructed; but, on the other hand, there are many stretches of country sufficiently level to provide safe landing for troop-carriers. The Germans realized this, and took full advantage of it. Moreover, just as in Greece a few weeks before, so in Crete; as soon as the British were driven out of the island the Germans at once set about the construction of aerodromes and landing-fields. A numerous and highly efficient ground staff was rushed to the island, and in a few days quite a number of air bases were in operation – bases from which all our positions in the Near East are now threatened. Still more significant, the attack on Crete was delivered from aerodromes which had been established in Greece and the Aegean islands since at the earliest May 1. Yet in Greece, as in Crete, it was the same story: our defeat was attributed in large measure to the impossibility of constructing aerodromes. Thus the Germans were able to do in three weeks what we did not find time or means to do in six months.

We did not build aerodromes beyond a mere handful, we did not protect those we had built; we did not mine them even when they had to be abandoned. We had nothing like enough planes – fighters, bombers dive-bombers. So it was that we were ubable to counter effectively the gliders trailed behind the Junkers, the cheap and flimsy troop-carriers which were crashed in their hundreds on the beaches and rocks of Crete; crashed – but they got the men there all the same.

All that has happened in Crete might have been foreseen and, no doubt, was foreseen in many quarters. But even that able commentator, Air-Commondore L. V. Goddard, broadcast on May 22, when the battle for Crete had just begin, the soothing statement that "Never fear, air-borne forces by themselves will not capture that island. Please do not suppose that some new and unexpected danger to us has just emerged. We are prepared for air-borne forces. They are extremely vulnerable to good defences..." There can be no doubt that he was expressing the official view; and even after the battle, after the air-borne forces had captured the island – largely because we had no "good defences" – a "high spokesman of the R.A.F." in Cairo declared blandly that "There is no chance of further German operations like those in Crete, in which they used 1,000 planes. Hundred were destroyed..."

"If the Germans carried the Luftwaffe to the mainland of Africa or Asia Minor", he went on, "the situation would be largely reversed; even should they attempt an air invasion of Cyprus they would not have the same vantage positions for bases as in the attack on Crete..."

That is the sort of blind, incorrigile, ostrich-like optimism that loses battles, even wars.